Yes, you can get injured doing a headstand…especially if you take the name literally.
We can often gather information from the name of a posture. Sometimes we embrace the quality or energy of the name, like virabadrasana (warrior). Sometimes the name is exactly what we should be doing. Shoulderstand comes to mind. It’s not neck stand after all, is it? So, what about headstand?
Sometimes the English name is a little misguiding though. Headstand is one of those yoga posture names that we probably don’t want to take to literally. We don’t really want to put all of our weight on our head do we? No, we don’t. If we do, we might end up being an injury statistic in a New York Times article.
When we think of headstand what we really want to do is a forearm balance with our head lightly touching. This is very hard to do as a beginner, but we can certainly look at the anatomical components that create a firm foundation for a steady posture.
The great debate is often around which hand position to use. For me, the answer is simple. I recommend that students use the one that keeps them the most steady with their weight off of their head and neck. There is the classic interlaced finger where the palms are open and the top of the head is placed in the hands. The area above the forehead is what we place on the floor. This is the way I do my headstands.
The closed fist position
In terms of popularity, the open fist technique has been overtaken by the most popular hand position at present. That is a closed fist position where you press your hands into a single fist and then place the top of your head on the floor between or on your forearms. There are variations in the arrangement of the pinky fingers, but either way, a closed fist headstand seems the more popular of the two.
I think the main reason for the popularity of the closed fist hand position is for the sake of alignment. If the head is in open hands then the back of the neck must shorten to place the top of the head in the hands. If you place the top of your head between your forearms, the neck stays in a neutral alignment. This would seem to transmit the force in a straight line through the head and neck.
That seems like a good reason to put the head between the forearms. After all, we need a straight neck to do a headstand. Don’t we? Well, if you’re going to put your body weight onto the top of your head, then I couldn’t agree more. In that case, keep your head and neck straight so the weight passes through it in as straight a line as possible. But what if there’s no weight in your head? Does it matter?
When I come across students who are doing headstand, I don’t change anything if they have built a strong and steady foundation. If they can hold headstand without much weight on their head, then I don’t change it just for the sake of having them do it the way I want.
The students that attract me to their headstand are the ones that either can’t do it at all, and have been trying for some time, or those that look wobbly. The wobbly ones make me a bit nervous and need some help. At first, I look to see what it is that is making them wobbly. Of course, I usually start at the foundation of their headstand. What hand position have they used?
What else changes when you change hand positions?
I look at the base of a headstand from both a geometrical and anatomical point of view. One of the main changes I see between hands being open and the hands closing to make a single fist, is where the shoulders end up in relationship to the elbows below and the body above them. The further forward the head goes, as in the open handed set-up, the further forward the shoulders go. When the hands close to make a single fist, the head naturally moves back in space and the shoulders go with it.
At the moment, I firmly believe that this is one of the critical changes that accounts for whether or not someone is wobbling when they are up in their headstand and a beginner to the posture. I’m assuming for a moment that we’re talking about someone who has developed enough strength in their shoulders to successfully do a headstand. I specify beginner because an advanced practitioner can usually do headstand with either hand position and just has a preference for one or the other.
There are two elements at play between these two types of hand positions. One is the shoulder position I just mentioned. The second element is the head and whether it is up or down. As it turns out, they are intimately connected together.
I’ve already asserted that what we’re really after is a forearm balance with the head lightly touching. As a beginner to a forearm balance would you do it with your head up or down? I’m going to guess that your answer is head up. If you tried to hop up into a forearm balance with your head down in a straight line with the rest of your body I can imagine how easily you would go over your hands and onto you back. Can you imagine a similar thing happening in a handstand? The head looking forward and being up becomes a counter balance. I think there is a similar principle at play in our headstand.
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The anatomical relationship between arm balances
Some time ago I wrote an article titled “So you want to do a handstand”. In this article, I discussed head and shoulder positioning and even connected a part of it (the pelvis) to a headstand. Think about these three postures I’ve mentioned, headstand, forearm balance, and handstand. Can you see a relationship between them that is a progression? If you were going to make a sequence of development, with which pose would it begin? I think it would go headstand, forearm balance, handstand, no?
When you are a beginner to any of these three yoga postures, it’s easier to do the postures by allowing the shoulders to move further forward. As one advances it may be possible to have the shoulders back further. For instance, in handstand an advanced practitioner may be able to align their shoulders with the line of their arms below and body above. However, I’d guess that when they started their shoulders were out in front of their wrist a bit. They evolved or progressed to the more advanced alignment. I believe this process to be true of both forearm balance and headstand as well.
As I said, there are two elements, the shoulder and head position. If the shoulders go forward, so does the head. If the head lifts and goes forward, so do the shoulders. When we place our head behind a closed fist, our shoulders are naturally further back than they would be if our hands were open. With the shoulders further back and the head pointing down, the shoulders are sitting right above the elbows and the body is aligned right above that. I think that, in this case, it is much easier to end up going over your head and crashing down.
The effect of proportions
There is also an anatomical proportion at play here in headstand. It’s simple enough and divides the world into those who can more easily do either one of the two types of hand positions in their headstand. Those with proportionally short upper arms relative to their lower arms will usually have a much easier time doing the type of headstand where the hands sit behind the closed fist. Because the upper arms are shorter it still takes the shoulders forward enough to engage the right tissues in the shoulder complex. If they were to open their hands and put the top of their head in them, their shoulders might actually end up too far forward and throw them off balance in that direction.
The opposite is also true. If you have long upper arms relative to your shorter forearms you will probably have an easier time with an open handed headstand. In this case, if you were to put your head on the floor behind a closed double fist, your shoulders might end up so far back that you begin to teeter on your elbows. In a sense, you become too aligned for the tissues to be able to engage and counteract any tilt forward or backward.
For those of us with more or less equal proportions we can probably do either of the two hand positions. Possibly depending on slight differences in proportions, we will have a preference for one or the other.
Why does having the shoulders forward have so much importance? It really has to do with how it causes our body to respond and react. In the handstanding article, as well as the chaturanga article, I wrote at length about the serratus anterior muscle. Revisit them if you need to. As our body moves forward through the shoulders, the body has to engage those muscles to prevent us from collapsing forward at the shoulder joint. I might compare it to how the body uses the quadriceps in warrior pose to prevent us from falling forward through our front knee. There is a natural pushing back and engagement that happens at both of these places. This push back creates stability and strength. What it really is, is our response to body weight and gravity!
If however, our shoulders aren’t forward, then this pattern isn’t triggered in the same way. You can see this in those that are beginners to headstand when the top of their head is on the floor behind a fist. If they are totally wobbling around, then their shoulders never really engage in a stability kind of way. Even though the idea is that they will not be placing weight on their head, they are completely putting weight on it, and it’s obvious because the elbows are often coming off of the floor. This is a definite indication that something has to change.
There are other effects on other tissues that also get missed. For instance I never let beginners go over to a wall and kick up into headstand. They miss out on using their abdominal muscles. Then when they need them they are not there.
When we say we need arm strength for headstand, what do we mean? Where does the strength come from? What is the foundation that is established to physically allow us to do a headstand as if we were doing a forearm balance with our head lightly touching?
The shoulder complex
The shoulder complex is the source of strength at the foundation. Once we put our hands into the headstand position we are upwardly rotating and protracting our scapula. If you followed along in the handstand article then you know that the strongest muscle for these actions is the serratus anterior. This is exactly why we need to orient our perspective to see how similar headstand, forearm balance, and handstand all are to one another. I discuss this anatomical pattern at length in my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga on p. 317 (1st ed.).
Stabilizing your scapula
When giving the instruction to move the scapulae down the back for a headstand, what we really mean is the anatomical movement of protraction and upward rotation. Because of our position, when we do this, it lightens the load on our head and at the same time draws our shoulders down relative to the line of our body. The feeling of drawing the scapulae down the back is what it feels like, but the anatomical reality is just slightly different.
The way I often express this to students to get them to do what I want, is to ask them to try and lift their heads off the floor without it coming all the way off. Give it a try and you’ll probably see the scapulae move as you want them to. Sometimes words can get in the way and when you’re upside down it’s harder to understand directions to move parts up or down.