Embrace Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand)
This pose evokes a lot of reaction whenever it’s brought up, either great fear or joy in most students. It can be a lifelong challenge. Before walking you through the steps to get into headstand, I want to touch on the concept that it embodies. It is called an inversion for a reason, and it is not just an inversion of the body, but also of the mind. The physical form is supposed to be a reminder of the concept, so it is more important to be in the mental state of an inversion than the physical one. The intent is to take you out of your patterns to open your mind and liberate you. Yoga is a practice of freedom, so free yourself!
The benefits of headstand are not only physical — the mental benefits are also plentiful. You will find that daily practice of this pose enhances awareness, sharpens attention and improves the memory. On a physical level, there are four major systems in the body that are positively influenced by the practice of inversions: cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous and endocrine. Inverting also gives the heart a break.
The biggest challenge of headstand is fear. 80% of the time that’s why people can’t get into it. The other 20% is spinal and core, which brings me to an important point: Don’t feel like you have to do a headstand. Every body is different, so practice where you are at and use caution. Consult your doctor and an experienced yoga teacher if you have low blood pressure, high blood pressure, a neck or back injury, a heart condition or any other health concern that might be compromised. Also, many yoga teachers will tell you to avoid inversions when you are on your flow. Click here for more information about inversions and menstruation.
Now, if you’re ready to embrace headstand let’s get started…
BUILD YOUR BASE. This is not the pose to throw yourself into — you need to be very aware of alignment. As you prepare, make sure your arms are steady and not spreading apart. To do this, we need to work on inner traction, developing strong arms and opening the shoulders. You don’t want to end up crunching your neck and shoulders while you’re upside-down.
STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE. Whenever you invert you need to engage your core. It helps protect your spine and keep you steady so you aren’t wobbling around on your neck. Move with control through a strong core, evenly distributing the weight as you lift up and lower down through headstand.
ENERGIZE YOUR HAMSTRINGS. This is a key factor in headstand. In order to move smoothly in and out of this pose you need to have open hamstrings. To start bringing the weight over your head, you need to angle your hips over your shoulders. In order to bring your hips over your shoulders, you need to be able to walk your feet in, close to your torso. We will go over some variations below.
INVIGORATE YOUR CIRCULATION. I bet most of us spend our days sitting in front of a computer or driving around. In general, most of the time we are right side up. The beauty of an inversion is that it takes the pressure off your heart. It allows gravity to do the work pumping oxygen-rich blood to reach your head and brain, which helps you feel less tired. I’m waiting for the day where people are waiting in line upside down… 😉
BREATHE. Seriously, breathe. You do not want to be holding your breath in this asana. The whole point is that you are getting super yummy rich oxygenated blood to your brain, so breathe or there is no oxygen!
PREPARING FOR HEADSTAND (Salamba Sirsasana)
Our all-time favorite pose downward dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) is the first pose we prep with. We do it in almost every yoga practice, but I think we forget how important it is! Down dog opens your hamstrings, lengthens your spine, strengthens your wrists and upper body, and opens your shoulders. It’s a gentle inversion (heart below your hips) so it’s giving you that yummy burst of oxygen to the brain. And it’s so appropriately named — it truly is woman’s best friend, always loyal and there for you, working out all the kinks in your body, opening them up in the gentlest way. I could go on and on, but one last observation: If it’s too hard to keep your spine long and hips lifted, bend your knees and you will still get a gentle hamstring stretch, but you will maintain the integrity of the spine. As you can see, I have a tight upper back from five years of working on a computer all day — I’m sure you can relate. Please don’t judge yourself if this pose is challenging for you. We all have different bodies.
Downward dog’s big sister is Dolphin Pose. This one is a little more fiery. Place your forearms down on the floor, keeping them shoulder width apart while tilting your hips towards the ceiling and lengthening through your hamstrings. Try to keep your forearms squeezing together — don’t let your elbows fly out to the side. If it becomes too challenging, come down into child’s pose to take a breather. This is an amazing way to strengthen your arms, open your shoulders and work on that inner traction. Again, same comment about the hamstrings here — the spine gets priority.
To keep building on that inner traction and arm strength, the next pose to work on is forearm plank with or without a block. Come into plank pose, then lower down onto your elbows and place a block between them (optional). When I say a block between your elbows, I do mean elbows, not forearms. And squeeze! Really engage the arms and pull the points of the elbows right into the block — it will make your whole body engage. If this is too intense you can lower your knees to the earth. As long as you keep your body in one straight line from the knees to the crown, you are getting all the benefits.
Core! Navasana (boat pose) is a perfect prep for headstand. It not only helps strengthen the core, but it helps steady your mind while balancing in this asana. Level one, place your hands behind your thighs and lift until your shins are perpendicular to the earth.
Level 2, take your hands away from the thighs and support internally. Level three, strengthen your legs and lift your arms higher. Whatever you do, keep your spine long. If it starts to curve, go back to the last level.
Paschimottanasana (seated foreword fold) is an excellent way to open your hamstrings. If you have super tight hamstrings, take some time to just hang out in Uttanasana (standing foreword fold) and let gravity do the work. Root the sits bones into the earth, lift your arms and lengthen out over your legs. Try not to yank yourself down with your arm strength. Use your core and breath to gradually lengthen out and deepen into the pose. Keep a long, straight spine. If that means your head does not touch your legs, that’s OK! Keep the spine long.
The next amazing hamstring opener is Ardha Hanaumansaana (half splits) I call this pose out every time I write… maybe that’s a sign? Remember that your hips should be square and the extended thigh should be rolling slightly inward. Try not to over-extend the knee — a slight bend will still get you an amazing opening.
Ardha Hanumanasana is named after Hanuman, the monkey god. He is as much known for his mischievousness as his courage and devotion. So try to take a playful attitude with this pose. You have to be playful or you would never even think of trying it! You have to be courageous or you would never stay in it, and you have to be devoted or you will never learn.
The yin to the yang of headstand is Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand). Headstand can have a heating effect and shoulder stand has a cooling one. It can be a wonderful way to start getting upside down in a less nerve-wracking way. Start off lying on your back, arms on the floor by your side. Slowly lift your legs off the floor and over your head into plow pose. Using your arms to support your low back, gradually lift your legs up towards the ceiling. If having your legs up straight is too much you can lower them down to an angle, sitting your hips back into your hands. Make sure you are keeping that inner traction between the elbows — don’t let them splay out to the side. Keep drawing the shoulder blades onto the back. Press the back of the head into the floor so that you create a soft arch in the back of your neck. Another way to keep this shape of the neck is to use a folded blanket. Place it under your shoulders for support and place your head on the floor. As you are ready to come down, slowly lower back down through plow pose and roll down your vertebrae one at a time.
And finally headstand (Salamba Sirsasana). This pose can be so beneficial! It strengthens the spine, neck, shoulders and arms. It stimulates the nervous system and lung tissue while relieving colds and coughs. It aids in digestion, insomnia, stress and menopause… WOW! OK, so now with all those benefits I think it’s worth re-considering our fear of this pose.
Step one: Don’t freak out. Step two: With your knees and forearms on the floor, grab each elbow with the opposite hand to make sure they are one forearm distance apart, then bring your hands together, interlacing your fingers so the base of your palms touch. Place the back of your head against the base of your palms. Slowly lift your hips, coming into a down dog shape. Bring your shoulder blades onto the back. Start walking your feet in towards your head, bringing your hips over your shoulders. If that’s enough, you can stop — sometimes just hanging out here is plenty.
If you feel ready, bring your knees into your chest. Arch your back slightly, as you do when standing up; this will help balance your body. Hold here and stabilize, knees hovering. Make sure the weight is balanced between the head and forearms. With control, lift your legs up towards the ceiling, straightening them out. Are you breathing? To come out slowly begin to bend your knees and lower your legs down with control, gently placing your feet back down on the mat. Make sure you come down before you start to feel tired. To finish, come into child’s pose (Balasana).