Almost all of the articles you see about yoga these days—and there are a passel of 'em—describe how wonderful it is. They list the benefits, ranging from increased flexibility to ultimate immersion in the Great Cosmic Ooze. They describe yoga as a stress-free, painless way to well-being. But by touting only the obvious goodies, these articles not only paint an incomplete picture of yoga, they also rob it of its juice. The pleasures and benefits of yoga are indeed numerous and profound, but the difficulties you encounter in your practice are at least as important.
Ancient yoga texts stress the importance of tapas—the fiery quality of discipline and determination. One way to produce fire is friction, and the resistances that arise as you practice often provide the spark that ignites the fires of transformation. That fire is fed and fanned by your practice as you roll out your mat day after day. Every part of your life, from the most mundane to the most lofty, also rolls out for your consideration. Every time you practice, you run the risk of having your world turned upside down.
But that's true whether you do yoga or not. At any moment, your life can change forever. Whether you choose to keep this frightening truth in the forefront of your awareness or not, impermanence is a fact of life.
Long ago, yogis recognized this by making nonattachment one of the cornerstones of yogic practice. If you follow the path of yoga, you must be willing to change anything and everything in your life: what you eat, wear, and read; how you perceive, think, and act. To be truly free, somewhere along the line you have to be willing to give up the illusory security of the known and fling yourself into the abyss of the unknown.
Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) provides an opportunity for experimenting safely with the unfamiliar and the fear it engenders. Headstand can be scary. It literally turns your world upside down. Beginners may become disoriented, unable to tell left from right and top from bottom.
But, as B.K.S. Iyengar says in his section on Sirsasana in Light on Yoga, "The best way to overcome fear is to face with equanimity the situation of which one is afraid." Fortunately, disorientation in Headstand subsides fairly quickly. With regular practice, you can begin to experience the benefits which led the yogis to call Sirsasana the "King of Asanas."
Salamba sirsasana is not a pose for raw beginners. Proficiency in some preliminary asanas will speed your learning and go a long way toward preventing problems in Headstand.
The most fundamental asana for learning Sirsasana is Tadasana (Mountain Pose). The actions of the legs, torso, and neck are essentially the same in both poses, although these actions feel different when you turn topsy-turvy and reverse your body's relationship to gravity.
The standing poses develop the strength, flexibility, and endurance you need in Sirsasana. Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) can help provide the necessary increase in shoulder mobility; Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) also opens and strengthens the shoulders and introduces you to a mild inversion.
Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) is second only to Tadasana as a preparation for Sirsasana. Shoulderstand tones your spinal muscles, teaches your legs to lift your body (keeping the spine free from compression), and allows you to confront and reduce the fear and disorientation that can arise in inversions. After at least four months practicing these (and other) poses, you may be ready to try Sirsasana.
Even if you already feel accomplished in Headstand, you can learn a lot from going back to the foundations of the pose. Begin by placing a folded sticky mat on the floor to cushion your forearms, wrists, and hands. Use the firmest, thinnest padding you can and still be comfortable.
A firm base will provide you the resistance required to get a good lift in the pose. (If you want to use a blanket for more padding, make sure you put it on a sticky mat to prevent it from sliding around.) Arranging your padding parallel to a wall rather than diagonally or haphazardly will help you orient yourself once you're upside down.
Kneel in front of your padding and place your elbows shoulder-width apart near the front edge of your support. (The edge gives you a point of reference for placing your elbows evenly.) Interlock your fingers right up to the webs and keep them relaxed. A loose interlock invites instability; rigid fingers will create unnecessary tension. Align the wrists perpendicular to the floor and center your weight on the edge of the forearm bone, rolling neither in nor out.
Still kneeling, place the crown of your head on your padding and move the back of your head directly into your hands. To prevent the cervical vertebrae from collapsing into one another, firmly press the forearms and wrists into the floor. This grounding lifts the shoulders away from the head, creating space in the neck. Practice first lifting and then dropping the shoulders a few times so the distinction is clear. Then keep them lifted and raise your knees, keeping your feet on the floor.
If possible, hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds, but come down immediately if your shoulders droop or you experience any discomfort in your neck. Practice for a few days or weeks until you can maintain the lift of the shoulders for at least a minute.
To the Wall
Now you're ready to move your padding to a wall or to the corner of the room. (Learning in a corner has the advantage of preventing you from leaning to the left or right.)
Kneel again and place your knuckles about an inch or two from the wall. Since you are no longer able to use the edge of your padding to position your elbows, take extra care to align your elbows with your shoulders: not wider, not narrower.
Lift your hips so your knees come off the ground and walk your feet closer to your head, bringing the torso as nearly perpendicular to the floor as possible. As you walk in, you'll need to work harder to maintain the lift of your shoulders.
In addition, your elbows will want to widen and your wrists and forearms will tend to roll out, but your previous practice should help you maintain proper alignment of your elbows, forearms, and wrists. Your upper back will also tend to collapse toward the wall. To counter this, pull the mid-thoracic spine (the section between your shoulder blades) into your body (away from the wall) and up toward your hips. Grounding through your forearms and wrists will facilitate this action.
Put the Brakes On
At this point, you may feel an urge to move on quickly to the final pose. A little hop and you're there, right? Many students become impatient and frustrated with continuing to practice preparations when the goal seems so near. Why not just go for it?
If you haven't fully understood and accomplished the earlier work for the wrists, forearms, shoulders, and upper back, you won't come into proper alignment in the full pose. Instead of creating problems you'll have to correct later, you'll do better to spend the weeks or months you need to master the correct actions in your upper body.
This preparatory work is an opportunity to bring true yoga into your practice. Standing on your head is not yoga. Kids do it all the time; so do circus performers.
What makes Sirsasana yoga is an exquisite attention to balance and alignment, an inward movement of awareness that heightens your sensitivity and stability, and an increased willingness to be in the moment. Where you are is where you are. If your shoulders and upper back are collapsing into your neck, you need further practice to build your foundation.
Throwing yourself up into Headstand before you're ready may make you feel like you've gotten somewhere, but that somewhere won't be where you thought you were going—and, in the long run, you'll discover that you've taken a detour, not a shortcut.
Once you are able to lift your hips and bring them near the wall without collapsing the upper body, you're ready to take your feet from the floor and stand on your head. At this point, you may be tempted to allow your fear of being upside down to outweigh your desire to learn Sirsasana. Instead of committing yourself completely, you may hold back and sabotage your efforts.
In similar circumstances, my teacher once advised me: "Be cautious. Be bold." If you've done your preparatory work, you've already exercised caution. Now is the time to be bold.
This time, once you've walked in as far as you can without collapsing in your back and shoulders, tilt your hips back toward the wall so your feet become light. Ideally, the shift of the hips and the strength of the abdominal and back muscles will enable you to lift the feet smoothly and easily away from the floor.
Things aren't always ideal, though, and many folks need to give a little hop in order to lift the feet off the floor and toward the wall. I prefer that students come into the pose with both feet at once rather than lifting one leg at a time. The latter method can throw the weight onto one side of the neck. Furthermore, learning to take the legs up together develops strength and control that will serve you well when you finally move into the full pose. But it's your practice and your pose; you'll have to decide which method is best for you.
With an exhalation, bring your feet up, keeping your knees bent near your chest. Don't hold this position for long, because with the body drawn into a compact shape you will tend to collapse in your neck, shoulders, and midback.
Still keeping the knees bent, take your feet to the wall. With your heels in contact with the wall, stretch the legs up one at a time.
Make your movements smooth and controlled, not sudden and jerky. The backs of your legs and your buttocks will touch the wall.
Continue to press your forearms and wrists into the floor, lift your shoulders, and draw your mid-thoracic spine in and up. Stretch your legs fully up toward the ceiling by squeezing the outer thighs, calves, and ankles in toward one another and drawing the entire inner and back legs upward.
The stretch of the legs is crucial: It not only helps lift the pelvis and prevent the sacrum from sinking into the lower back, but also helps lengthen the neck.
Extend through the inner heels and inner balls of the feet so that the inner shins and calves stretch as much as the outer, and broaden the balls of your feet from the big to the little toe side.
Many of the benefits of Sirsasana come only after you stay in the pose for a while, so you should work on building your endurance. At first, your Headstand may be effortful. You will be apt to sweat and tremble until you learn the basic actions and adjustments.
But to extend your time in Headstand, you must eventually develop comfort and ease in the posture. As you practice, make sure to relax your breath, soften your facial muscles, and allow your eyes to recede slightly into their sockets.
As you become more proficient and comfortable in the pose, learn to lift and lighten the body by actively grounding the crown of the head onto the floor. (Just as in Tadasana, where grounding your feet creates a rebounding action up through the legs and torso, grounding your head in Sirsasana rebounds up through your body.) After all, the pose is called Headstand, not Forearmstand. Eventually your arms bear very little weight, serving merely as outriggers to maintain balance, and the pose feels light and nearly effortless.
In the early stages of practice, stay in the pose for three minutes. If you experience any pain or compression in your neck, try adjusting your upper torso by reestablishing the lift of the shoulders and mid-thoracic spine. If pain persists, come down, reposition your head, and go back up.
When you are correctly centered on the crown of your head, the back of your neck and your throat will be working in balance, and both will feel relaxed; the left and right sides of your neck will also be balanced and comfortable.
If you still experience pain or compression, come down. Avoid going up and down repeatedly, because this activity can disturb the nervous system. Instead, try again the next day. If you can't seem to make your neck comfortable no matter what you do, ask an experienced teacher to look at your pose. (Even if you're not having problems, it's a good idea to get an expert opinion occasionally.)
How you come out of Sirsasana (or any pose, for that matter) is as important as how you go up. To come down, you essentially reverse the process of going up. As you exhale, bend the knees and lower them toward your chest, but keep lifting your shoulders and mid-thoracic spine. Lower both feet to the floor, maintaining the height of the hips and the length of the abdomen, so that you control your descent the whole way down. Always rest with your head down for at least half a minute—or until your head feels clear—before you sit up.
When you've learned to consistently maintain all the actions required for Headstand with the support of a wall, you're ready to balance.
Place your knuckles 2 to 3 inches from the wall—a little further away than you've been practicing—and go up as usual. To take the buttocks and legs off the wall, stretch the legs straight up as before and move the mid-thoracic spine into the body toward the front chest. Take care not to poke the bottom ribs or lumbar spine forward.
As you come away from the wall, pull the mid-thoracic spine in, move the tailbone toward the pubis, and lift the buttocks and legs away from the wall. Keeping the tailbone in, move the front thigh muscles (the quadriceps) firmly onto the thigh bones (the femurs), and the femurs into the backs of the thighs (hamstrings). When you've aligned the pose correctly, the four natural curves of the spine are maintained; the neck, hip joints, knees, and ankles are in a straight line perpendicular to the floor; the belly is relaxed; and breathing deepens spontaneously.
When you are able to balance consistently 2 to 3 inches away from the wall, you are ready to perform Sirsasana in the middle of the room. Again, fear may sneak in and try to dissuade you from this next step. But your work up until now has prepared you, and you are ready. Be bold.
Arrange your padding in the middle of the room with the edge of your mat parallel to the wall you'll be facing when you go upside down. Make sure there is ample space around you in all directions, because sooner or later (probably sooner) you are going to fall. (In fact, you may even want to practice a few controlled falls to disarm your fears.) When you do fall, tuck your knees in, release the clasp of your hands, relax, and tumble out of the pose onto your back like a child doing a somersault. Then get back up and try again. After three unsuccessful attempts, return to the wall to practice the pose. Try to balance in the middle of the room again the next day.
To go up in the middle of the room, proceed exactly as you've been practicing at the wall—up to the point where your feet are off the floor and your knees are bent and near your chest. At that point, keep the knees bent and raise them toward the ceiling until they are directly above your shoulders and hips. Having your legs in this position may increase your apprehension about falling over backward. You may be tempted to skip this step and try to take your legs straight up from the knees-near-the-chest position. Don't do it. With your knees still bent, you will be better able to move the tailbone forward, move the femurs back, and align the hip girdle over the crown of the head.
From this position, stretch your legs up into the full pose. Apply everything you learned in your practice near the wall: Lift up firmly through your legs, actively ground the crown of your head onto the floor, relax your facial muscles and eyes, and breathe.
To come down, simply reverse the process of going up. Exhale, bend your knees, and lower your feet toward your buttocks before moving your knees toward your chest. Maintaining the length of your neck and spine, slowly lower your feet to the floor.
Once you learn to balance in the middle of the room, work on going up and coming down with straight legs. Since coming down is easier than going up (you're going with gravity, instead of lifting against it), practice this movement first. In Headstand, lift the top of your kneecaps firmly with the quadriceps and keep moving the femurs into the backs of your legs. Begin lowering the legs without losing the engagement of your thigh muscles, moving the hips back slightly without overarching the lumbar spine. Since the muscles in the abdomen and lower back play an important role in preventing collapse, move the navel toward the spine and lift the sacrum away from the lumbar spine. Keep the mid-thoracic spine in and the shoulders lifting. Lower your straight legs as slowly and smoothly as possible, without jerky movements. Once you are able to come all the way down with straight legs in a steady, controlled movement, learn to go up by reversing the process. With your feet on the floor, lift the hips and stretch the legs, firmly gripping the tops of the kneecaps with the quadriceps. To lift the feet, tilt the hips slightly back and lift from the thighs, rather than lifting from the feet. If you maintain the action of the quadriceps, the feet will follow the lift of your thighs until you are upright.
Build up your time in Headstand (first to five minutes, later to 15 minutes or more), but don't be ruled by the clock. Pay careful attention to the sensations that arise in your eyes, ears, head, neck, and back, both during the pose and after. Learn to adjust the pose and the time you spend in it depending on how you feel each day, so that you will receive the maximum benefits while avoiding problems. When you have learned Sirsasana well, the pose will be light, relaxed, and nearly effortless, and you will feel energized, calm, and clear-headed.
Once you learn Salamba Sirsasana, combine it with the inversions Shoulderstand and Plow Pose (Halasana) to form the cornerstone of your daily practice. Properly performed, these poses provide enormous physical benefits. Moreover, surmounting the fear and anxiety that you may encounter in the process will help give you great confidence, not only in your asana practice, but in yourself and your power to meet life with equanimity and courage.
When that happens, standing on your head will have changed from child's play to yoga. Then, in those inevitable moments when your world turns upside down, you will know from your own experience that you can draw on a place deep within yourself that allows you to embrace each moment, upside down or not, with open eyes, open arms, and an open heart.