Handstand before Headstand…is that ok?
YogaAnatomyAcademy has been spotted in the March 2018 edition of Women’s Health Magazine!
This was a fun, first experience: picking up a magazine in the airport and finding your own face inside.
In the Ask Anything section, we (I) answer this:
“I have neck issues, so headstands make me nervous. Can I skip working on them and go right to handstands?”
Here’s my reply on Handstand Before Headstand:
Your intuition is spot-on. Anyone with neck issues—even as minor as stiffness, “cricks,” or muscle knots—should avoid putting pressure through their head (and therefore neck) in poses like headstand or rabbit pose. (In rabbit, you kneel with the top of your head on the ground and lean your weight into it.)
Worst-case outcomes could be long term damage to your spinal discs or nerves, loss of feeling in your arms, and/or early neck arthritis. (I also suggest those with neck problems avoid full shoulderstand since much of your body weight lands on your neck when it is at an extreme angle.
Notice, however, that I wrote “avoid putting pressure.” It is possible to practice headstand (more like a hovering forearm stand) without pressure through the head.
The strength and stability you would build via this “hovering headstand” will benefit you in handstand. You can begin practicing it with a little help from the wall if needed.
And handstand, of course, comes with its own risks, like a bad fall damaging your shoulder. However, for anyone with neck issues, I agree it is significantly safer than headstand.
Whatever you choose to practice, build up to any inversion safely and progressively. That means working up to full control and proper range of motion. For example, before attempting forearm stand, build your endurance in dolphin pose (Dolphin pose looks like downward facing dog, but on your forearms instead of your hands), hold for 30 to 60 seconds without your head getting closer to the floor.
A next step might be holding three-legged dolphin pose (i.e. one leg in the air) , then adding controlled, tiny hops.
Strength building does not happen within one yoga class—it will take time and persistence.
I don’t have neck pain: what order should I practice the poses?
Which reminds me — I made a video many moons ago about which of the three main inversion poses are safest, and which order I would recommend training in them based on safety and use of the wall. You might be surprised! Handstand before headstand…sure…but you gotta have your why. Give it a watch.
How to practice like a physio
Finally, for those curious where I “stand” on headstand these days in my personal practice (pun intentional), here’s a re-post from my instagram feed:
9 months ago I had pain and popping in my elbow. It showed up with eccentric actions — mostly lowering down from Aerial yoga feats (I was teaching aerial yoga). So I stopped aerial yoga. It flared with chaturanga, so I paused most full chaturangas. Then it started showing up when I was treating patients and pushing doors and carrying a laptop. It was bad.
Of course, I was self-treating the whole time with myofascial release, joint mobilizations and strengthening my forearm supinators (there’s SO much forearm pronation going on in yoga). But nothing changed.
I went into physical therapy (I actually got treatment from four different physical therapists for this issue) and turns out the thing that cured me was addressing neural tension and strengthening my neck.
Likely it all started with a bike accident where I smacked my chin on the pavement over my handlebars and had a bloody ER visit 15 years ago. The force of impact (my body weight landing on the pavement was from the left side of my chin right-posterior (anatomy mentees will know what I’m saying!) through my neck.
The body is fascinating. It doesn’t lie. It can’t pretend forever.
I was never a fan of headstand with any meaningful weight through the head, but now I feel more certain that for me and actually perhaps for most of us, headstand is not to be toyed with.
Forearm stand, however, is a major love of mine. And I had avoided it for nearly all of the last 9 months due to my elbow issues. I’m glad to say she’s back in my practice.