Lightness of Being
Have you ever felt awe watching a seasoned yogi in Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand)mdash;seeming to be both light and steady, focused and solid? Or maybe you've been surprised to hear that, at 93, B.K.S. Iyengar often begins his morning yoga practice with a 30-minute Sirsasana. Yes, it takes years to achieve this kind of mastery. But a balanced, informed approach to how you practice is the key to gradually building duration in any pose. It just might also bring you more joy on and off the mat.
One way to cultivate a strong, steady, and safe Headstand is to practice with an understanding of the three gunas: the qualities or forces of nature known as tamas, rajas, and sattva. You can recognize the qualities of tamas as physical or mental heaviness, inertia, and immobility; of rajas as effort, firmness, vibration, and action; and of sattva as clarity, luminosity, and balance. Although the three gunas are always present in varying degrees, it's common for tamas or rajas to take center stage, masking the clarity and luminosity of sattva. When tamas dominates your yoga practice, your body and mind will feel dull and lethargic. And when rajas is predominant, you may find yourself overworking and struggling through every pose.
Thankfully, it's possible to practice in a way that cultivates the quality of sattva in your body and mind. While you practice this sequence leading to Salamba Sirsasana, you'll start to see how activity and effort help to pierce through sensations of immobility and heaviness. You'll bring intelligent movement (sattvic qualities) to your shoulders and upper back in order to encourage a feeling of clarity and lightness in each pose as well as in your practice overall. When this happens, you can safely increase the amount of time you spend in any pose, including Headstand.
This practice has the added benefit of increasing the flexibility in your shoulders and the strength in your upper back. Not only will you learn how to stand tall in Headstand, but you're also likely to feel your posture improve, even with two feet firmly on the ground.
Listen: A live audio recording of Marla Apt teaching this Master Class sequence can be found at yogajournal.com/livemag.
Gomukhasana (Mountain Pose With Arms in Cow Face Pose)
When you practice Tadasana with Gomukhasana arms, you'll learn to extend and externally rotate your upper arms while actively engaging your legs. When you do this in Headstand, you can create a solid base and a feeling of lightness that helps you lift your body weight away from your neck and head.
Stand with your feet together in Tadasana. Lift your right arm and externally rotate your upper arm. Take the outer corners of your shoulders back and release your trapezius muscles (near the base of the neck). Extend upward on your right side from the outer armpit to your elbow; then bend your right elbow, placing your palm on your upper back.
Bend your left elbow and clasp your hands together behind you. If you can't reach, hold a strap between your hands. Lift the left shoulder slightly toward your ear and move the left shoulder blade in toward the spine and forward toward your chest. Although you may need to roll the left shoulder forward slightly to lift your left hand behind you, once you've bound your hands or are holding the belt, roll the left outer shoulder back and open through the front of your chest.
Maintain a stable Tadasana as you lift the right outer arm from the armpit to the elbow, and rotate from the outer elbow toward the inner elbow for up to a minute. Then release your arms and repeat on your left side. After you've taken both sides, stand in Tadasana and observe the openness in your shoulders and chest.
Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist)
In Bharadvajasana, you will focus on opening the front of your shoulders and moving the upper back in toward your sternum. These actions will help your upper body support you in Headstand.
Sit on a folded blanket in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Bend your knees and take your feet beside your left hip, with your left foot on top of the arch of the right foot. Keep your knees facing forward and your thighs together. Drop the left buttock and hip as you lift your chest.
Place your right hand behind you and your left hand on the outside of your right knee. On an inhalation, lift your chest; on an exhalation, turn to the right. If you find that you're leaning back onto the right hand, place your right hand on a block.
Press your shoulder blades against your back and broaden the top of your chest. Walk your right hand farther back and around, closer to the left buttock. Now roll your outer right shoulder farther back. Move the left back ribs forward and exhale while rotating your chest from left to right, turning your head to follow.
As your right shoulder moves back, move your right shoulder blade and the thoracic spine (the area between your shoulder blades) in toward your chest to raise the sternum. Initiate the twist from movement in your upper back, an action that will keep your thoracic spine and back ribs from collapsing in Sirsasana. Breathe smoothly, letting go of unnecessary strain in the throat and trapezius muscles. Hold for up to a minute; then release back to center and take the second side. The rajas that comes from the strong actions and movement in the upper body, balanced with the steadiness in your hips and legs, brings a dynamic and centered sattvic quality to this twist.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Focus on lengthening your inner arms and biceps while you release your head down in Down Dog. If you can create this dual action here, then you can re-create it in Headstand. Your neck will stay long and tension free as your shoulder and upper- back muscles work to keep you stable.
Come onto your hands and knees and lift up into Downward-Facing Dog. Press through the inner edges of your palms as you lift your inner arms toward your shoulders. Then, pull the inner shoulder blades toward your hips and lift your hips toward the ceiling as you press the front of your thighs back. Reach your heels back and down and lift your inner thighs.
Allow the sides of your neck and the backs of your ears to lengthen down and away from the upward-lifting action of your upper back. Relax your throat.
As you release your head and neck down, you may find that the shoulders move toward the ears and your neck tightens and shortens. Or the head may become too heavy, pulling the shoulders and upper spine with it toward the floor. In either case, tamas predominates. Make sure that the lift through your inner arms, shoulders, and upper back is sufficient to support the release of tension in the sides of your neck and throat so that you can find the harmony where the qualities of tamas and rajas meet.
If you're able to hold Down Dog with firmness and attention, you can stay for two to three minutes. If you feel strained, hold for 20 seconds and then release into Balasana (Child's Pose), repeating these two poses a few times.
Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)
You release your head to the floor in this forward bend, but you support your body weight in your legs, making this pose a safe training ground for Sirsasana. From Tadasana, step your legs and spread your arms wide apart, placing the feet underneath your hands. Then place your hands on your hips and press your inner heels down as you lift your inner thighs from the inner knees toward the inner groins.
Extend your torso and fold forward, placing your fingertips on the floor underneath your shoulders. Straighten your arms, extend your sternum forward, and press your thighbones back. Pull your inner shoulders away from your neck and move the thoracic spine toward your chest as you pull your chest forward between your arms. Then, bend your elbows, walk your palms back in line with your feet, and lengthen your neck as you release the crown of your head to the floor. If your head doesn't reach the floor, rest it on a block.
Your hands and head should form a tripod. If you have tight hamstrings and find it difficult to bend forward, continue to work with your arms straight. Keep weight in your legs as you spread the soles of your feet evenly on the floor.
Press down through your heels as you pull up your inner thighs and quadriceps. At the same time, press your thighs back and broaden the backs of your legs. Release your head and neck down without allowing the entire pose to collapse, just as you did in Down Dog. Balance the vibrant quality in your legs with the quiet surrender in your head to find an equilibrium that enables you to remain in the pose, calm and alert, for up to three minutes.
On an inhalation, straighten your arms, lift your chest, and extend your chest forward. On an exhalation, place your hands on your hips. Then inhale and stand up, walk your feet in toward each other, and step back to Tadasana.
Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand)
The instructions here are meant to help you build upon a Headstand practice you've already begun with an experienced teacher. A safe Headstand is of greater importance than the duration of the pose. If you'd like extra support, set up your mat near a corner or practice with your back and hands close to a wall.
Come onto all fours with your forearms on the floor. With elbows shoulder-width apart, interlock your fingers to cup your palms. Look at your hands as you press the edges of your forearms and wrists into the floor. Move the inner shoulders and trapezius muscles away from your neck. Lower your head to the floor, lengthening the sides of the neck down. Place the crown of your head on the floor and the back of your head into the cup of your palms. Lift your knees and straighten your legs. Press the edges of your forearms and wrists down and lift the inner shoulders away from your ears.
Move your upper spine and back ribs toward the front of your body and walk your feet closer to your head, lifting your hips. If you're at a wall and your upper back starts to round into the wall, continue to work the actions of Sirsasana with your feet on the floor. Lift your back away from your head and neck while you maintain weight on your arms. Practice like this for several weeks until you can move your upper back in toward the front of your body. Otherwise, you risk collapsing into a heavy and tamasic Sirsasana, putting your neck at risk for injury.
If your upper back is lifted and your neck feels long, lift your hips and then lift your legs from the floor as gently as possible. Once you're up, fully extend through your legs and reach up through the inner edges of your feet.
Lift your shoulders, shoulder blades, and trapezius muscles away from the floor. Continue to extend up through your legs to bring a feeling of lightness to the pose. If you find you are overworking or collapsing, it's time to come down. If you feel strong and light, you can stay for up to 5 minutes, gradually increasing the duration of your hold up to 10 minutes. To release, bring your feet back down to the floor, keep your head down, and rest for up to a minute in Balasana.
After You Finish
It's far better to hold a solid 30-second Sirsasana that has sattva's quality of lightness and clarity than a three-minute pose that is loose and collapsed or strained. After you've rested in Balasana, be sure to take Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) or one of its variations, such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) to balance the stimulating and heating qualities of Sirsasana.
Marla Apt is a certified senior Iyengar Yoga teacher based in Los Angeles.