Intuitive Alignment: Sirsasana


By Roger Cole  |  

Figure 1
Sirsasana Alignment


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Kadaliiasana (The Banana Pose). Vyaavritta Churikaasana (The Jackknife Pose). Vakraattasana (The Leaning Tower Pose). These are three variations of Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) you’ve undoubtedly seen your students

perform, but wish they wouldn’t. Despite all your instructions, adjustments, and props, many students just don’t seem to

“get it” when you try to teach them how to line up their bodies straight and vertical in the pose. In last month’s column we explored

ways you can help students align their hips in Tadasana by

encouraging them to cue into internal sensations rather than relying on external props or adjustments. This month, we’ll

explore how to help them intuitively align their legs, hips, and trunk in Sirsasana without outside assistance, focusing

on front-to-back alignment.

The instructions below assume that your student already has a strong, well-aligned foundation in Salamba Sirsasana I. She

should be able to:

  • Balance without support
  • Place her head so weight falls on, or a little in front of, the crown of her head
  • Press the little-finger side of her forearms (her ulna bones), her outer wrists, and her hands straight down into the

    floor so they support part of her body weight

  • Keep her elbows shoulder width apart
  • Lift her shoulder blades (scapulae) toward the ceiling while pressing them firmly against her back.
  • With her head, shoulders, and arms in place, you can teach her the three elements of front-to-back alignment in

    Sirsasana:

  • Neutralize pelvic tilt
  • Neutralize flexion/extension of the hip joints
  • Align trunk, hips and legs with gravity
  • Neutralize pelvic tilt: Your student can neutralize her pelvic tilt in Sirsasana the same way she does in Tadasana

    (Mountain Pose). Last month’s column, Intuitive

    Alignment: Tadasana Hips describes in detail how to teach her to do this. In short, she can learn to feel where her

    front hip bones (anterior superior iliac spines, or ASISs) and pubic plate (pubic symphysis) are, and place them on the

    same vertical plane (for an anatomical illustration, click here). You’ll need to teach her to do

    this in Tadasana before she tries it in Sirsasana, because part of the learning process requires her to place her fingers

    on her hip bones, then on her lower back, and she can’t do this while standing on her head.

    Here’s how to proceed. First, follow the instructions in the Tadasana Hips column to help your student neutralize her

    pelvic tilt. While still in Tadasana, have her run her hand up and down her lower back (lumbar spine) to sense the shape

    of her normal lumbar curve. Then, with her hand still in place at mid-lumbar, have her deliberately tilt her pelvis

    forward (top rim forward, pubic area back) and backward (vice-versa), so she puts first too much, then too little arch in

    her lower back, and finally returns to neutral. Next, have her do the same thing without her hand on her back so she gets

    an intuitive, internal sense of what her back feels like when she has too much, too little, and just the right amount of

    lumbar curve.

    Now have your student practice Headstand, and instruct her to try to find the same neutral pelvis and normal curve. Here

    is an important point: Tell her that in order to keep her lumbar from arching too much in Headstand, she will probably

    have to put a little more effort into pressing her sitting bones toward her heels (tilting her pubic symphysis forward

    and her ASISs backward) than she did in Tadasana. That’s because in Sirsasana, gravity tends to make the sitting bones

    drop toward the floor, increasing the lumbar curve. Tell your student that she can maintain her neutral pelvic alignment

    by gently contracting the muscles where her thighs join her sitting bones in back (the upper hamstrings and part of the

    gluteus maximus). Caution her not to overdo this, though, because it can flatten her lumbar too much. Also, instruct her

    to rotate her thighbones inward as she contracts these muscles in order to keep her thighs, knees, and feet pointing

    straight ahead or slightly inward (without this instruction, they would probably rotate outward).

    One way to teach your student to rotate her thighs slightly inward in Headstand is to have her touch the sides of her

    feet together at the base of her big toes (the medial side of her distal first metatarsal bones) while keeping her heels

    about an inch apart. While doing this, she should also push the inner edge of each foot up, away from the floor, and pull

    the outer edge down, toward the floor.

    Neutralize flexion/extension of the hip joints: The actions and sensations your student needs to learn to place

    her hip joints in the neutral position between flexion and extension in Sirsasana are described in detail in last month’s

    Tadasana Hips column, under the heading

    “Neutralize front-to-back placement of the pelvis.” She simply needs to balance the sensation on her front hip creases

    (front groins) halfway between “too stretched” (legs too far back, hips extended) and “too soft” (legs too far forward,

    hips flexed). Teach her this in Tadasana, then have her immediately practice it in Headstand.

    There are a few special points to note, though. First, the Tadasana instructions call for your student to shift her

    pelvis “fore and aft,” decreasing the range of movement until she finds the point where the stretch on her front hip

    creases feels halfway between stretched and soft. In Sirsasana, as your student shifts her hips she should simultaneously

    shift her legs in the opposite direction, so her feet move forward as her hips move backward, and vice-versa. Second, in

    Headstand, as in Tadasana, your student’s pelvic tilt has to be neutral for the adjustment to work properly, because the

    degree of tilt of her pelvis will affect the amount of stretch in her hip creases. Finally, the Tadasana column describes

    a second way for your student to monitor her front-to-back hip placement, namely, balancing the sensation of firmness vs.

    softness just below her sitting bones (at the hamstring origins); however, this does not work as well in Sirsasana

    because of the increased muscle tension needed in this area to maintain the pelvic tilt.



    Align trunk, hips and legs with gravity: If your student successfully neutralizes her pelvic tilt and her hip

    flexion/extension in Sirsasana, her body will be in a straight line, but this will not necessarily be a vertical line. In

    other words, if you view her from her side, you will be able to trace a single line through her shoulder, hip and ankle

    joints, but this line might not rise at a right angle from the floor. She needs a truly vertical line to feel the magic

    of a precisely balanced Headstand. Some students will spontaneously find this position simply by following the pelvis and

    hip alignment instructions in the previous sections. Those who do not will most often tilt the whole body forward toward

    their elbows. Many students find that this feels more secure than either balancing perfectly or leaning backward, because

    it allows them to lean on their elbows to prevent falling, and in case they do fall, at least they won’t fall backward.

    Luckily, once your student’s body is in a straight line in Headstand, teaching her to bring that line precisely to

    vertical is surprisingly easy. That’s because her brain is already automatically making all the necessary calculations;

    she just needs to learn to attend to the right cues. The cues are simple: the body is vertical when her abdominal muscles

    in front (rectus abdominis) and her lower back muscles (lumbar erector spinae group) are both relaxed at the same time.

    The rectus abdominis muscle runs vertically from the middle part of the front of the ribcage and the base of the

    breastbone to the pubic bones. When it contracts, it brings the front ribs closer to the pubic bones, thereby flexing the

    lumbar spine. In Sirsasana, if the whole pose leans too far back, or if the legs lean back behind the pelvis in a

    “banana” shaped Headstand, the rectus abdominis prevents the pelvis (and therefore the legs) from falling further

    backward. If this muscle were to let go in either of these situations, the student would arch back and fall over.

    Therefore, the laws of physics make it certain that if your student is still managing to stay up in either of these

    misaligned Headstands, her rectus abdominis is contracting. The laws of biology allow her brain to automatically contract

    this muscle as needed without her even noticing it.

    Similar reasoning dictates that the lumbar erector spinae group of muscles will be contracting if your student is leaning

    too far forward in her Headstand, or if her feet and legs are forward of the vertical line. The lumbar erectors spinae

    run vertically from the back of the lower spine and ribcage to the back of the sacrum and upper pelvis. When they

    contract, they arch the lower back. In Sirsasana, they prevent the pelvis (and therefore the legs) from falling further

    forward when the whole pose leans too far forward, or when the legs angle forward of the pelvis in a “jackknife” shaped

    Headstand.

    To teach your student to cue into these muscles, first help her feel them in Tadasana. Have her press the four fingertips

    of one hand into the front of her abdomen in such a way that they straddle her navel, two on each side, gently indenting

    the rectus abdominis muscle there. Ask her to lean her trunk and shoulders back until she feels the muscle harden beneath

    her fingertips. Then have her lean forward, as if starting to go into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), until she feels

    the muscle soften. Have her lean backward again so the muscle hardens once more, then very slowly lean forward just to

    the point where she can completely soften it. Have her stop at that point.

    Now have your student do a similar exercise with her thumb and fingers palpating her lumbar erectors spinae. Have her

    reach one hand behind her lower back and press her thumb into the muscles on one side of her spine, about one inch from

    the midline, at the level of her navel. Have her press the fingers of the same hand into the corresponding muscles on the

    other side. Ask her to lean her trunk and shoulders forward, as if starting to go into Uttanasana, until she feels the

    muscles harden beneath her fingertips. Then have her lean backward until she feels the muscles soften. Have her lean

    forward again, then very slowly lean backward just to the point where she can first completely soften her lumbar erectors

    spinae. Have her stop at that point.

    Next, have your student press the fingertips of one hand into her rectus abdominis and the thumb and fingertips of the

    other hand into her lumbar erectors spinae at the same time. Ask her to lean forward and backward until she feels that

    both sets of muscles are relaxed simultaneously. This is the critical point where the brain has calculated that her trunk

    is balanced exactly vertically, so no muscle contraction is needed to prevent it from falling either forward or backward.

    Before your student leaves Tadasana, have her try the same forward/back leaning exercise again, but this time, instead of

    sensing the hardness or softness of the muscles with her fingertips, have her notice what the muscles themselves feel

    like from within. At first, have her do this with her fingertips in place, so she can compare her muscular sensations to

    her fingertip sensations. Then, have her do it with her hands at her sides, so she can tell, without touching, when

    either her abdominals or her erectors are hard, and when both are relaxed at the same time.

    The last phase of the process is to translate this muscle balance into Headstand. Of course, your student can’t palpate

    her belly or back in the pose, but, with her permission, you can do it for her. Be careful, though! If your touch is

    heavy-handed or uneven, you might knock her over. Don’t palpate students who are insecure in their balance. For those who

    are secure, proceed with caution, common sense, and respect.

    Have your student take Headstand and neutralize her pelvic tilt and hip flexion/extension, as described above. Kneel at

    her side. Carefully place the thumb and fingers of one of your hands on her rectus abdominis alongside her navel, with

    your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other. At the same time, place the thumb and fingers of your other hand

    astride her spine, about an inch from the midline at the level of her navel, to palpate her lumbar erectors spinae. Press

    your fingertips into the muscles enough to feel which ones are contracted and which are relaxed. Before telling your

    student what you feel, ask her what she feels. There are several possible scenarios.

    (1) Erectors contracted, abdominals relaxed. This means that either her hips are flexed so her legs are forward of

    vertical or else her pose is straight but her whole body is leaning forward. If her hips are flexed, ask your student to

    shift her pelvis horizontally forward while shifting her feet backward. If her whole pose is tilted forward, ask her to

    preserve her line but lean her entire body slightly backward. In either case, instruct her to make the adjustment

    gradually, and to stop precisely at the point where her erectors relax, before her abdominals begin to contract.

    (2) Abdominals contracted, erectors relaxed. This means that either her hips are extended so her legs are behind

    the vertical line or that her pose is straight but her whole body is leaning backward. If her hips are extended, ask your

    student to shift her pelvis horizontally backward while shifting her feet forward. If her whole pose is tilted backward,

    ask her to preserve her line but lean her entire body slightly forward. In either case, instruct her to make the

    adjustment gradually, and to stop precisely at the point where her abdominals relax, before her erectors begin to

    contract.

    (3) Erectors and abdominals both contracted. This means that your student is gripping her trunk muscles

    unnecessarily. Perhaps she is insecure in her pose, perhaps she is trying too hard, or perhaps she just doesn’t know how

    to let go. If she is insecure, work on stabilizing her basic Headstand before fine-tuning her alignment. If she is

    secure, she might be able to learn to selectively relax either the front or the back of her trunk by deliberately

    bringing her legs far into a jackknife or banana position in Sirsasana. If this doesn’t work, she may need to go back to

    Tadasana and learn selective relaxation there.

    (4) Erectors and abdominals both relaxed. Voila! Eureka! When your student finds this place, step back and observe

    her pose from the side. You will see a beautiful vertical line from shoulder to hip to knee to ankle. Most likely, your

    student’s body will appear firm yet relaxed, her face will look calm and focused, and she may have a big smile! Let her

    enjoy her newfound Headstand.

    Once you have helped your student find her front-back balance in Sirsasana by palpating her abdominal and erector

    muscles, help her graduate to feeling the muscle sensations on her own in the pose. If she can’t feel what is contracted

    and what is relaxed at first, have her deliberately bring her feet first too far forward, then too far backward and

    notice the erector and abdominal muscle responses to these movements. When she can feel what her back and belly are

    doing, have her neutralize the position of her hips and pelvis again so her body is in one straight line, then have her

    tilt that whole line, from shoulders to ankles, slightly too far forward, then too far backward, and notice how her back

    contracts as she leans forward and her belly contracts as she leans backward. Finally, have her maintain her line and

    find for herself that exquisite point where both the front and the back of her body relax and the gates of heaven open.

    When your student succeeds at creating this wonderful balance by relying on her own internal cues, you will have done

    something better than giving her the gift of a joyful Headstand. You will have helped her learn to give herself that

    gift, over and over again, for the rest of her life.

    Roger Cole, Ph.D. is an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher and Stanford-trained scientist. He specializes in human anatomy and in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.