Headstand, or Sirsasana, is at times referred to as the King of the Asanas because it needs to be approached with a great deal of physical awareness. It requires that many different elements be present as it is practiced, including but not limited to physical strength, alignment, mental focus, and postural balance. Though attainable for many, Sirsasana requires much skill, strength, and focus in order to be achieved. It is a destination point along the path of a dedicated asana practice for many yogis, and understandably so. There are many benefits to headstand and, once the fear is overcome, it is just plain fun.
Having an asana goal to work toward can be a good thing as long as it doesn’t become a distraction, hindrance or obsession in your practice. Building up towards an advanced posture can give a great boost to other elements of your practice and make you physically stronger. As I began to become familiar with headstand, I would notice that postures like Vrksasana and Dolphin would come a little bit easier to me. Dolphin is a great prep for headstand pose because you use your trapezius muscles, deltoids and upper back to support the body as you breathe. It’s a crucial pose to feel comfortable with before you approach headstand. As with most other poses, your core is very active as well. Forearm plank and forearm side plank start to look better aligned, and variations of urdhva danurasana (upward bow or wheel) or pincha mayurasana (forearm stand) begin to become more accessible.
There are some ways that working towards a specific posture in asana class can become a hindrance to your practice. Yoga is meant to bring us closer to a place of acceptance, calmness and contentedness within ourselves as we already are. Of course, the purpose of the practice is ultimately to better ourselves and that requires effort. The frustration that comes from learning and practicing something new can detract from the greater purpose of your yoga practice, but only if you let it. Frustrations also bring about another opportunity for growth by being reminded to practice patience with yourself as you learn, and by keeping humble in your practice when you don’t attain a goal as soon as you might like. Perhaps even more important is working to remain humble if you do attain the posture on your first attempt or first few attempts.
There are dozens of benefits to practicing headstand. It stimulates circulation and the lymphatic and immune systems, gives your heart a break from pumping the blood upwards towards your head, and brings fluids that gravity pulls earthwards back upwards into parts of the body they couldn’t get to on their own. Ancient yogis said that the fire of life burns in the belly, and that turning the body upside down temporarily decreases the fuel or life force being fed to the fire, thus prolonging life when practiced consistently over time. Headstand can help with the common headache, rejuvenate the flow of blood to the glands in your brain, and reverse the downward pressure on your skeletal system. Headstand has many benefits that we are unable to feel physically, which is another beautiful part of the mystery of yoga.
It is imperative to be sure that you are very energetically centered and focused before attempting headstand, for it has the potential for injury if not done properly. Sirsasana builds your focus just by practicing it. It is so precarious a position that it becomes quite difficult to think of anything else as you are working with it. It is important to practice with a spotter and an experienced teacher, and to not attempt it unless you feel very strong and active in your own practice. It can be helpful to practice against a wall for the first few times you do it so you don’t become distracted by the fear of falling backwards. It is also imperative NOT TO KICK UP INTO HEADSTAND. Never kick up into headstand. Do not kick. Did I mention never, ever to kick up into headstand? This puts unnecessary pressure on your neck, which could end up supporting the weight of your body if you kick. You must have the core strength to be able to lift your legs together at the same time. This is absolutely the only way to ensure you will get into the posture safely. Ideally, when you are in headstand, you are pressing down through the upper arms so that you don’t have as much weight, or eventually any weight, on your neck and head.
Starting on all fours, take your hands to opposite elbows to properly align your arms. Then clasp hands and tuck your bottom pinky inside the hands so it doesn’t get squished. Find the very tip top of your head – usually people think this is closer to your forehead but it’s actually on the higher end so imagine drawing a line out of your neck straight up and that’s your crown. Place the crown between your hands and press firmly down with your arms so you have little to no pressure on your head. Tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor, like downward facing dog. This is your headstand prep pose. Feel free to work here. Perhaps you lift one leg up, not to kick but just to work strength, for a few breaths and then take it down. Then lift the other for the same amount of breaths before taking it down. Take child’s pose. Come back into headstand prep. Tiptoe your feet in towards your elbows, ensuring that your elbows are still drawing towards each other as they press downward. Squeeze your inner thighs together and see if you can draw your legs off the floor. Be mindful of your neck as you do this, pressing down through the arms. Perhaps you will work here for awhile, floating the feet an inch or two off the floor, eventually a little higher, and eventually all the way up over your hips. It takes a little while to have the strength and courage to keep those feet up as they want to splay forward. This is natural.
Once you feel aligned and comfortable in Sirsasana, see if you can find a finer alignment within the pose. Hone your awareness again on the many muscle groups of the body, striving to keep all of them active. Notice how energizing different muscles can make the pose easier in some ways. Pressing down through the upper arms and forearms relieves pressure on the neck. Activating the entire core, the sides of the torso, and tucking the tail further aligns the joints and stabilizes the posture, enabling it to be held for a longer period of time. Glutes, quads, hamstrings, every muscle is active. Try also to really imagine the skeletal structure of your body coming into perfect vertical alignment. Flexing the feet, spreading the toes, reaching up through the heels, pressing up at the arches of the feet, and activating the inner calves and thighs as you continue to press downward with the upper arms can give this posture more lift. This tiny effort taken over and over again within your posture makes the body almost lighter and easier to hold up. The act of focusing and strengthening through all of the different parts of your body is not possible without being completely focused on, absorbed by, and present in the pose. Once you feel still and in your best alignment, take your awareness to your breath just as you would in any other pose. That feeling of complete stillness and a subtle union between a still body and a still mind may even become apparent for a fraction of a second. If you are diligent, you can maintain this stillness for a few rounds of breath or eventually for minutes at a time.
Focusing in Sirsasana will enable you to build a sense of deeper inward focus when you are going about your daily, right-side-up life. Finding a sense of meditative stillness when in such a challenging and vulnerable position is a milestone in one’s spiritual practice and can further encourage a sense of calmness and clarity in the world off the mat. It can be easy to become excited by a success or get caught up in the surface element of the way the posture looks externally once attained. The very moment the ego gets involved, the sense of purity and the fruits of all effort are lost.
Deepening your understanding and familiarity with a specific asana posture is a practice in personal growth. There are dozens of opportunities to get discouraged with the posture, the practice, and even ourselves. Working towards something without the desired result for years can be wearing, but that’s the practice. There are things we can’t control, and it takes work to find a sense of equanimity in the midst of all effort and challenges, even in goals we may never be able to attain. Practice being patient with yourself. Take a break from the posture every so often, and then visit it again with a beginner’s mind. Remind yourself that this is a lifelong practice, applaud your efforts no matter what the result, and then rest humbly in the grace of balasana (child’s pose).
By Shanti Caiazzo