What's my Line?
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.!--page-->
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