How to Do Headstand: Complete Guide & Benefits
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 we have trained over 6000 yoga teachers from all over the world. Our students are comprised of existing yoga teachers, health professionals, advanced as well as beginning practitioners, and yoga enthusiasts. To our surprise, we have found that most of our students, no matter to which category they belong, do not know how to do 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 the most out of it and in order to practice it safely.
1. What is Headstand (Shirshasana)?
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.
2. What happens – Physiology of Headstand?
When you come into the 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 the 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 to 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.
3. Why should you do it – Benefits of Headstand
Headstand is referred to as the king of asanas due to its wonderful benefits to the body and the mind. Some of the benefits for the body are:
- stimulating the functioning of pineal, hypothalamus and pituitary glands. This helps in better functioning and coordination 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 increased blood pressure;
- improving memory and concentration;
- removing 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 the blood pressure;
- improving body posture and activating the core;
- strengthening of muscles of the back, shoulders and arms;
- improving blood and lymph circulation in the entire body; and
- improves digestion and elimination.
4. Who should not practice Headstand? – Counter Indications
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:
- Children under the age of seven years as their skull is freshly fused and can be still soft and prone to injury;
- Pregnant women should avoid it as it can be risky if they fall out of the pose due to any reason;
- If you suffer from glaucoma, you should avoid it as it can increase the pressure in the eyes;
- If you suffer from an acute headache or severe migraine, the Headstand should be avoided;
- People with shoulder and neck injuries should also avoid practicing headstand till the injury is healed;
- People with hypertension should avoid Headstand and all inversions;
- People with severe cardiac problems should avoid it; and
- The headstand should also be avoided by people suffering from osteoporosis.
5. Correct Alignments – How to do Headstand Safely
A correct alignment is very important while practicing headstand, otherwise, it can lead to injuries rather than a 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 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 be wrong.
In figure A. the weight of the body is shared in an 80/20 ratio by the head and the arms. The back muscles and the core are equally engaged. This is an 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 alignment 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.
6. Do or Don’t – Practicing against the wall?
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 a few child’s somersaults to learn how to roll, if you are falling from a headstand in the beginning.
7. How to do it right – Steps to practice Headstand
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.
How to do Headstand? Follow these steps:
- Sit on the knees and hold the elbows to measure the ideal distance. Then bring the arms to the ground right under the shoulders.
- 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.
- Place the head on the ground with the back of the head in the cupped hands.
- Curl your toes, straighten your knees , hips to the sky.
- Start walking towards your shoulders.
- Bring right knee in your chest and then bring other knee towards the chest. This will make your spine straight.
- As you inhale raise your legs to the sky. Bring your focus on a steady point preferably at eye level. Take easy relaxed breaths and hold the posture as long as comfortable.
- 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.
8. How long should you hold the Headstand?
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.
9. Common mistakes while practicing Shirshasana
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 the following:
- Bringing hips behind the shoulders
- Elbows placed too wide
- Wrong placement of head
- Not enough opposition in arms and feet
- Practicing on very hard floor
- Breathing too shallow or too fast
- Losing the natural curve of the spine
10. Common myths about the Headstand
Over the period many myths have been formed about headstand, all of which are misleading. Some of them are:
- You should not practice head stand during menstruation, this is a common myth among female practitioners. The blood cannot flow anywhere else due to the valves in the veins. The only reason why some senior teachers avoid headstand for menstruating women is because they might have cramps or nausea during the first days.
- If you are pregnant you can injure the baby by doing Headstand.
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
- Practicing the Headstand can injure your brain.
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]
- Headstand is not safe for your neck.
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.
Headstand is a very beneficial posture provided it is practiced properly and held for the right duration without excess mental or physical stress. I highly advise you to learn how to do Headstand from a competent teacher who has personal experience and proper understanding of it. Enjoy your Shirshasana!
About the Author
Ram Jain is Founding Director of the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams (India and The Netherlands) and the author of the internationally acclaimed book Hatha Yoga for Teachers & Practitioner. Within the last 10 years, the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams have become renowned internationally for their professional yoga teacher training courses, and have up to present trained over 6000 yoga teachers from all over the world.
Born in New Delhi, India, in a traditional and spiritual family, his yoga and Vedic philosophy education started at the age of eight years as a part of his primary school education. He has in-depth knowledge of classical Hatha Yoga and is also well versed in ancient Indian scriptures. During his 19 years of teaching career, he has worked with various anatomy and physiology experts and has developed unique teaching, adjustment, and modification techniques.
Presently, he is the lead teacher for various teacher training programs, ranging from Hatha Yoga, Yin Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, to Meditation and Yoga Nidra. He teaches for several months a year in India and the rest of the year in the Netherlands, where he also lives with his wife and two children.