Understanding Safety in Headstands
Apply these concepts to keep your cervical spine healthy
Headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) has long been dubbed by yogis as the “King of Asanas.” As a yoga practitioner, I see the allure of the Headstand, but as a yoga instructor, I’ve frequently witnessed this complex inversion approached haphazardly by new and experienced practitioners alike. Headstands requires such care that I often refrain from teaching it in drop-in classes due to time restraints, reserving the “King of Asanas” for workshops and private lesson settings where it can be given the time and in-depth explanation deserved of such a powerful posture.
Always approach Headstands with caution, and fully develop your understanding of the three key elements of Headstands: the cervical spine, shoulder strength and stability, and core integration.
The cervical spine is comprised of the 7 vertebrae (numbered from top C1 to bottom C7) that make up the skeletal structure of the neck. The cervical vertebrae is the most mobile part of the spine, with a much greater range of motion than the thoracic spine and lumbar spine. These small bones are accustomed to supporting the weight of the head, but in our Headstand these seven vertebrae are asked to take the weight of the entire body. For this reason, I encourage my students to never kick or hop into your Headstand. Doing so creates a dramatic shift of weight into the cervical spine and can easily cause mild to debilitating injuries. Avoiding kicking into a pose will be a challenge, especially for newer practitioners, but with proper shoulder stability and core integration a smooth and controlled entrance is well within reach.
Applied Practice: When upside down, add a small tuck of the chin toward the chest to lengthen the back of the neck. For many practitioners with limited core strength, once inverted the abdominal muscles want disengage, creating an arch in the lumbar spine and sending the feet behind the head, causing a shortening of the back of the neck and sending the weight toward the posterior side of the body. In unison with core integration, this tuck of the chin engages the muscles on the back of the neck to prevent compression in the back of the cervical spine. Remember: if you ever experience significant compression in the neck, come out of your headstand immediately.
Even if you have six-pack abs, you may still have a significant amount of training and conditioning to do before achieving and smooth lift off into your Headstand. A safe entrance requires all of the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external obliques, and internal obliques) working in symphony for full core integration. Every advanced posture, particularly those that fight gravity, come from the core. The transverse abdominis is particularly relevant, as the innermost core muscle spanning the width of the abdominals, it’s often referred to as yogic under armour.
Applied Practice: Incorporate Uddiyana Bandha, Hollow Body (a gymnastics conditioning exercise that translates well to yoga), and Ardha Navasana into your daily practice to build the core strength and integration required for Headstands.
Shoulder Strength and Stability
The sanskrit term Salamba translates to ‘Supported’ and you can consider the position of your arms in a traditional Headstand (this excludes Tripod and other variations of Headstand) as a triangle of support. A proper triangle allows engagement of the latissimus dorsi and the shoulder blades to move down the back (toward the pelvic bowl) keeping length between the shoulder and ears. Students often open the arms much wider than needed, creating a broad and thereby less stable triangle of support. Experiment with drawing the points of the elbows closer together in front of the face, coming toward a thirty degree angle, and depending on shoulder flexibility possibly progressing to feel the inside of the forearms snug against the side of the head.
Positioning the arms in this way is intended to distribute the weight of the body evenly so pressure doesn’t centralize on the cervical spine. To create this effect, students should be able to create a sensation of lift out of the shoulder even when upside down. This requires a great deal of shoulder strength of stability.
Incorporate Dolphin Push-Ups, Plank Elevators, and Inverted Plank Shoulder Extensions into your daily practice to develop the shoulder strength and stability for a safe Headstand.
Advanced Applied Practice: Headstand Press-Ups
When in a Headstand, extend through the shoulders until the head lifts off the ground, coming into a bound hands forearm stand, then lower back down with control. This exercise is a beautiful expression of core integration and shoulder strength and stability. For even more challenge, avoid lifting the head to look at the hands as you raise of the floor, keep the back of the neck long the entire time.
For a step-by-step explanation and additional thoughts on the Headstand visit: Yoga Journal Pose Guide: Headstand