Straighten Out Your Headstand


By Roger Cole  |  

Can you complete the following sentence? “A good Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand) is like (a) a banana, (b) a jackknife, (c) a leaning tower, (d) a tall, elegant spire.” The answer is obviously d, but what if the sentence is instead, “My Headstand is like…”? For a lot of people, the answer is “I don’t know.” After all, you can’t see your own body when you’re standing on your head, so unless you have outside help, you have to use internal sensations from your muscles, tendons, and joints in order to line yourself up in the pose. But when you learn where to direct your attention, it is remarkably easy to avoid common mistakes such as arching back too far into the infamous banana shape, bending forward at the hips and creating the jackknife, or tilting your entire body forward or backward, making you the Leaning Tower of Headstand. With just a little practice, you can feel your way into near-perfect Headstand alignment.

When you find your line in Headstand, it’s a beautiful thing. Your bone structure naturally supports you, and the pose feels light, easy, quiet, and rejuvenating. You still use your muscles, but only for the relatively undemanding task of keeping your bones stacked vertically on one another. When you are out of line in Headstand, on the other hand, the pose becomes a tense, wobbly, fatiguing struggle against gravity in which your muscles bear too much of your weight and must grip constantly to prevent collapse. So it’s well worth your while to put in the minimal investment of time and effort it takes to learn good Headstand alignment.

Start at the Mountain

A tried-and-true technique for finding your alignment upside down is to start right side up, in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). If you learn to create a straight vertical line in Tadasana by cuing in to internal sensations rather than relying on external feedback, you can re-create the experience in Headstand. Three alignment techniques in Tadasana are particularly helpful. They are (1) neutralizing your pelvic tilt and lumbar curve, (2) neutralizing the front-to-back placement of your pelvis (meaning, don’t push your hips too far forward or too far back), and (3) aligning your whole body with gravity.

Find a Neutral Curve

To learn the first alignment principle, set up the foundation for Tadasana by standing with your heels one inch apart and the sides of your big toes (or the joints at the base of the toes) touching. Distribute your weight equally between your inner and outer feet. Straighten your knees and point your kneecaps straight ahead.

To place your pelvis in a neutral position, put your fingers on your left and right pelvic rims (the top edge of your pelvis just below the sides of your waist, also known as the iliac crests) and trace forward along both rims as far as you can go. At the front of each rim you’ll find a bony protrusion; that’s the anterior superior iliac spine, or ASIS. Keeping your fingers on each ASIS, bring your attention to the position of your pubic tubercles (the forwardmost points of bone on the midline of your pelvis, about six inches below your navel, often incorrectly referred to as “the pubic bone”).

Tilt your pelvis so your ASISes move forward and your pubic tubercles move back. Note how this lifts your tailbone (coccyx) away from your heels. Continue tilting until you feel the vertebrae of your lower back (lumbar spine) compressing against one another.

Next, gently contract the muscles that connect the base of your buttocks to the back of your thighs (the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles) to move your ASISes backward and your pubic tubercles forward. Feel how this tilts your tailbone toward your heels and decompresses your lower back. Stop tilting precisely at the point where your ASISes and pubic tubercles lie in the same vertical plane; that is, the tubercles should be neither in front of nor behind the two ASIS bones. When you achieve this neutral pelvic tilt, your lower back will have a moderate inward curve and will feel neither compressed nor stretched. This is your neutral lumbar curve.

Trace it with your hand to get a sense of its shape. Now repeat the same pelvis-tilting sequence several times, both with and without the help of your hands, until you get an intuitive, internal, hands-free sense of how to move your pelvis and lumbar spine from the forward-tilted, overarched position back to neutral. This will come in very handy in Headstand.

Place your Pelvis in Space

The next step is to position your pelvis in Tadasana so that, when viewed from the side, your ankle joint, hip joint, and ear all lie on the same line. Bend your right knee and lift your right foot off the floor to create a crease in your hip joint. Press your right fingertips into the middle of the crease, where you will feel your hip flexor muscles contracting strongly. Keeping your fingertips on this spot, return your foot to Tadasana, and find the same spot on the other side with the corresponding fingertips of your other hand.

Now, with both feet on the floor, press your fingers in firmly to indent the flesh, and notice how hard or soft it feels. If your pelvis is in neutral, then the hip flexors will feel springy. Keeping your fingers there, draw your tailbone toward your heels to prevent compression in your lower back, and then deliberately shift your hips forward until your pelvis is directly above your toes. Notice that the flesh hardens under your fingers. That’s because your hip flexor muscles are stretching; it’s a cue that you’re creating a banana shape with your body by backbending at the hip joints (the banana would have a deeper curve if you let your lower back arch more, but don’t do that).

Next, shift your hips backward so your pelvis and trunk tip forward and your front hip creases deepen. Feel the flesh become soft under your fingers as the muscles slacken. You are now in the jackknife shape. Repeat the forward and backward shift of your pelvis, firming your gluteal region each time you move forward, until you find the position where the flesh under your fingers feels springy, exactly halfway between hard and soft. If you have not lost your neutral pelvic tilt, your ankle joint, hip joint, and ear will now all lie on the same straight line.

To apply this to Headstand, you have to learn to do the same thing without using your fingers. Repeat the same exercise in Tadasana, hands free, paying close attention to the sensation of stretch that arises in your hip flexors when you shift your hips forward and the feeling of laxity that develops when you shift them backward. Learn to identify intuitively what your front hip creases feel like when they are exactly halfway between stretched and soft. If you’ve kept your pelvic tilt neutral, you’ve found your straight Tadasana line.

Align your Whole Line

Although your body is now in a straight line, the line may not be perpendicular to the floor. Your whole body might be tilted, just as the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa tilts at an angle to the ground. If you are leaning forward, you will feel more weight on the balls of your feet than on your heels; if you are leaning backward, your heels will feel the excess weight.

However, there’s another, more precise way to gauge whether your Tadasana is tilting. Your nervous system is programmed to know exactly where vertical is. If you lean forward, it will automatically contract your lower-back muscles to prevent you from falling forward; and if you lean back, it will automatically contract your abdominal muscles to prevent you from falling backward. Therefore, to detect when you are precisely vertical, all you need to do is find the position in which both sets of muscles relax.

The main muscles to watch are the lumbar erector spinae group in back and the rectus abdominis in front. To feel them in action, press the fingertips of one hand into your abdomen so they straddle your navel, and the thumb and fingertips of the other hand into the corresponding spots straddling your spine. Maintaining your Tadasana line, lean your whole body forward as a unit, from head to ankles, and you’ll feel the erectors immediately contract, while the abdominals will relax if you let them. Next, tilt far back on your heels without arching your back, and your abdominals will contract, while your erectors soften and relax.

Lean forward and back again and again, more and more subtly, until you reach the place where both your erectors and your abdominals are relaxed at the same time. Assuming that your pelvic tilt, lumbar curve, and hip-crease stretch are all still neutral, the line of your body should now be perfectly vertical.

Repeat the same forward-backward tilting exercise in Tadasana a few more times, feeling when the abdominal and erector muscles are contracted and when they are relaxed. Practice until you can internally sense the place where both are relaxed at the same time.

Turn It Over

Once you’ve mastered these adjustments, it’s easy to translate them to Headstand. The instructions below assume that you already have a strong, well-aligned foundation in Headstand and can balance easily without support. Nevertheless, do the pose with your back about one foot away from a wall so you can experiment with shifting your weight backward without fear of falling.

Come into Headstand with your elbows shoulder-width apart. Once you are up, press the little-finger side of your hands, wrists, and forearms straight down into the floor so they support part of your body weight. Place your head so the remainder of your body weight falls on, or a little in front of, the crown (the highest spot on the top of your head when you are standing, in line with the openings of your ears). Lift your shoulder blades toward the ceiling and press them firmly forward into your back. Straighten your knees completely. Bring your heels one inch apart and touch the sides of your big toes together. Press the inner edges of your feet upward.

Taking special care not to disturb your foot position, neutralize your pelvic tilt and lumbar curve by contracting your gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles and moving your tailbone toward your heels. Now, contracting even harder to prevent compressing your lower back, deliberately create a banana-shaped pose by shifting your hips horizontally forward (so they are now directly above your elbows) and shifting your feet backward a similar amount to keep your balance. Feel the strong stretch that this creates on your front hip creases.

Next, change to a jackknife position by slowly shifting your hips backward and your feet forward, over your elbows. Sense the softness of your front hip creases. From the jackknife, contract your gluteals again and slowly move your hips forward and feet backward until your front hip creases just begin to feel overstretched. Finally, make sure that your tailbone is drawing toward your heels so that your lumbar curve is still neutral, then move your hips slightly back and your feet slightly forward until your front hip creases come to neutral, neither too stretched nor too soft.

Your body will now be in a straight line from ankles to hips to ears. Without disturbing that line, deliberately tilt the entire length of your body forward, as a unit, until you feel excess weight on your elbows and sense the erector muscles alongside your lumbar spine contracting. Then, still keeping the line, tilt backward bit by bit, trying at each moment to relax the lower-back muscles. The instant you are able to release them, stop. Check to be sure that you have not tilted so far back that your abdominal muscles contract.

Fine-tune your pose until your abdominals and erectors are both soft, while your low back and front hip creases are both neutral and, voilĂ ! You will be in a perfectly vertical Headstand, exquisitely balanced and reaching straight for the heavens, like a tall, elegant spire. And the real beauty of this is that, now, you know how to find your way back to this place anytime you wish.

Play it Safe

Headstand can do wonders for your circulation and your state of mind, but it is usually contraindicated if you have high or low blood pressure, glaucoma, neck problems, or are menstruating. Check with your health care provider.

Roger Cole, PhD, is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and sleep research scientist in Del Mar, California. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.