Intuitive Alignment: Sirsasana
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.
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