Headstand, Shirshasana means the posture where one stands on the top of the head. Headstand not only turns around your vision of the world but also turns around the blood pressure in the body. Headstand is one of the main postures in Hatha Yoga, also referred to as the king of asanas. This is because of its numerous benefits and effects on the body as well as on the mind.
Since 2009 I have trained over 3000 yoga teachers from all over the world. My students are comprised of existing yoga teachers, health professionals, advanced as well as beginning practitioners and yoga enthusiasts. To my surprise I have found that most of my students, no matter to which category they belong, do not have clear understanding of Headstand. Many of them have never practiced Headstand as their teachers did not teach it in their classes. In fact many teachers seem to even discourage the practice of Headstand or suggest practicing it only with the wall.
Whether you already practice the headstand or whether you are planning to learn the headstand, you should know the following important facts about the headstand in order to get most out of it and in order to practice it safely.
Headstand is a Hatha Yoga asana (posture) where the practitioner stands / balances on the head with the support of the arms. It is an inverted position where the head is on the ground and the feet are up. Even though Headstand is a challenging pose it is very popular due to its numerous benefits.
When you come into headstand, not only the body inverts, but the blood pressure as well. The pressure changes in the head, neck, shoulders, veins, arteries, lungs as well as legs. This change in blood pressure forces the body to react in order to maintain balance in the different body systems. The muscles and tissues of upper extremities are also stressed and activated.
Now maybe some alarm bells are going off as you hear that the blood pressure to the head increases. Luckily our body has very intricate and strong systems to make sure that the body and the brain stay safe. If you are physically well and your practice with the help and guidance of an experienced teacher headstand is very safe and beneficial. Due the reversal of the blood pressure – when in Headstand the blood pressure towards the head increases and in the feet and legs reduces to almost zero – we can see incredible physiological benefits.
Headstand is referred as king of asanas due to its wonderful benefits to the body and the mind. Some of benefits on body are:
Due to the complex nature of the headstand not everyone is advised to practice it. One should avoid practicing headstand if any of the following conditions apply:
A correct alignment is very important while practicing headstand, otherwise it can lead to injuries rather than benefit to the practitioner. Please note that the original name of the position explained below is Salamba Shirshasana (supported headstand) but it is commonly called as Shirshasana only.
Starting position: It is recommended to stay in Shashankasana (Child pose) for 10-15 seconds to neutralize the bold pressure in the legs and the head before going into the headstand.
From Shashankasana hands should be placed above the head while elbows should be in line with shoulders. This position of the shoulders provides optimum stability to the shoulders later on, failing to do so may lead to extra play in the shoulders.
Head position: When you place your head on the ground make sure to place the part starting from the hairline going towards the crown also known as “Bregma”. Don’t place the crown on the ground as it is more challenging to balance on the crown and also your neck alignment will likely by wrong.
In figure A. the weight of the body is shared in 80/20 ratio by the head and the arms. The back muscles and the core are equally engaged. This is ideal alignment for those who wish to stay long in the pose.
In figure B. the weight of the body is more on the arms, less on the neck (20/80). The core is more engaged than the back muscles. This alignments is suitable for those who wish to develop core awareness and wish less pressure on the neck. This alignment should also be practiced if you are a beginner with this pose. Once you can hold the headstand for 1 minute comfortably, you can shift to alignment A.
In figure C. the weight of the body is on the neck and hands. The pelvis is hanging so the back muscles have to work very hard to keep the posture and the core is not sufficiently engaged. This alignment is not good as it brings compression in the neck and the back and can lead to injury.
In figure D. the weight of the body is falling behind the head so it is not possible to stay in the pose for almost anyone.
It is best to avoid the wall because when you practice headstand with the wall the body will not use the right muscles to support your weight. Rather you will throw the weight on the wall and stay longer in the position than your body can actually handle. This can even lead to injuries to the brain, eyes and neck.
If you don’t have a competent teacher available to learn headstand it is recommended to find a spongy grass surface or a sandy beach. Now practice few child’s somersaults to learn how to roll, if you are falling from headstand in the beginning.
Ideally your stomach should be empty so you should avoid eating 2-3 hours before the practice. Headstand should be practiced after a proper warm up. If you are not practicing on the grass or spongy surface use a 3-5 cm thick blanket under your head to provide cushioning for the skull.
There are different views on the maximum duration for holding Shirshasana. Some teachers suggest maximum 2 minutes, some suggest 3-5 minutes, Hatha Yoga Pradipika even mentions 3 hours. But most of the ancient Hatha Yoga texts suggest one common thing: The headstand can be held for any amount of time as long as it is steady and comfortable and no excess effort is used to stay in the posture. So if your arms, back or neck starts to get tired you should come out of the pose. Gradually with practice you will be able to hold the pose longer.
Many people are not able to practice headstand properly. They either get injury or pain from it due to some common mistakes. But if you can be aware of these common mistakes you can avoid unnecessary strain and pain. The most common mistakes in the headstand which lead to instability, discomfort and even injury are following:
Over the period many myths have been formed about headstand, all of which are misleading. Some of them are:
Again, this is not true. BUT you can injure the baby by falling out of Headstand. Therefore we do advise against practicing Shirshasana during pregnancy
This is a common myth. However if you are not suffering from high blood pressure, any inflammation in the head region or any other cardiovascular issues, inversions are safe for the brain. In fact inversions have been shown to increase concentration, memory, observation, and clarity of thought and can counteract depression and anxiety. Furthermore, inversion therapy may even play a serious role in arresting the brain’s “aging process.” [https://www.amazon.com/Gravity-Guiding-System-Turning-Process]
Again, a common myth. And again, with the right alignment and proper build-up (without the wall, to avoid excessive holds), the benefits of the Headstand outweigh the potential risks manifold. People with any neck or shoulder issues, such as whiplash or hernia however, should avoid the pose.
Ram Jain (E-RYT 500) is the founder of Arhanta Yoga Ashrams.
He teaches professional Yoga teacher training courses in India & The Netherlands. Since 2009, he has trained over 4000 yoga teachers.