What's my 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, voilà! 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.
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