Headstand quite literally flips your world upside down. It forces you to alter your perspective and to see things from a drastically different point of view.
Often referred to as the "king" of all asana, headstand encompasses nearly all the teachings of yoga. Not just physically, but mentally and spiritually too. Sirsasana forces you to change your perspective, challenge your fears, and find calm and stillness in the midst of physical and psychological demand. It reveals to us countless teachings.
But learning how to do a headstand is no easy feat. This elusive pose is one that students ask about constantly.
There are simple steps that I teach my students to work toward headstand. But it should be noted that we often want to rush into cool postures such as headstand. However, we should always practice caution when working toward more advanced asanas.
Headstand, in particular, places your neck in a vulnerable position; so make sure to master one step before moving on to the next. Just as in life, when we are not prepared to move forward, we cannot possibly progress.
So take your time. Take baby steps. Remember that Rome was not built in a day. Move forward when you are actually ready to move forward—not just when you want to.
And bear in mind that yoga is a practice. It is constantly changing and forever evolving. There are days when I can hold headstand for 20 minutes straight. And then there are days when I fall over before I even get my feet off the floor.
Take your time. Move slowly. And enjoy the journey as it unfolds.
There are many variations to the illustrious headstand, but here are eight steps you can apply toward a standard supported headstand (salamba sirsasana I).
The first thing I always teach my students who are working toward headstand is how to fall. I know that seems counterintuitive, but it is so important to know how to fall without hurting yourself as this will inevitably arise on your quest to reach headstand.
But falling is perfectly fine! In fact, falling strengthens us. First and foremost, it humbles us. Which is huge! Learning to let go of the ego in advanced asana practice is imperative to reach peak poses. You will fall countless times. Although it sounds cliché, the fall doesn't matter—what matters is getting back up.
But falling also gives us courage. After the first time you fall out of headstand, you'll realize that you survived! And that is a major epiphany. I find that the biggest block people have when working toward any inversion is fear.
Psychological factors weigh down strongly when you’re flipping your body and your mind upside down. But when you learn to fall out carefully and without injury, you'll no longer fear going upside down because you'll always have an escape route in your back pocket.
So what is the safe exit strategy? A simple tuck and roll is my favorite exit. It seems to work across the board—whether you're flexible or not, tall or short, etc. The moment you feel yourself starting to tip over, simply tuck your chin into your chest and roll forward. Draw yourself into a compact little ball.
The more compact you are, the lighter the landing will be. Then, smile, breath for a moment, and when you're ready, come right back up for either your second or your hundredth try!
Take the crease of your wrist (the place where your wrist meets your palm) to your third eye center (the space between your eyebrows) and then spread your fingers out on top of your head.
Your middle finger will land roughly around the crown of your head. And when you practice headstand, place your weight on this part of your skull. Don't lean too far forward toward your hairline or too far toward the back of your head. Center yourself over your crown to find the most stable position for your neck.
If you set your foundation, the rest will come much more easily.
Come to a kneeling position and plant your forearms on your mat. (Note: never practice headstand on a super soft surface such as a bed or a pillow! You need support for your neck, so always practice on a harder surface with a mat or a thin towel or blanket underneath your head).
Measure your elbows shoulder-width apart and release your hands to the floor. Interlace your fingers. Here you have two options: you can either allow the palms of your hands to work away from each other creating a basket for you to place your head inside of or you can clasp your palms together and press them toward each other.
Lengthen your neck and release the crown of your head to the mat either directly between your forearms or into the basket you created with your hands.
Activate your core: hug your frontal hip points toward each other, corset your waistline, and draw your navel in and up.
Recognize that you’re already in an inversion at this point. So feel free to stop and stay here for as long as you’d like (maybe even forever!).
Hug your elbows in toward the midline of your body and press firmly into your forearms. Lift your chest and shoulders up away from the floor. Maintain this activation as you build up in the posture.
Place roughly 80 percent of your weight in your arms and a mere 20 percent (or ideally even less!) of your weight in your head.
Either choose to stay as you are or tuck your toes under and lift your knees off the mat to send your hips toward the sky. Feel free to keep your knees bent if you’d like. Get used to the sensation of having a bit more weight in your head. But redistribute your weight back into your arms as needed.
Either choose to stay as you are or walk your feet in closer and closer toward your hands, ultimately working to stack your hips over your shoulders.
Never kick up into a headstand. Your neck is in a vulnerable position and kicking up could potentially damage your spine.
Instead, continue to press the floor away with your forearms, three-dimensionally engage your core, and stack your hips over your shoulders. If you feel steady, draw one knee into your chest. Hug it in closely to your body and check your balance. Maybe stay as you are or alternate and release your foot back to the floor and hug your opposite knee to your chest.
If you feel weightless due to the alignment of your spine, lift up onto the ball of your grounded foot and perhaps lift that foot off the floor as well. Bend your knee deeply and hug it into your chest. Make yourself as compact as possible.
Maintain your foundation. Press the floor away. Lengthen your spine (especially your neck!). Stack your hips over your shoulders.
When your body is aligned, you’ll feel almost weightless. When you feel this weightless sensation, you've hit your “sweet spot.” This is where your bones stack directly on top of each other and you barely need any muscular engagement to hold the posture because your skeletal system does most of the work for you.
If you feel strong, stable, and secure in your compact position, then you may choose to slowly straighten your legs toward the sky while keeping all of the previous actions engaged.
Lengthen and extend through the tips of your toes. Press your feet toward the ceiling. Breathe deeply and enjoy the change in perspective.
When you're ready to come down, release as slowly as you came into the posture and stop for a moment to rest and lengthen your neck.
Enjoy playing around with sirsasana. Be careful, fall, laugh at yourself, come back up, and fall again. It's all part of the process. It's all part of the practice.
Wherever you are in the process, follow your breath. If you find that you're not breathing, then that’s a clear indication that you've gone too far. Release and return to work on the previous step.
Take your time to reach headstand—it's not a race. You won't win any prize when you get there. You probably won't even reach enlightenment when you reach the final pose! So, practice patience and faith along your journey. You're much more likely to reach enlightenment that way.
And, above all else, always remember the wise words of Swami Satchidananda: “Calming the mind is yoga. Not just standing on the head.”
May you find calmness in your mind and stillness on and in your head.
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