The beauty of yoga is that it cannot be mastered. Don't get me wrong—there are plenty of people out there who are extremely gifted and knowledgable, but the truly wise understand that the more you learn, the less you know.
We played with traditional headstand in the last Challenge Pose post, and will now be venturing into the world of headstand variations. There are seven headstands practiced in the 2nd series of Ashtanga Yoga, and we'll tackle many of those as well as some less traditional variations. Today's version, Baddha Hasta Sirsasana B, refers to the bound-hand position that will form the base of the pose.
All these poses keep us on our toes—or rather on our heads; they require us to be diligent, aware, and in tune with the moment. Tiny tweaks can completely change a pose giving us a new challenge and reason to show up on the mat. Keep that in mind as you venture forward. No one is asking you to master these poses TODAY. View them as projects and a reminder that yoga is here to play with us for the rest of our lives.
***IMPORTANT: You need to have a solid grasp and understanding of traditional Sirsasana before attempting this variation.
All of the headstand variations have different arm foundations, but the head stays the same (weight directly onto the crown with all four sides of the neck even). Without over thinking this, simply bend your elbows and grab your forearms close to the crook of your elbows. It doesn't matter which hand goes on top, just go for your natural grip. It isn't a death grip—just a soft holding of your arms to create the shape. Take this shape and place it onto your mat directly in front of a wall.
The key to remembering where to put your head is that you will be looking directly into your arms. Place the crown of your head down in front of your folded arms so that your forehead touches them. Stay on your knees as you start to lift your shoulders to give you plenty of length in your neck. Push your elbows down into the mat as an anchor.
Keep the foundation or your head and arms as you curl your toes under, straighten your legs, and lift your hips into Dolphin Pose. Walk your toes in toward your face until the hips eventually stack over your shoulders. You'll feel the weight get heavier in your upper back as your feet get closer. Resist the urge to collapse by rooting the elbows down and lifting the upper back away from the earlobes. Practice holding here for 8 breaths. If this is exhausting work, you've found your variation! Keep working this until you can hold for 8 breaths with ease.
From Dolphin, bend one knee and tuck it tightly toward your chest. Draw your heel toward your bottom and spread your toes. This should tilt your hips even further forward over your shoulders so you come into a light alignment that will pull you up into your headstand variation. Take a few breaths with one knee lifted and then try the second side. If you can pull both legs up into a pike position (both knees to chest), go for it, and then use your belly control to straighten your legs into full position. Every few breaths remind yourself: shoulders up, elbows down.
Seeing that this is a foreign inversion for most, learning first at the wall is key. Drop the ego—even if you do Headstand all the time! It's best to learn your pose in a safe scenario and then branch out from there. If you can get one knee into your chest, you can start to kick up. Bend the knee of the leg still on the ground and take little hops working the hips over your shoulders and either both knees into your chest or drawing the straight leg directly up to the wall. Don't worry about balance yet—just get up. Once both heels come to the wall, try flexing your feet and drawing your spine and energy upward to lengthen your body and soften the load on your neck.
If you have the flexibility to press into Headstand, you can practice Dolphin Pose and walking the legs in straight until they can lift as a team up into the pose. This will eventually give you more control as you begin to move away from the wall. Take 5-8 breaths then come back to the ground and rest in Child's Pose for 30 seconds.
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and author of Rodale’s The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga . Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website. Come practice with Kathryn on retreat in February in Maui, Hawaii.