The Truth About Headstand In Yoga

The Truth About Headstand In Yoga

Headstand is one of those postures like lotus that is iconic in the yoga world. Nearly all styles of yoga asana practice include some version of headstand. It shows up regularly in social media images. It’s often shrouded in mythology. And, we regularly get questions here at yoganatomy.com about how to do headstand. So in this article, I’ll take a deep dive into everything you might want to know about headstand, or in Sanskrit, sirsasana.

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Mythology

Headstand definitely gets our attention as yoga practitioners. There are all kinds of claims made about the posture. The classical text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, describes sirsasana as a mudra (a gesture that has a particular effect), rather than just a posture, infusing it with more layers of purpose (Muktibodhananda, 2008). The Hatha Yoga Pradipika also describes sirsasana in relation to viparita karani, but it describes viparita karani as a posture similar to shoulder stand with many benefits of its own (Muktibodhananda, 2008). However, Pattabhi Jois, in Yoga Mala indicates that viparita karani is actually an older name for headstand. Whatever Sanskrit name you call it by, many interesting benefits are attributed to mastering headstand.

More recent references

More recent texts on yoga, like BKS Iyengar’s popular Light on Yoga, suggest that headstand “is a tonic for people whose brains tire quickly.” He suggests that regular practice of headstand can contribute to everything from increased energy, improved sleep, and improved memory to relieving issues with coughs, tonsillitis, and halitosis (Iyengar, 1979)! Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar’s contemporary, suggests in his book, Yoga Mala, that regular practice of headstand improves vision, cures eye diseases, and “purifies” the five sense organs (Jois, 2002).

For the most part, those purported benefits of headstand have not been verified by laboratory science. Recent research has dispelled claims that headstand increases the blood flow to your brain, however (Minvaleev et al., 2019). But, all the excitement around this pose might still inspire you to learn headstand. So, let’s dive into the anatomy of this posture!

Anatomy

Before we get too specific about anatomy, we need to be clear about which headstand we’re talking about. The most common version of headstand that shows up across styles of yoga is the one where your hands are clasped and your head is placed on the ground behind your hands. That’s the headstand I’ll focus on in this article. For a brief mention of the other types of headstands and variations, scroll down towards the bottom of this article.

Conceptually, I think of this most common version of headstand as a “forearm balance with head lightly touching.” If you’ve been in an in-person workshop and learned headstand from me, you’ve probably heard me use that phrase. That idea points to the anatomy that I think of as the most crucial to getting comfortable with and safely doing this pose.

The forearm and shoulder base

Although our clasped hands are touching the ground, the base of our headstand is really our forearms. Like a forearm balance, the key muscle in my mind, to engage in order to stabilize that base is serratus anterior. Of course, other shoulder muscles like the deltoids also assist in this action. Although you could consider the shoulder joints to be flexed to about 90 degrees and adducted, the critical engagement here in our base is about stabilization, not contracting something per se.

Serratus anterior

To understand the serratus anterior and how it works in headstand posture, we first need to understand how it works when we’re not upside down. Serratus anterior acts as a key stabilizer of the shoulder girdle by keeping the scapulae against the rib cage. And, it is an upward rotator of the scapula, especially when the humerus is in flexion. The difficulty here is that because we are upside down with the forearms on the floor, when we engage serratus it does not move the shoulder girdle into further upward rotation. Instead, it lifts the torso between the two shoulder blades. This is the key to minimizing the weight on your head.

The pelvis and legs

Once we have our base established, we need to flex the hip joints and walk our feet closer to our upper body. Then in the process of coming up into headstand we undo that flexion. Our erector spinae engage to extend our spine, and we extend our legs at our hip joints to straighten our legs into a headstand. But, while the anatomy might not sound that complicated, the pose is a daunting one for many students. So read on for the techniques to develop your headstand.

How to do headstand: techniques

Setting up your base

When we start talking about setting up your headstand base, immediately we run into some of the many questions that students regularly ask me about this pose. Should you clasp the hands with palms touching or leave the palms open? How wide apart should your elbows be? What part of your head should be touching the floor?

Palms open or palms touching?

Let’s explore these questions starting with setting up your headstand base. First, what about those hands? Palms open or palms touching? Well, if I’m teaching a beginner, I lean toward setting up with the fingers interlaced and the palms open. My experience is that this translates better for beginners into pressing the whole forearm into the floor and finding engagement from serratus anterior. When beginners clasp their hands with their palms together, they tend to try to do all the engagement from pushing their hands into the floor. The result is they don’t connect to the large, strong muscles in the shoulder girdle that actually do the stabilizing actions. Once someone is an experienced headstander, they can usually do the pose either way with ease. In that case, I let them choose. I don’t try to change it unless they’re having some kind of issue with the pose.

The other potential reason to choose hands clasped vs hands open is proportions. You might have longer upper arms or a longer neck and head. In this case, you may need more space between your shoulders and the floor so open palms can help with that. The opposite is also true: shorter upper arms, head, and neck could make the hands clasped together feel more stable. It’s not that one is right or wrong, it’s about establishing and maintaining a stable base.

Distance between elbows

Even after many years of practice, you may still want to clasp your hands around your elbows to determine the right distance between them. If the elbows get too wide, you lose stability in your base. You end up with more of a straight line between the elbows and hands and less of a nice stable triangle. That said, it’s also possible to set the elbows too close together, although this happens far less often. More commonly, when the shoulders are tight, the student sets up their elbows, and then as they shift their attention to walking the feet in, the elbows slide apart from each other. Then when the student does lift up, they feel wobbly and unstable. So, once you have the elbows in a good place don’t let them slide away from each other when you walk in.

Head position

Finally, let’s talk about the head position. For this version of headstand, where conceptually I’m thinking of it as a forearm balance, I place the head on the ground somewhere around the hairline. So it’s not the top center of the head. And, it’s not the forehead. But, it’s that sweet spot in between where you can maintain a comfortable cervical curve in your neck.

Coming up

Coming up is the hardest part of headstand for most students. And, depending on your level of experience with this posture, there are different ways of coming up that make sense.

When we talk about lifting our legs to come up into a headstand, we run into more of the common questions that come up around this pose. Is it better to lift one leg at a time or two legs at a time? Should you come up with straight legs or is it better to lift up from a tucked position with bent knees? The answers to those questions depend on the student, their experience with yoga and inversions generally, and their experience with headstand specifically.

David Shows Steps For Coming Up In Headstand

Beginners

If you’re a beginner to headstand, or if you’ve been struggling for a while without making progress, then I recommend you start with the “lifting with bent knees approach.” After you’ve set up your base and placed your head, start walking your feet toward your arms. Allow your knees to bend and walk in as close as you can. This brings the pelvis more in line with the base that you’ve created with your head and forearms. Then, with your knees still bent, initiate movement from your back muscles to try and lift/rotate your pelvis. Then, when you feel your feet getting lighter, use as little momentum as possible to give a little push with your toes to bring your body into a tucked pelvis position over your arms. Just balancing there might be enough to start with.

Pelvis In Headstand

Once you’re confident with that much, you can start slowly lifting the legs. And, I’m going to suggest you lift up two legs at a time. Working with two legs at a time puts your focus on the pelvis, rather than your feet. Your pelvis is actually the part of your body that you need to engage with. It is the heavy piece you’re moving in space. It’s our erector spinae that extend the spine to undo the tucked pelvis and bring it back to a more neutral position. At the same time, we integrate the movements of the hip and knee joints to straighten our legs.

Lifting up with bent knees or straight legs

For beginners generally, I teach lifting up with bent knees. Bending the knees and pulling the legs into a sort of tucked position keeps everything closer to your center of gravity. This often makes it easier to figure out how to move your pelvis and then your legs without falling over. With straight legs, you have a long lever arm (your legs) that is far away from your center of gravity.

In addition, if you have tight hamstrings, then lifting up into headstand with straight legs is going to make it harder. That is, it’s both harder to lift up at all and harder to control the momentum required for you to lift the pelvis from farther behind you. It is more difficult for your erector muscles to work against the resistance of those hamstrings when trying to tilt the pelvis into a neutral position. Bending the knees frees the pelvis to tilt without resistance from the hamstrings. For those folks with tight hamstrings, I definitely recommend lifting up with bent knees.

Together these factors often make it harder to control the action of lifting up. For that reason, I start most beginners with the bent knees version. However, for the long term, research suggests that lifting up with straight legs is associated with less pressure on the head (Hector and Jensen, 2015). So, once you’ve gained confidence coming up into headstand with bent knees, if the straight-leg entrance version is accessible to you, then it could be worth trying.

Straight-leg Entrance

Two legs at a time or one leg at a time

So, what about coming into headstand one leg at a time? What tends to happen if students learn headstand by coming up one leg at a time, is that their focus is on their feet. They use way too much momentum and try to kick up, and they never learn the critical skill of controlling the movement of their pelvis upside down. And that pelvic movement will eventually translate into every single inversion and arm balance posture after headstand. I think it’s far more beneficial for the long term to learn headstand coming up two legs at a time. Once you know how to come up into headstand with two legs at a time confidently, it’s usually fairly easy to come up one leg at a time if you want to do that variation.

Gaining “control” of your headstand

The most difficult part of headstand for many students is not actually staying upside down in a headstand. It’s lifting up into the pose without falling over and then coming back down again. Once we’re in the pose, gravity is, in a way, working with us to hold us in place. It’s when we’re shifting our weight within the field of gravity to lift up into the pose, that we often struggle to gain control of that action. Students frequently assume that this wobblyness in the transitions means they need more “core strength.” And by that, they usually mean stronger abdominals. So, is that true? I’m going to suggest that controlling our torso with the abdominals is only maybe a third or a quarter of the issue here.

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Yes, engaging our abdominals, especially the deeper layers of abdominals, like transverse abdominis and the obliques (not so much rectus abdominis actually) will help stabilize our spine. But, I’m going to suggest the wobbly feeling when lifting up can be addressed more effectively with good technique, than by doing crunches. You probably need less “core control” than you think. In fact, one of the common culprits for feeling wobbly when lifting up can actually be your hamstrings. Yes, you read that right.

Lifting and moving your pelvis

As I described already in this article, our pelvis is the heaviest part of our body that we need to move when lifting up into a headstand. So, if our hamstrings are very tight and are holding our pelvis in a posterior tilt, it’s hard to walk our feet in close to our forearm base. The farther away our feet are from our base, the farther away our pelvis is. The farther away our pelvis is, the more we have to use momentum and hop up into headstand rather than just lift our feet. That’s one part of the issue.

Walking In For Headstand

Another part of the issue is getting comfortable with tilting our pelvis while upside down. When we lift up, our pelvis actually has to tilt and go past the forearm base a little bit in order to pick the feet and legs up off the floor. That moment is often a scary one for students new to practicing headstand, because it can feel like you’ve gone too far. And, if you don’t have control of your pelvis in space, that moment is one where you might fall. Once you’ve tilted the pelvis and it’s gone a bit past the forearm base and the feet and legs are lifting up, then you have to undo some of that tilt to straighten up into your headstand. That’s another scary moment where students often feel off-balance until they get confident moving their pelvis upside down.

Practice coming down to get more confident lifting up

If you are newer to practicing headstand and struggling with controlling the transition to lift up, one technique I suggest is practicing coming down super slow. You have to reverse those actions of tilting the pelvis to move your lower body relative to the upper body when you come down. So, you get to practice getting comfortable with those same actions that you need to lift up. The difference is it’s probably less scary because you’re coming down. You’re less likely to fall. You’re already coming down, so the worst that happens is you come down a little faster than you meant to.

Issues and struggles

Working with fear

It makes sense to acknowledge one of the biggest challenges to working with headstand, and that is fear. Fear of falling over while balancing upside down, is common, normal, and very sensible. My experience is that the fear students have fades when they acquire more proprioception for being upside down and as they gain confidence with going in and out of the pose. Going slowly and working this pose step by step can help mitigate the fear of balancing upside down.

Should you learn headstand against the wall?

So what about practicing headstand against a wall? I don’t recommend learning headstand by working on the wall. Yes, it can reduce that fear of falling over. But, it doesn’t actually teach you to control your own center of gravity. What I commonly see students doing when they’ve been practicing headstand only against a wall, is leading with their feet. And, if you lead with your feet, especially if you are kicking up, you’re not learning to control your center of gravity, which is in your pelvis. Instead, you cultivate a habit of creating more momentum than is necessary to do the pose and then you have to stop that momentum in mid-air in order to not fall over. Students generally are more successful at learning this pose, if they move away from the wall and slowly work with the steps I’ve outlined in this article.

Other issues and common questions

Creating a stable base

Other issues that students bring up in workshops are around creating a stable base between the two points of the elbows and the third connection point of the interlaced hands. If a student hasn’t set up their base quite right for their body, then they might report feeling wobbly and unstable. They might feel their elbows pop up or don’t have weight in them. Or, they could feel too much weight in the elbows and none in their hands, and struggle to lift up into headstand at all. There are several things I check if a student reports any of these issues. Many of them I’ve covered already in this article: setting the correct distance between the elbows, finding the right placement of the head and hands, and pressing with the whole forearm to make the connection to serratus anterior.

Working with proportions

Additionally, students sometimes have an issue with proportions that necessitate a change to how I set up their base. If you have long forearms compared with your upper arms, long upper arms compared with your forearms, or even a long head and neck compared with your upper arms, you might need to adjust your head placement to accommodate that relationship so that your head is in a good place relative to your shoulders. Having a comfortable and stable base is critical to being able to walk in and then tilt the pelvis far enough to come up in your headstand. So, if you’re feeling stuck in your headstand, take a look at your proportions, play a bit with different options for your base, and see if that makes a difference for you.

Headstand variations

In this article, I’m specifically discussing the most common version of headstand that we encounter in yoga classes. However, there are actually quite a few variations of this pose. The “tripod” headstand is probably the next most common variation that’s taught in Hatha and vinyasa-style yoga classes. Krishnamacharya taught a number of other headstand variations. Many of those ended up in what is now the Ashtanga intermediate sequence. The variations in the Ashtanga intermediate sequence include variations such as placing the tops of the hands on the mat with the arms straight behind you, reaching the arms straight out to the sides with palms down, interlocking the arms, placing the forearms down as the base, and placing the elbows on the mat with the fingertips on the upper back. However, there are even more variations beyond those that you can explore after you establish a stable basic headstand.

Advanced headstands differ in intent

It’s important to keep in mind though that those headstands are advanced postures and they differ from the pose I’m discussing here in an important way. They are truly weight-bearing headstands. And, they are only held for a short duration. So while many of the guidelines here would still apply, some would not. For these weight-bearing headstand variations, you would want to position your head with the top of the head on the floor, so that the weight is passing straight down through the neck. Perhaps most importantly, those headstand variations require preparing the body to do them safely, and are best learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Why do headstand anyway?

Whether any of the effects of headstand that I described in the mythology section at the beginning of the article are true from the Western science perspective is unknown. To my knowledge, no one has evaluated those ideas in a laboratory setting. Initial research is just beginning to evaluate potential benefits through the lens of Western science. For example, a study by Fishman et al., 2008, suggests that headstand may help us cue our body to use the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles differently, which could be beneficial for recovery from rotator cuff tears.

Additionally, as Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor put it in their book, ‘The Art of Vinyasa,’ headstand certainly has the effect of “changing your perspective.” There’s nothing like going upside down to see and experience the world differently. Practicing something challenging like headstand, and gaining confidence over time can also be very empowering. And, it can change your perspective on what other challenging things in your life you might be able to do. And finally, it’s fun!

Cautions and contraindications

Cautions

So, what about headstand and injury? Yes, you can get injured doing a headstand. There is always some risk of falling if you’re balancing upside down. However, the more you slowly work the base of this pose to the point of having control of your center of gravity, the less likely you are to fall. Additionally, if you think of this pose as a forearm balance with your head only lightly touching, then much of the issue with weight-bearing through the head and neck is eliminated. That said it is still possible to tweak something in your neck when doing this pose, especially in the process of going up and coming back down. So, if you already feel like you have some kind of issue with your neck, like pain, an imbalance, etc., then this might not be the posture for you.

Contraindications

Going upside down has some contraindications. It’s not possible to give you an exhaustive list of all the reasons you might not want to go upside down. Some contraindications for headstand include detached retina, disc herniations or issues with the cervical spine, nerve impingements, and glaucoma. There are of course many other situations where going upside would be a bad idea. So generally, if you or a student has anything going on where common sense dictates that going upside down might not be a good idea, don’t do it. Or, at least check in with any medical provider that you’re seeing before you start working with the pose.

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Conclusion

Headstand is an iconic posture among most styles of yoga asana. It can be challenging to learn for many students. However, it can also be empowering and fun. If you’re working with headstand in your yoga practice, consider slowing down and working with the pose one step at a time to build it from the ground up. That will support both gaining confidence in the pose and reducing the risk of falling.

References

Fishman, L., C. Konnoth, and A. Polesin. 2006. Headstand for rotator cuff tear: Shirshasana or surgery. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. 16(1):39-47.

Freeman, R. and M. Taylor. 2016. Chapter 11: Finishing poses In: The Art of Vinyasa: Awakening Body and Mind through the Practice of Ashtanga Yoga. Shambhala. Boulder, Colorado, USA. Pgs. 275-298.

Hector, R. and J.L. Jensen. 2015. Sirsasana (headstand) technique alters head/neck loading: Considerations for safety. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 19:434-441.

Minvaleev, R.S., R.R. Bogdanov, D.P. Bahner, and A.B. Levitov. 2019. Headstand (sirshasana) does not increase the blood flow to the brain. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 25(8):827-832.

Muktibodhananda, S. Chapter three: Mudra and bandha In: Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Third edition. Yoga Publications Trust. Munger, Bihar, India. 2008. Pgs. 279-460.