Look, Mom! I'm on my head!

I vividly remember my first month of practicing yoga. One of the classes was themed and had a gradual buildup into headstand and tripod headstand. As a newbie, I was not only completely in awe of the teacher and the handful of students who looked effortless being topsy turvy, I was also absolutely certain it was impossible for me.

Inversions can look very intimidating to a beginner, as the me from 3 years ago can attest to. But in actuality, it really isn’t that hard to achieve, if only you knew the actual mechanics of getting into the pose, and get over the fear of being upside down. When I floated up to my first headstand, it was a culmination of weeks of practice, and becoming aware of what muscles I need to engage in order to maintain stability.

So let’s cut to the chase. Let’s assume you’ve already conquered the fear of the unknown. The secret to getting into a headstand? Don’t hold your breath – it’s your core. That is, engage it, and awaken it. If it sleeps, good luck holding that inversion!

When this was first pointed out to me, I was flabbergasted. My abs was the last thing I thought about whenever I tried in vain to get that bum up overhead. But it makes total sense!
To maintain stability while in any inversion, balance have to originate from the pelvis. Take a handstand for example, wobbling movements at our hips and lower trunk will destabilize us as we try to remain grounded with our shoulder and arms. Our upper extremities are not made to bear as much weight as our pelvis and legs are, so as we’re trying to strengthen them, any instability from a relaxed core will magnify itself, making it a much bigger undertaking to hold the pose. This is why men, even the relatively newbie students in class, can still try brute-forcing their way into inversions because they generally have much more developed upper body strength. If you’re still in the process of building up your shoulder girdle and arm muscles for weight bearing, do yourself a favor and call upon the aid of your core.

Once you’re topsy turvy (try this against the wall if you’re still learning), what’s the first telltale sign of a relaxed core? If you look like a banana standing on its head, chances are you’re abusing your lumbar spine by over-arching it. Engage the psoas and pectineus muscles at the front of the pelvis to bring the thighs back to a neutral position. Firm the abdomen by gently contracting the rectus abdominis. This counters overarching in the region of the lumbar spine. While you’re here, activate your gluteus maximus to counterbalance the front body’s contraction. The ideal alignment of being in a head stand is to achieve a “stacking of bones” from feet to the top of your head in a relatively straight line.

Now your legs: they can’t be taking a walk in the park either. Relaxed lower extremities will most likely tip you over. So keep those legs and glutes engaged, ensuring that your legs are not externally rotating outwards, with knees and toes pointing away from midline. Engage the tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius to bring the thighs back to neutral and have knees and toes ideally pointing straight ahead. If you’re still learning to hold in a headstand, to illustrate just how much muscular energy you will require in your legs, I would ask you to squeeze a block between your inner thighs while upside down, ensuring it doesn’t fall right on your chin. You will quickly find that doing this exercise will somehow naturally being the rotation of the thigh to a more neutral alignment – neither too externally nor internally rotated – and also keep your bum engaged.

Once you’re more confident being in a headstand, you will work towards being able to relax your lower extremities more and more, in order to hold the pose for a few minutes – generally 3 to 5 mins, and not more than 10 mins. You will find that your heart rate will slow down, your breathing becomes regulated, and calmness will enfold you – literally zen-ing out while topsy turvy – yes, you LOOK cool and you actually FEEL really cool, too!

Even though we all invariably want to achieve the more photo-worthy poses from time to time, Yoga shouldn’t be just about chasing asanas. Here are some of the physiological and mental benefits of inversions, so think about these as motivation for practicing the poses, so your pursuit isn’t just skin deep:

-Headstand increases the volume of venous blood returning to the heart, which can temporarily improve cardiac output, and in the process strengthen the heart.

-Baroreceptors in the aorta and carotid arteries are stimulated, resulting in increased parasympathetic outflow from the central nervous system. This can, in turn, temporarily lower heart rate. Which in turn lowers one’s blood pressure.

-It takes us into a more parasympathetic nervous state, which relaxes and calms us. People suffering from loss of sleep, memory and vitality have recovered by the regular practice of this asana.

-Headstand strengthens the spine, neck, shoulders and arms. The muscular system of the abdomen (thanks to an engaged core!) and legs are toned.

-By reversing the pull of gravity on the organs, especially the intestines, it helps to cleanse them and overcome problems of the liver, kidneys, stomach, intestines and reproductive system.

-When done properly, headstand helps the spine become properly aligned, improving posture, facilitating good breathing and reducing muscular stress.

With all these listed benefits, it is little wonder why the headstand, or Sirsasana in sanskrit, is also known as the “King of Asanas”. Practice this regularly with the Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) and the Plow pose (Halasana) to reap the full suite of benefits for body and mind.

Contraindications:
As with many asanas, there are precautions you should heed. Avoid the practice of inversions if you are:

-suffering from high blood pressure

-experiencing any pain in or suffering from any back or neck injury

-menstruating

-pregnant

Otherwise, I’m sure you will enjoy being on your head as much as I do. It is still highly recommended that you consult your instructor before the practice of any asanas.

Namaste!

Peishan Cheng
200 Hrs Yoga TTC (March 2014)

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