Going upside down and seeing the world from a different perspective can be both exhilarating and terrifying too. Generally in our yoga practice we begin our journey into inversions with Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana) and once we feel at ease in this pose we move on to Headstand.
Headstand (Sirsasana) is often referred to as the King of Yoga Poses, and it is one that many people are drawn to, but which many of us also find challenging. It can bring up understandable fear, and facing and overcoming this fear is part of the headstand journey.
Standing on your head in proper alignment strengthens the whole body, calms the brain and has many other benefits as a pose, including:
- Relieving stress and mild depression
- Stimulating the pituitary and pineal glands
- Strengthening the arms, legs, and spine
- Toning the abdominal organs
- Improving digestion
- Helping to relieve the symptoms of menopause
- Also therapeutic for asthma, infertility, insomnia, and sinusitis
- As with all inversions, it reverses the blood flow and improves circulation
Whilst it can calm the mind once we are comfortable in it, Headstand is also a pose where our ego and “drive” can often take over and we become determined to hurtle ourselves into the pose doing whatever it takes to get lift off, before falling just as quickly back out of it.
It goes without saying that this is not the approach we want to take for a strong, balanced, sustained and injury-free headstand. A quiet mind, focus and patience are all very important when coming into this pose.
For a few people headstand will come easily, but for most of us it takes practice, patience and perseverance, during which time we can build up the necessary strength to be able to enter and hold the pose safely and with ease. It should be remembered that traditionally Sirsasana has been considered to be an intermediate to advanced pose, and not one that is suitable for most beginners.
For the pose to be comfortable and stable, we really need a certain amount of strength in our upper back, shoulder girdle, core and leg muscles, and also an ability to connect to and engage Mula and Uddiyana bandha, which are essential for entering headstand safely and with ease, and for finding stability once in the pose.
Once we have the strength and focus to safely come into headstand, we need to ensure that the pose is aligned so we can comfortably stay in it without struggle. We are looking to align the outer ankle bone, the centre of the hip, the centre of the shoulder, and the ear hole. When this alignment is found, the energy flows freely and physical effort in the pose is minimised.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to setting up and entering the pose safely and with control, which will mean that once you’re up you’ll be able to stay there with ease.
1. To prepare for headstand, a useful pose to take first is Dolphin Pose, as this builds strength in the core, the arms and the legs, whilst also nicely opening the shoulders in preparation for Headstand. If you are new to Headstand, try to do a couple of rounds of Dolphin, holding for 5-10 breaths each time, before moving on to Headstand.
Come onto the floor on your hands and knees. Set your knees directly below your hips and your forearms on the floor with your shoulders directly above your wrists. Firmly press your palms together and your forearms into the floor. Curl your toes under, then exhale and lift your knees away from the floor. At first keep the knees slightly bent and the heels lifted away from the floor. Lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling and continue to press the forearms actively into the floor. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, then widen them away from the spine and draw them away from your ears toward the tailbone. Hold your head between the upper arms; don’t let it hang or press heavily against the floor.You can straighten your knees if you like, but if your upper back rounds it’s best to keep them bent.
2. Once you feel comfortable in Dolphin and have built up some stamina in the pose, then you are ready to move on to Headstand. Use a folded blanket or yoga mat to pad your head and forearms. Kneel on the floor with your toes tucked under. Measure the distance between your elbows by lining them up with your shoulders.
3. Interlace the fingers together and set the forearms on the floor, keeping the elbows shoulder-width apart.
4. Roll the upper arms slightly outward, but press the inner wrists firmly into the floor. Set the crown of your head on the floor.
5. If you are just beginning to practice this pose, press the bases of your palms together and snuggle the back of your head against the clasped hands (Position One). More experienced students can open their hands and place the back of the head into the open palms (Position Two). Or for some, a half-way point between these two positions is most comfortable and stable (Position Three). Either way, always ensure that the natural curvature of the spine is maintained.
6. You may also need to experiment with exactly which part of your head you place in contact with the mat. For most people it’s best to place the centre of the crown on the ground, for others it’s more comfortable to be a little further forward of this point. Experiment carefully and see which feels right for you and most comfortable for your neck.
7. Inhale and lift your knees off the floor, straightening the legs as much as you can. With the heels off the floor, slowly walk your feet in towards your head until the hips are directly above the shoulders.
8. Take one heel up towards the sit bones, and then press down firmly through the wrists and forearms, lengthen the spine, engage your core and strongly draw up through mula bandha so that the other foot almost floats off the floor and draw it into the bottom, pulling the knees into the chest. Resist the temptation to jump the feet up to this stage!
9. Once you can get to this point, try to balance for at least 5 breaths before moving on. Remember that the majority of the weight should be on the elbows, forearms and wrists rather than on the head itself. When you are comfortable you can begin to straighten the legs. You have a choice as to how you do this – you can either begin to press the heels up towards the sky, being sure to keep the feet and legs together as you do this, and slowly begin to straighten the legs, or you can begin to lift the knees towards the sky and then uncurl the lower legs from there.
Either way, move slowly and with control, and continue to press firmly into the wrists and elbows, lifting the shoulders away from the ears and not allowing the elbows to “run away” from each other.
10. Once you have straightened the legs, pause, breathe and don’t panic!! Roll the inner thighs in slightly and squeeze the legs together, press up through the balls of the big toes and fan out the toes. In order for the pose to be comfortable, we want the centre of the arches to align over the centre of the pelvis, which in turn should align over the crown of the head. A teacher or friend can check this for you.
Allow the mind to quieten, the breath to be slow and steady and find a point on which to focus your gaze (either the tip of your nose or a point on the horizon).
11. When you can comfortably get to this stage, firm the outer arms inward, and soften the fingers. Continue to press the shoulder blades against the back, widen them, and draw them toward the tailbone. Keep the weight evenly balanced on the two forearms. It’s also essential that your tailbone continues to lift upward toward the heels, and that you think about drawing your lower front ribs and front hip bones towards each other to avoid ‘banana-ing” in the pose.
Breathe and feel your connection to the earth and allow the body to grow upwards from there.
12. As you are first learning headstand aim to stay for 10 seconds. Gradually add 5 to 10 seconds onto your stay every day until you can comfortably hold the pose for 3 minutes. Then continue for 3 minutes each day for a week or two, until you feel relatively comfortable in the pose. Then gradually add 5 to 10 seconds onto your stay every day or so until you can comfortably hold the pose for 5 minutes.
13. To come down from the pose, engage your core and your bandhas, exhale and begin to lower the legs (straight or bent) without losing the lift of the shoulder blades, and aim to bring both feet lightly down to the the floor at the same time. Rest in Child’s Pose (Balasana) for at least 10 long breaths, breathing deeply into the back as you inhale and allowing the body to release and soften with each exhale.
14. Balance in this pose can be difficult to begin with so you can use a wall, especially if you are practising at home. However, if you do use a wall be sure to still move into the pose with the same awareness and control that you would when practising in the middle of the room, and avoid just jumping or kicking up into the pose. The wall should just be there to help with your confidence whilst you become accustomed to being upside down. If you kick up into the pose you will never learn to do it freestanding without the wall.
15. As you become more confident and comfortable in your headstand, you may be able to enter and exit with straight rather than bent legs (strongly engaging mula bandha)
From there you may be able to hover the legs parallel to the floor for 5 or 10 breaths,
and eventually you may even be able to lower the feet to the floor and then raise the legs back up to vertical 5 or 10 times (this requires practice and strong bandha control!!) From there the variations are numerous – twists, headstand with lotus, legs wide apart, different arm positions, one leg up, one leg down . . .
Lastly, so as always to be safe in your practice, please note the following contraindications to practising headstand: back injury; retina problems; headaches and migraines; heart conditions; high blood pressure; menstruation; neck injury and pregnancy (unless you have had a very consistent and strong headstand practice before becoming pregnant).
Overcoming our fear of going upside down in headstand can be very liberating and can also lead to increased self-confidence which can filter from our yoga practice into our daily lives.
Happy practising and remember to resist the urge to ‘conquer’ headstand and instead try to approach the pose with a quiet mind, patience and focus, and soon the fruits of this King of Poses will be yours.
To find out more about the magic of headstand, and to understand which poses can help build the strength and flexibility required to enter this pose with ease, join Sarah in her ‘Working up to Headstand’ workshop on Saturday 30th September at Yoga Creation.