Headstand is a yoga pose. It is known in Sanskrit as Shirshasana and often referred to as the ‘king of asanas.’ In the yoga Headstand, the body inverts to ‘stand’ on the top of the head. It is considered to be one of the fundamental postures of a Hatha Yoga practice as it is tremendously beneficial to the body and mind to invert (safely).
Since 2009, we have trained over 6000 yoga teachers from all over the world. Our students are composed of existing yoga teachers, health professionals. From beginners to advanced practitioners, and yoga enthusiasts. To our surprise, we have found that most of our students, no matter which category they belong to, don't know how to do a Headstand. Many of them have never practised the yoga Headstand position as this it was not prioritised by the yoga classes they attended. In fact, many yoga teachers seem to even discourage the practice of Headstands or suggest practising it only against the wall.
Whether you have already practised Shirshasana or whether you’re planning to learn, it’s important to know the following important things about it. You then can get the most benefits of this yoga Headstand by practising it safely. Read on to discover how to practice Headstand safely!
What is Headstand - Shirshasana?
The Headstand position is a Hatha Yoga pose where the yoga practitioner balances on the head with the support of the arms. It is an inverted position where the ‘bregma’ of the skull is on the ground and the feet face upwards. Even though the yoga Headstand is challenging to learn at first, it is very popular due to its numerous benefits.
The Physiology of Headstand
When you are in a stable and steady Headstand, not only the body invert 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 the upper extremities are also stressed and activated.
Understandably, you may be concerned that the blood pressure to the head increases. However, our body has systems in place to make sure that the body and the brain function as they should. If you are physically well and your yoga practice is led by an experienced certified yoga instructor, then a Headstand can be safe and beneficial. Due to the reversal of the blood pressure – when in the yoga Headstand position, the blood pressure towards the head increases and, in the feet, and legs reduces to almost zero – we can see incredible physiological benefits.
The Benefits of Headstand
The yoga Headstand position is referred to as the ‘king of asanas’ due to its wonderful benefits to the body and the mind. Some of the benefits are:
- Stimulating the functioning of the pineal, hypothalamus, and pituitary glands. This helps in better functioning and co-ordination of all the endocrine glands.
- Improving the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis by stimulation of the nervous system
- Providing conditioning to the brain, eyes, and ears due to safely increased blood pressure
- Improving memory and concentration
- Helping to manage mental fatigue, depression, and anxiety
- Improving the functioning of the central nervous system
- Improving the body’s capability to regulate blood pressure by stimulation of the so-called baroreceptors
- Giving rest to the heart by reversing blood pressure temporarily
- Improving body posture by activating the core
- Strengthening of muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms
- Improving blood and lymph circulation throughout the entire body
- Improving digestion and elimination functions.
Who Should not Practice the Yoga Headstand?
One should avoid practising Headstand if any of the following conditions apply:
- Children under the age of seven years as their skulls aren't’ fully fused yet, not yet hardened enough, and prone to injury.
- Pregnant women should avoid the yoga Headstand position as it can be risky if they fall out of the pose due to any reason.
- If you suffer from glaucoma, you should avoid this yoga pose as it can increase the pressure of the eyes.
- If you suffer from acute headaches or severe migraines, the yoga Headstand position should be avoided.
- People with shoulder and neck injuries should also avoid practising Headstands till the injury has completely healed.
- People with hypertension should avoid this yoga position in all inversions.
- People with severe cardiac problems should avoid the yoga Headstand position.
- This yoga pose should also be avoided by people suffering from osteoporosis.
Tips for Doing Headstand Safely
A correct alignment is very important while practising the yoga Headstand position. If not, practising this yoga pose can lead to injuries. Below you will find the original name of the yoga pose is Salamba Shirshasana (Supported Headstand) but it is commonly called Shirshasana.
- Starting position: It is recommended to stay in Shashankasana (Child Pose) for 10-15 seconds to neutralise the bold pressure in the legs and the head before going into 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 be wrong.
Whether or Not to Practice Headstand Against a Wall
It is best to avoid using the wall to practice the yoga Headstand position. The reason is that the correct muscles cannot be engaged to support the weight of the body when against a wall. Rather, you will throw the weight on the wall and stay longer in the position than your body can actually handle. This can possibly lead to injuries to the brain, eyes, and neck.
Importantly, it is best to find a soft surface (such as a lawn) or sandy beach to practice. It goes without saying that you should be led by a competent, sufficiently experienced and certified yoga instructor. You can begin by practising a few child’s somersaults to learn how to roll, if you are falling from a Headstand in the beginning. Start small and take it slow with this yoga pose.
Step by Step Instructions for Headstand
Ideally, your stomach should be empty. It is best to avoid eating 2-3 hours before the yoga practice. The yoga Headstand position should be practised after a proper warm-up. If you are not practising on the grass or spongy surface, use a 3-5 cm thick blanket under your head to provide cushioning for the skull.
Here is a Step-by-step Guide to do Headstand?
Take your time and practice each step carefully:
1. Sit on the knees and hold the elbows to measure the ideal distance.
2. Then bring the arms to the ground right under the shoulders.
3. Keeping the elbows there, bring the hands closer and interlock the fingers so that your arms form a triangle. Do not let your elbows open out.
4. Place the head on the ground with the back of the head in the cupped hands.
5. Curl your toes, straighten your knees, hips to the sky.
6. Start walking towards your shoulders.
7. Bring the right knee in your chest and then bring another knee towards the chest. This will make your spine straight.
8. As you inhale, raise your legs to the sky. Straighten your legs upward while keeping your feet slightly in front of you.
9. Bring your focus on a steady point preferably at eye level.
10. Take easy relaxed breaths and hold the posture as long as comfortable.
Alignment Cues for Headstand
There is an 80/20 weight distribution between the head and the arms. The core of the upper body and back are equally active. This alignment is ideal for those wishing to stay in Headstand for extended periods of time.
There is a 20/80 weight distribution between the head and the arms; more weight is on the arms, less on the head. The core of the upper body is more active than the back muscles. If you feel comfortable in this alignment for 30 seconds, then you are ready to adjust the pose to the alignment shown in figure A. This alignment is ideal for beginners.
The back muscles have to work hard to stay in this pose, due to the way the hips are hanging forward. The core is not adequately engaged in this posture, which causes a lot of stress on the neck and back.
Due to the weight of the body falling beyond the head, it becomes almost impossible to remain in the pose.
Aim to look like Figures A and B positions. Figures C and D must be avoided.
Further Safety Alignment Cues
- Keep your shoulders away from your ears to protect the neck from compressing too much.
- Do not let your hip move behind your shoulders, otherwise you will fall.
- If you practice near the wall do not lean on the wall, use it only for protection from falling.
How Long Should you Hold Headstand?
There are different views on the maximum duration for holding Shirshasana. Some yoga teachers suggest a maximum of 2 minutes however there are some yoga teachers that suggest 3-5 minutes. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a duration of 3 hours is mentioned. Importantly, most of the ancient Hatha Yoga texts suggest one common thing: The yoga Headstand position 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 start to get tired please safely come out of the pose. Gradually with practice, you will be able to hold the pose longer and in a steady manner.
Another important fact is that the Headstand Pose should be part of a balanced practice. It’s duration should stay relative to other asanas and warming-up exercises that comprise a holistic and balanced yoga asana practice.
Common Mistakes while Practising Shirshasana
It is a common finding found in yoga classes that many students practice Headstand incorrectly. They either get injured or experience pain due from some common mistakes. However, if you are aware of these common mistakes, you can avoid unnecessary strain and pain during your yoga practice. The most common mistakes in the yoga Headstand position which lead to instability, discomfort, and even injury:
- Bringing hips behind the shoulders
- Placing the elbows too wide
- Wrong placement of the head
- Not enough opposition in arms and feet
- Practising on a very hard floor
- Breathing too shallow or too fast
- Losing the natural curve of the spine
Common myths about Headstand
Over time, many myths about headstands have come to the fore. Unfortunately, many of them are misleading such as:
Myth #1: You should not practice the yoga Headstand position during menstruation.
Untrue. Blood cannot flow anywhere else due to the valves in the veins. The only reason why some senior yoga teachers avoid Headstands for menstruating women is that they might have cramps or nausea during the first days.
Myth #2: If you are pregnant, you can injure the baby by doing the yoga Headstand position.
Untrue. However, you can injure the baby by falling out of a Headstand. Therefore, we do advise against practising Shirshasana during pregnancy
Myth #3: Practising the yoga Headstand position can injure your brain.
If you are not suffering from high blood pressure, any inflammation in the head region, or any other cardiovascular issues, then inversions are generally safe for the brain. Inversions have been shown to increase concentration, memory, observation, and clarity of thought and can counteract depression and anxiety but it is important that you consult your medical doctor before practising these. Furthermore, inversion therapy may even play a serious role in arresting the brain’s “ageing process.”
Myth #4: The yoga Headstand position is not safe for your neck.
With the right alignment and proper build-up (without the wall, to avoid excessive holding), the benefits of the yoga headstand position can be achieved. People with any neck or shoulder issues, such as whiplash or hernia, however, should avoid the pose.
In conclusion, the yoga Headstand position is a beneficial yoga pose provided it is practised properly, safely and held for the right duration of time. This yoga pose should not cause unhealthy mental or physical stress. I highly advise you to learn how to practice Headstand from a competent and certified yoga instructor who has personal experience and a proper understanding of it. Enjoy your Shirshasana!