Headstand Injuries

Yes, You Can Get Injured Doing A Headstand

David Keil Arm Balances, Yoga Injuries, Yoga Postures 47 Comments

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.

Hand positions

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.

Learn a system for working with injuries

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?

In practice

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?

Shoulder position

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.

Head position

headstand sirsasna

Notice where the shoulders are relative to the elbows

closed hands headstand sirsasana

Notice how the ribs have also popped out

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.

Signup for our newsletter!

Get the latest articles in your inbox each month.

"*" indicates required fields

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.

Shoulders forward

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.

Anatomical components

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.


There is always more to say about headstand but I wanted to put this part of it out there because we can miss out on seeing the individual for who they are so easily as we teach. Neither hand position is right or wrong and we should stop thinking that things are so black and white. They’re not. In both of the images above I have the same amount of weight in my head, almost none! Steady as we go in headstand. Establish the appropriate foundation for beginners of headstands. Complete beginners of yoga have no business doing this yoga posture anyway! They’ll also end up as a New York Times statistic!



Comments 47

    1. I have found that open hands works better for me (and probably most people like me who have long upper arm bones in relation to their neck). Doing the pose closed fist actually compresses the neck and jams the shoulders if my head touches the floor. Even open handed my head will come off the floor if I get the desired lift out of the shoulders, so a little support, like a folded blanket, under the head also helps to free up the shoulders and fully lengthen the C-spine and at the same time still have some weight on the head and a sense of grounding through the crown.

  1. just finish to read it for the first time. as a begginer i was tauhght to do it with the fist closed. it was not easy at all, it felt shakey. then another teacher open my palms and i found relaxation in the pose. when i did the teacher trainig my head was on my hands not touching the floor. it took me a month for taking a few breathes. now almost a year after i can see that when your head no touching the floor you have to be with your abdoumen and tihghs (on more sutle level whith your banadas and your breath). its good to do them all.

    a lot of information and good tips for observation, thank you


  2. The Provocation of Headstand : Therapeutic or Injurious ?

    Thank you David for your insights into sirsana. I would like to weigh in as well, especially since the recent New York Times excerpt of William Broad’s new book, The Science of Yoga : The Risks and The Rewards.

    I believe that headstand is a pose that is fraught with danger to someone with a vulnerable neck. I mean that someone, through fault of their own, have developed a sensitivity, that is, a vulnerability towards mid cervical vertebrae facet joint compression. One who continues to position themselves in forward head with thoracic and C7 kyphosis have to compensate with mid cervical hyperextension to look out into our very visual world. This abnormal, excessive, repeated compressive mechanical stress combined with scapular instability, levator scapula and scaleni hypertension seem to describe the majority of people in our culture.

    I agree that sirsana is not a beginner’s pose. But I disagree that intermediate students should not stand on your head, literally. I believe we should most definitely ground our head through the floor to create a lengthening, a lifting into lightness, to avoid the collapse into vulnerable mid cervical facet joints.

    I teach sirsansa by guiding students to ground from a slightly backbending thoracic and cervical spine through the front of the top of the head, continuing the image, the intention in the same curve of the spine through the floor. The common tendency to collapse into a banana like shape can be minimized by drawing the front lower ribs and navel into the body by grounding through elbows. Once the weight shifts towards the wrists and head, I suggest to first be sure shoulder blades are actively supporting the thoracic arch as they lift away from the floor by grounding through the wrists. I suggest not to lighten or lift the head off the floor by interpreting the pose as the much more demanding forearm stand like pose. Rather I ground through the front of the crown through the head as the tailbone engages into the body as I lift up through predominately inner spiraling legs. If one needs to adjust out of the common “banana” collapse, or to move into and out of the pose, or to do the variations, grounding elbows and wrists help sure up the foundation, protecting the neck from undo compressive torques and shears that are possible when one moves away from their “sweet spot”. This is the relatively vertical alignment where the actions of grounding through the head, centering by drawing the lower ribs/ belly and the tailbone from the other side into the midline, and lifting up through the vertical lengthening legs are possible. As well,these are the main actions of sirasana 2,3, and 4.

    I prepare people for headstand with the core poses of my beginner level classes; namely, chest openers over a round bolster, bridge pose, a fish pose variation, down dog, half handstand, and the standing poses. These are the same poses I teach students with diagnoses as whiplash, cervical spondylosis, post surgical cervical vertebrae replacements, cervical fusions, rotator cuff syndrome, and frozen shoulder. Depending on the acuteness of their symptoms, and the mindfulness and skillfulness of these foundational poses, some do well healing their necks with headstand. I agree with you and William Broad that some others have no business standing on their heads.

    The provocative nature of sirsana can either “kill you or cure you”. I believe that with a proper foundation, a stand on your head, as the name suggests, can be taken literally.

    1. Stan,

      Very nice of you to weigh in as well. I tried to leave as much space in the post as possible for people such as yourself to add your ideas and comments.

      What I’m really getting at is that different foundations might be more appropriate for individuals. I really appreciate the fact that you talk about establishing the foundations of core with your students so that they can actually do a posture such as this.

      As far as putting weight into the head is concerned… at the end of my second series practice I do a sequence of 7 headstands that require me to have pretty much all of my weight on my head. Shhh!!!! They’ll string us up if we talk too much about having weight in our head. I’ve never so much as tweaked my neck doing this. Because I’m familiar and prepared with tissues that can accommodate this. Just as you prep your students.

      Really, anything is possible with the right preparation and work.

      In addition, someone with a number of possible injuries to the head and neck, or even glaucoma would be contraindicated for even attempting as the risks outweigh the reward.

      Thank you for adding value to the post!


  3. I have found that open hands works better for me (and probably most people like me who have long upper arm bones in relation to their neck). Doing the pose closed fist actually compresses the neck and jams the shoulders if my head touches the floor. Even open handed my head will come off the floor if I get the desired lift out of the shoulders, so a little support, like a folded blanket, under the head also helps to free up the shoulders and fully lengthen the C-spine and at the same time still have some weight on the head and a sense of grounding through the crown.

  4. I became a student of Stan Andrzejewski’s about three years ago. I have several long term vulnerabilities, including shoulder and neck issues, from a serious car accident many years ago. I began to do headstands about two years into my practice. The foundational poses Stan describes in his comments are critical for me. In layperson language, they “set” my neck and shoulders for headstand. I move out of the posture as soon as I feel my alignment shifting. I went through years of physical therapy, but the headstand is the best therapy for my vulnerabilities. Ah, the bearable lightness of being!

  5. I’ve been practising Ashtanga yoga for about a year now. I have very tight hips and incredibly tight shoulder muscles but my body has really changed in that time – my hips are opening and I can just about get into half Lotus and I can now do a full backbend which is amazing. Obviously it’s not just about the physical side, however I would love to be able to end with a head stand but my forearms always raise. I will attempt to digest and use this article to help me. My yoga teacher, Mo Still, recommended this site and this article.

  6. Pingback: Your Shoulders in Downward Facing Dog | Yoganatomy

  7. Hi David and Stan,
    thank to both of you for a really useful information and tips on the headstand, correct alignment and preparation.
    Although i agree with you that that should be very little weight on the head and that’s the way i always try to practice it. I was recently reading Light on yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar who says it quite different. I quote: “The whole weight of the body should be borne on the head aline and not on the forearms and hands. The forearms and hands are to be used only for support to check any loss of balance. In a good pose you feel a circle, about a size of an Indian rupee, of the head in contact with the blanket on the floor.” i found it a bit contraversal, unless it’s the advanced practice, as David mentioned when you have developed the tissues to be able to really support the weight into your head, as it’s in the 2nd series headstands sequence.
    with regards and gratitude

  8. This is a very helpful analysis of the headstand pose using different hand positions and points where the head contacts the floor. I am starting to learn the pose and was concerned about the varying instructions from different teachers. Now I better understand the mechanics and can determine the best approach for me. Thank you for bringing some clarity to this pose.

  9. I’ve been practicing 5 days a week for a year and a half and still struggle with this pose. It is mostly due to not being careful–at my studio it is taught quite nonchalantly, so I pushed up into it after 6 months of practicing and injured my neck and backed off…I spent a lot of time studying the right form…then today, I tried it and really screwed up my neck. I am angry at myself. I have really tried to follow directions, but I have to say I need an experienced teacher to work with me. I am not even sure if I should practice it again–perhaps I should work on handstand practice.
    I have no problem not doing the pose, but I am approaching a teacher training program and I am worried I will be expected to practice it.
    Overall, this pose is dangerous for me personally. I cannot judge other people’s practice, but generally I think it is taught in too relaxed a manner at most studios.

    1. Post

      It definitely sounds like you need to find the right teacher. Sorry that you’ve injured yourself twice now and it is very possible that you are not ready at the moment to be doing it. I would suggest that you just work with dolphin and build up the right muscles and tissues to support the headstand at its base. You will also need some core stability to then stabilize your pelvis over the foundation of your arms when you are ready to go up… whenever that is for you.

  10. Yes, David, great suggestion with dolphin–this is what I have been practicing! I do have a pretty strong foundation–I practice a lot of plank, have great chataranga form, do a variety of arm balances.
    It really is a psychological matter haha–it is as if I think I *should* be ready, based on how I feel as far as strength, and as sad as it sounds, by the fact that it seems EVERYONE around me in class is doing it!! Even people who have less core and shoulder strength! So logically, I beat myself us for not doing it or being ready.
    Does that make sense? This all sounds nuts 🙂
    I do find that Dolphin is pretty difficult, compared to any other similar poses, so that means I should keep working on it…it’s funny how, with the discomfort, I will kick up into forearm plank, without having a solid dolphin.
    OK, I am really sounding crazy now 🙂
    Hence the concept that yoga is a mind/body practice–I can really see my overall perspective on life popping up in my approach to my practice! A lack of self acceptance and self love…

    1. Post

      From everything I’m reading, I’m guessing that it all has to do with technique. Perhaps you need to question the method your using to set up your hands, forearms, and your head relative to them. Without seeing you… I’d guess, head is too tucked (for you), and shoulders not far enough forward. Either way, sounds like you have a good attitude about it and I’m sure you’ll figure it out… or not.
      Best of Luck,
      ps let us know when you do it.

      1. Dear David,
        I don’t have problems with headstand myself (I also use the open hand fingers interlaced version). When I was first taught this pose, my teacher’s instruction (after correct placement of elbows, wrists and head on the mat) was to press the armpits strongly towards the wall of the room that I was looking at, while pressing the tips of the elbows firmly into the floor. This instruction has the advantage of being easily comprehensible when you’re standing on your head (no difficulty with the meaning of up and down), but it doesn’t seem to be in vogue these days, any idea why not?
        I have also noticed that many newcomers to headstand seem to assume that after positioning the elbows so that they are shoulder width, the elbows and hands should then form a triangle. I think this positioning, in a student whose shoulder alignment looks apparently OK, can often be the cause of instability or discomfort in the neck from excessive pressure. It certainly makes headstand more difficult! In my own practice, I find that moving the wrists apart so that the forearms and cupped hands form a gently diverging arch rather than a triangle provides the most stable foundation, but again this instruction is not given – any idea why not?
        I ask because I’m doing teacher training soon 🙂

        1. Post

          I like the language you use and obviously agree. Unfortunately, I can’t answer for other yoga teachers and why they say what they say. Sometimes its as simple as them repeating what they learned, sometimes it’s just to do with a different experience of the posture. That’s why I try to stay open to more than one way of doing something being correct. Thanks for chiming in.

      2. Hi David, I have now been practicing headstand for months with ease and little weight on the head. I love it!!! I had to build the shoulders over time–I really appreciate your wisdom along the way.
        I do have one question about wall and core strength–I don’t ‘kick up’ with momentum but just use a tiny hop and the wall is totally my security blanket…sometimes I don’t touch it at all or just for a tiny second, yet I know I am missing out.
        I have diligently studied and tried all of the lifting up variations and I train my abdominals but I feel like the key issue is my tight hamstrings don’t allow me to tip toe in close enough to stack hips over pelvis, which I believe is the key…
        I now know I can’t miss out on my shirshasana–do you have any suggestions on lifting legs up using belly, when hammies are tight? I will keep working on opening the hams 🙂

        1. Post

          Hi Natalie,

          If you have tight hamstrings and try to go up with straight legs, possibly even bent legs, their tendency will be to restrict movement of the pelvis. As you mention this is what you are looking for to stack the pelvis over the spine.

          If you haven’t been bending your knees, bend them more and see if you can rotate your pelvis more easily. A little hop won’t kill you or preclude you from enlightenment!

  11. Pingback: Handstand « Ashtangapedia

  12. Pingback: Shirshasana « Ashtangapedia

  13. Hello! I am an intermediate Iyengar student and have been practicing headstand for several years. I have not had the typical neck or shoulder concerns mentioned here (I practice with the intertwined fingers method). What I have noticed is a bump of a ridge forming on the crown of my head that flattens out during headstand but then pops back up after and remains so. It appears to be getting slightly more pronounced (I do not recall if it was there before my active practice, but believe it was not). Any advisement here would be helpful. My teacher has not seen this and is asking her senior teacher for advisement as well.

    1. Post

      Hi Kirsten,
      I’m always a bit cautious making suggestions and guesses at what’s going on from such a distance without ever seeing someone. I have never heard of or seen what you’re describing. If the ridge is hard feeling then it is probably boney. The first question would be is in which direction is it going. If it’s going across your head in the direction of one ear to the other, it’s possible that it’s the coronal suture and possibly bone shifting? I’m not sure you would have to and would want to see an expert on this. The frontal bone, if I’m not mistaken actually starts as two bones and usually fuses completely around 8 years of age, its possible that yours didn’t and has mobility. I’ve never heard of that, just trying to make educated guesses for you.
      My suggestion would be to go to a craniosacral therapist who is usually well versed in the anatomy of the sutures and bones of the skull. If they’re at a loss just go to your doctor and ask them.
      Proceed with caution,

  14. I have read this article many times but only now feel inclined to comment after starting again my headstand practice. I suffered disci herniation of c5-c6 in january 2012 which I think was aggravated by my overzealous zeal in headstanding and shoulderstand. Since that, I have completely backed out of headstand and focused on strengthening my shoulders through dolphin, pincha against the wall, handstand against the wall, other shoulder focused poses. Only a year after that I find the mental courage to slowly lift into an unsupported (without blocks or wall) headstand. What I immediately noticed was the lack of weight on the top of my head as compared to when I did it previously. I also could feel my shoulders engaging, lifting away form the neck which was not present in my earlier headstand. Also, this time around I put my hands in a loose fist, with my head against the wrist, instead of cradling my head into the hands. I do not know if this is good, since I only practice doing this for 5 breaths just to strengthen my core. Nevertheless, I find your article helpful in detemrining my own physical capabilities in attempting this pose. Thanks!

  15. Pingback: The Basics of Headstands | Treats and Tantra

  16. Hi, I wonder if you can make a suggestion as to why when I come out of headstand and rest in child’s pose I feel a pain in my chest as though my ribcage is throbbing and wants to burst. My ribcage feels horribly compressed. If I stand up I don’t feel the pain. It is only when I rest my chest on my knees or I do the open knees pose, same thing?? I am a healthy, active person who is a personal trainer and I wonder if it is because my upper body is not strong. I am trying to avoid putting any pressure on my head and rather taking all the load in my arms. Perhaps it is rhomboids and traps??? The pain radiates from the back of the ribcage to the front of the chest. Any suggestions???
    Nicolette Lodge

    1. Hey Nicolette! I am glad you mention this because I have the exact same thing happen to me as well and I can’t find any one else mentioning it when I have searched this problem other places. It is really an intense feeling and for me too, it only happens in child’s pose after my headstands.

  17. Today I was advised by my chiro to leave off headstand forever !!! It breaks my heart, I’ve been doing them for 20 years, and I always thought correctly ( ie- as above with interlaced hands, and not much weight on the head, perhaps 30-40% )
    I have had dizziness and stabbing pain, and the chiro found some upper disc degeneration ( ie, calcification/ arthritis ) and some straightening of the natural curve of neck vertebrae ( seen a lot in Ashtanga practitioners, apparently )
    I’m willing to give headstand a break, and am working on forearm balance instead ( albeit for a far shorter time than my meditative head stand ) but I was wondering if you have come across this kind of damage before and have any tips?
    It’s obvious I have been doing something wrong for a long time, and it is finally showing it’s effects. Or perhaps it is all the damn punk rock head banging I did in my youth 😉

    1. Post

      Hi Heidi,

      There seem to be a lot of assessment questions I would have regarding your comment. One is, the assumption that the stabbing pain is from disc degneration, calcification and arthritis. Was all of this gleaned from an X-ray? Straightening of the natural curve is common in Ashtanga practitioners? Has somebody collected some data on this?

      Assuming that all of this is correct, then yes, I would suggest that you do take a break.

      I would also suggest that you see someone who can check and test the musculature to rule out that there isn’t a strong muscular component to the pain that you’re describing. See what you find.


    2. The flattening of the cervical curve is a huge issue for longtime practitioners as all of the forward bending over stretches the ligaments in the spinal column which create the shock absorbing curves. Follow your chiropractors advice and stop headstand. Also avoid plow and shoulder stand as these poses put a huge compressive strain on the cervical spine.
      Also the spine is a kinetic chain and when one flattens the neck spine or compresses it during headstand, the entire spine is affected. 20 years of headstand definitely did some damage..
      Its a passive position and even with the best alignment, the spine is compressed; just in an upside down position. See http://www.yogalinjuires.com and please take the survey

  18. Thanks David. I think blaming Ashtanga is a prejudice on the part of the chiro, myself! More of a football payer type dude. However seeing him has taken the dizziness and pain away (so I forgive him his prejudices ) Which points to muscles in my mind at least, he certainly spends good time getting into the neck muscles before the inevitable cracking!
    I’ll lay off headstands for a while, and may look into purchasing a head stander stool ( head hangs free, support on the shoulders ) unless you think they are not appropriate tools. (?)
    I purchased both your DVDs last night, look fwd to watching them.
    Thanks for your interesting and relevant articles, a great service for the yogis across the planet.

    1. Post

      I didn’t see it as a blaming of ashtanga… although that isn’t uncommon. It’s more like… because the pose is called headstand, the assumption is that there is a lot of weight on your head and that this IS the cause of your neck problems. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. You said that you don’t place a lot of weight on your head. Does a chiro adjustment undo, all the conditions that you have, or is it reseting the tension in the muscles that have a relationship with the bones being adjusted? Good questions…

      enjoy the DVDs,

  19. I wonder if you can weigh in on the head position-as to what part of the head should be making contact with on the floor.-in the one-fisted variation. I am very comfortable in head stand-it is a strong part of my practice and I often like to use a small beanbag-headstander that my teacher introduced to me-it give a lift and allows more space to reduce neck compression. I new teacher that I am taking with was very concerned about my head position and it got me to think about alignment and where the head should rest on the floor….what are your thoughts? Thank you!

  20. David, I find that the question is rarely asked: why do this or that posture?

    I started practicing yoga from The Shivananda Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, 20 years ago. Then I started taking classes, and got on the Ashtanga wave, riding that enthusiastically for years. I got alot out of that practice (mostly 1st series), but eventually I just found I could not “look after” that many postures! And did not feel I needed them all. I needed to go back to square one, in a sense, and build my own practice based current needs.

    I don’t practice headstand routinely, but it appeals to me, so recently I have wanted to learn more about it, to get informed about details and hazards I may not have been aware of in my earlier “dive in” approach to yoga. I wanted to get beyond “If it feels good, do it!” to something with more substance as far as physiological effects and benefits. And in opening up this line of questioning, I also asked myself: Do I need to do headstand? Why? What for? What does it do, as an inversion, that handstand can’t?

    Googling around, I have not found much in the way of answers to this question, so I have had to speculate, extrapolating from what I know generally. I have speculated that one of the physiological benefits may actually be due to bearing weight through the neck: the temporary compression of the spinal discs in the neck, a compression that perhaps helps to to optimize circulation (nourishment of the tissue) and lymph drainage (maintaining the health of the tissue). This compression/release dynamic is commonly seen in yoga’s pose/counterpose sequencing. Or in a posture like eagle, where, I was told by one Indian teacher, we are locking off lymph channels as we twist and bind–building up pressure, then releasing–the force we have created helping to move lymph more effectively.

    In my teaching (I trained as a Hatha instructor) I have tended to work with people who are looking for more gentle self-care type yoga, not the vigor of something like Ahstanga. I have never had occasion to instruct headstand, and I don’t really know why I would. If someone were to ask me to teach them headstand I would say, first: Why? Why do you need to stand on your head?

    We may have heard that the yogis of old considered headstand to be a kind of fountain of youth, but…what might be a more contemporary rationale–what might be the known physiological benefits?

    Cheers, Doug Moore

  21. Tripod will allow you to do more with your headstand by far. Form a triangle. When you get good you can move the headstand around with weight on your hands and have fun with it. Not much you can do with your interlocked hands in front of your head. It’s sooooooo boring. All you’re doing is one pose straight up and down. Nothing fancy. Do a tripod headstand and you can have some real fun. Do leg scissors, do leg crunches, do leg extensions, do a dragonfly, get my point? Tripod will strengthen your back and alleviate future back pain.

  22. David, what does someone’s yoga future look like after a neck injury? If headstands are out, that’s OK. But are there other poses that should be avoided? And how can one use yoga to facilitate the healing process? What should one refrain from doing while healing?

    I’ve got a neck problem that started with a headstand. Three years ago I was practicing from Iyengar’s book at home and tried to do a headstand by myself for the first time. Something wasn’t right, but I finished my practice. The next day my neck had painfully locked into place. The chiropractor said it was probably nothing, and after two weeks weeks I was back to normal. Two years later, though, I again felt a strangeness in my neck, this time while lifting heavy weights. I woke up the next day with my head locked in place.

    This time it didn’t get better. My X-ray showed the chiropractor that I had bulging discs in my cervical spine in the C4-C5 and C5-C6 segments.

    After the recent injury, which was eight months ago, I didn’t go to the chiropractor for a few months because I thought my neck would heal on its own. I kept doing yoga, played basketball and even tried lifting weights again, though I stopped lifting because there was still some nerve irritation, and I thought I should wait to heal completely. After a few months, though, it worsened a bit, so I visited the chiropractor. He had me take decompression therapy three and then two times a week for two months as well as come in for regular adjustments. For a while I stopped doing yoga and heavy exercise in general, which is unusual for me. Eventually I picked up yoga again in small doses. If felt like it was getting better but lately I had a relapse.

    I just wonder if the poses I’m doing are aggravating the injury or if I’m not doing poses that could be helping the injury. I wonder if you’ve seen cases like mine before. Thanks for any guidance you can give me.

    1. Phil, If you had a relapse when you started the practice again, you should not ignore the pain signals from you body. David has given excellent instructions on how to do the headstand and make sure you are not putting too much weight on your head of getting the rib cage out of alignment.
      However i think that given the neck injuries you have, forget about headstand, shoulder stand and plow for that matter. As a teacher for many decades, it is just too risky and the cervical spine is not made to hold more than about 15 pounds.. Also avoid the plow and shoulder stand. Both of these poses flatten the cervical spine with body weight on top of it can definitely cause disc bulging; anterior vertebral compression and even herniation.
      In headstand, how do you think this will benefit you? A yoga myth is that you will have more blood in your brain. but there is a blood brain barrier that prevents excess blood flow. This prevents blood vessels from exploding which is what would happen in a headstand if this barrier did not exist.
      There have been cases of bone growth in the cervical spine as a direct result of headstand that has covered up nerve outlets as the body tries to thicken the cervical to match the density of the lumbar spine which is made to hold the weight of the torso .
      It wont make you smarter either so be smart and skip this extremely risky asana.
      The risks FAR outweigh the benefits if there are any.. This is more of a circus trick.
      Handstands or forearms stands or cartwheels are fine but I will not let ANY of my YogAlign students or teachers do headstand ever..
      The one student I had years ago who insisted she was fine eventually developed a lot of pain in her shoulder and arm and finally got an MRI.. The Doc said have you been doing headstands? He said I have seen this before and you have damage to your cervical spine and bone spurs.
      to see more about the myths of inversions see this link

  23. Hi David,

    I have been trying to take my yoga to another level and wanted to try handstands. I do mine from Dolphin and lift up into it. I was practicing for about an hour everyday. While in practice I noticed my back begin to hurt. It’s not constant. Sometimes if I turn or move a certain way I can feel it. I have a deep arch in my back and was wondering if you think that trying to straighten my back for the pose may have bothered it. Can you give some insight? Have you seen/heard of this before? and if there is a fix can you please share? I really am into yoga and the lifestyle that it provides and don’t want to have to be limited to just a class at the gym. I want to expand and explore. Thank you for your help!!!

    1. Post


      Sorry but you haven’t provided nearly enough details about what you’re doing. Either way, I avoid giving too much specific advise to people without seeing them move and do what they are describing. In general, working on handstands for an hour a day from Dolphin? Yeah, that might make you sore!

  24. You need to be building up shoulder strength so your hands are doing most of the work and keeping your head slightly on the mat. Start doing handstands. whatever it takes to take compression on your head. Putting all your weight on your head is cheating. get your shoulders involved.

  25. And why do people insist on doing the hands intertwined at front of head so called headstand??? Much more control and proper when you form a tripod with your hands and head forming the tripod. You can do tricks with the tripod headstand. Much more fun to do. THE TRUE TRIPOD HEADSTAND. Hands separated less than 2 feet with your head at the top of the tripod. Your hands and shoulders should be lifting weight off your head. People STOP doing the hands intertwined headstand. It’s murder to your spine and does nothing for you period! It’s just a vanity ego pose done by uneducated yoga instructors not knowing what harm it is doing to your body.

  26. Alex, I am confused by your post…I never practice tripod because of the pressure it puts on the neck and potentially spine…hands interlaced allows forearms to take on pressure, rather than neck…as far as ‘fun’ I take a headstand for the meditative qualities, not fancy things I can do.

  27. Hi David,

    My wife and I started practicing Iyangar yoga about 1 year ago and we love the benefits. I’m, 53, about 6’ with long upper arms – and weigh approx. 195. I’ve spent many years in the gym, biking, etc. and although I’m (by no means) a body builder do consider myself to have broad shoulders. I’ve found that some of the poses – particularly the supported headstand to be fairly challenging with the closed fist and the wrists complete vertical (ie. a small pocked open behind the head) and pressing firmly on the floor. I have a reasonably strong core and have no problems getting into and out of a headstand slowly but with the traditional method of a more closed fist – upright and triangular with the forearms – I have a difficult time holding the pose for more than a minute or two. I couldn’t understand how others in the class with less muscular physics were able to hold their poses for 5 minutes or more. While in the pose, I can certainly lift my head and keep my shoulders forward but I just can’t get comfortable and end up leaving the pose with a feeling like I had too much pressure on my head.

    Frustrated, I started searching the internet for examples of others in this pose and noticed a few where the hands were more open and supporting the back base of the head. Until reading your article I found no clear indication between these differences and the topic seemed obscure. I thought I would give it a shot and to my dismay, I had no problem holding a pose for 5 minutes and felt so much more comfortable in the pose. I was still able to easily lift my head for small adjustments but also felt more at ease while maintaining more supporting weight in my shoulders.

    My primary instructor urges me to stick with the traditional form and this is something I’ll have to come to terms with through my own practice. However, I’m glad I found your article about this as it clearly explains something that (until now), no one has been willing to take the time to explain to me.

Leave a Reply