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August 31, 2016

Why It’s Safer to Teach Headstand in the Middle of the Room (not at the wall)

I don’t teach it often in group classes, but it might surprise some readers that when I teach headstand (Sirsasana A), I first teach it in the middle of the room.

Headstand or Sirsasana A

Headstand or Sirsasana A

Headstand is an introduction to vertical inversions. It’s appropriate for yoga students with good body awareness, upper body strength and moderate lumbopelvic control. Although practicing in the middle of the room might seem riskier than having a sturdy wall behind one’s back, in the majority of cases, it isn’t. 

My reasoning is simple: at the wall, students get into the pose by kicking up. The momentum of the kick creates a strong torque (rotational force) that concentrates in the joints of the shoulders and neck.

The Real Risk of Headstand…

…is not the risk of falling out of it. You can fall out of headstand with a thud, and certainly could harm yourself in the process. But it’s fairly easy to somersault out of the pose with a wee bit of grace. Plus, you are not terribly far from the ground.

What’s more, there are ways to avoid the falling in the first place (inherent in the method I teach).

The real risk of headstand is damage to the cervical spine (the vertebrae of your neck). It’s quite likely, particularly in this age of “text neck” that you, perhaps while reading this, have some misalignment in your 7 cervical vertebrae already. I don’t recommend adding 100+ pounds / 40+ kilos to the situation.

Even if the clouds parted and a chiropractor claimed your neck to be the pinnacle of exactingly aligned joints (please let me know if that occurs ;)), most of us are simply not accustomed to bearing weight through the head/neck.

The Essence of Headstand

The essence of teaching headstand safely is being methodical.

  1. The first and most essential step is to create a stable base. This is a conversation between forearms and floor: no wall required.
  2.  Secondly, the student needs to achieve hips over head (again, no wall required). With hips over head, as the legs (eventually) rise, there will be much less force on the joints of the neck and shoulders as the legs rise.
Headstand A prep: The Egg Shape (hips over head)

Headstand A prep: The Egg Shape (hips over head)

To achieve hips over head involves a lot of hip flexion. You need significant hamstrings and gluteal flexibility to get into this pike position (toes are on the ground to start).

Alternatively, it involves bringing the knees to the chest in what I call the egg shape (toes off the floor, finding balance in the middle of the room).

If you are familiar with the term “press-up” this is precisely what I advocate learning for headstand in a way that is kind, non-jarring to your one and only neck. Yes, even for beginners. The only “leap” I’d want to see is a tiny hop to bring the second knee to your chest. Ideally, both legs elevate at the same time. 

Build in the control from the start. There is no need to rush toward complete vertical.

How much weight should our heads holds?

In my opinion, in Sirsasana A, the stable base of the forearms should support 90% of your body weight, with 10% or less landing in the top of the head (and therefore in the neck). You should also be able to — at will — completely de-weight the crown of the head, and be able to slide a piece of paper under it.

I also don’t believe in holding headstand for long periods of time. The forces multiply. If you choose to hold headstand for longer than 1 or 2 minutes, I’d advise first building longer holds in forearm down dog and forearm stand to assure the endurance capability of your arms.

Hands-free Headstands and Variations

Sirsasana B (arms out to the side, taking less weight) may have its place, with brief holds.

I am not a fan of even ultra-brief hands-free headstands. Though frankly, the practitioners would likely have more cervical spine stability in that instant than a newbie kicking to the wall.

Myth-Busting

One last topic: It’s my understanding that some traditions of yoga place great esteem in putting weight through the head for sustained lengths of time or at the end of every asana practice. One of the justifications for this is “It stimulates the pineal gland”. I would be delighted to read an explanation of the mechanism and purpose of such a statement. Until then, it just doesn’t make sense to me to justify well-documented biomechanical challenges (and potential harm) to one anatomic area, for purported but unproven good to another for all students. Headstand should not be the goal of your practice.  

The idea of 20 minute headstands, since sirsasana is somehow the “king” of yoga poses, also sets my skepticism alarm system on full alert. That some poses are hierarchically above others, without regard to the individual who is taking on the shape is familiar to me (I grew up hearing these concepts) but it’s foreign to my experience. The real “king” / “queen” of yoga (language that drips of colonial old-fashioned extreme concentration of wealth…but I digress) is that which you most need on that day, in that moment, in that breath, at that time in your life.  

As I’m sure you can tell, I think yoga is and should be evolving, and individualized. I believe the role of the modern yogi is to digest, question, experience and take the best elements of tradition, filtering that knowledge through the lens of our modernity:  eastern, western, scientific, energetic fields, and continually discovering for ourselves. Also to keep in perspective that asana (as we know it) is still quite new. 

When and Why Teach at the Wall?

There are certainly reasons to teach headstand with the wall as assistant.

Some of the points that I make above can disappear in contexts like the following:

  • a student who has extreme mobility in the hamstrings, and would not need to “kick” to reach the wall
  • a student who could kick into forearm stand at the wall, then slowly lower the head to the floor (with control)
  • a one-on-one situation in which the yoga teacher guides the students leg(s) to the wall — note that this isn’t reasonable in group classes with many students 

I wrote this post as a adjunct to a recent video I also made, on a related subject. In the video below, I explain one perspective on learning the vertical inversions. First I cover safest-to-m0st “dangerous” in regards to falling out of them, and then the most biomechanically challenging to the strength of the shoulders:

As always, we welcome your questions and comments below.

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