Headstand (Sirsasana) has been called The King of Asanas. It tends to be the first inversion that most students learn as it has one of the most stable foundations for flipping ourselves upside down. This fantastic pose shifts our perspective so we can come out physically and mentally refreshed. There are endless headstand variations (yes, this is foreshadowing as what is to come soon on Challenge Pose) but it is important to understand the classic before you divert to variation. Remember that balancing on your head doesn't mean you put all of your weight on it—headstand is a full-body posture that requires shoulder, core, and leg strength. Every few breaths remind yourself, "shoulders away from the ears and firm the upper outer arms in." This will keep the weight out of the neck. Draw your front ribs in to engage the core and hug the legs together and reach the energy up to the ceiling. This prevents the "wet noodle" syndrome that makes us fear the spill into backbend.
Figuring out how to position your hands and arms is one of the most critical parts of performing a Headstand; if your body were a building, your hands and arms would be the base. Start by interlacing all of your fingers and then tuck the bottom pinky finger in toward your palms so it won’t get crushed when you place your hands on the ground (as pictured). Leave enough space for an imaginary billiard ball to fit between your palms, and place your forearms firmly against the mat so your elbows are positioned shoulder-width apart. Check to make sure the tops of your wrists are stacked directly over the lower wrists. Remember, you don't need to cup or hold your head; this causes us to collapse in the wrists and fall over.
Once you have mastered the foundation for your building, it’s time to find the crown of your head. Take a foam yoga block or lightweight book and balance it on your head while sitting up tall, keeping all four sides of your neck perpendicular to the floor. Take note of the place on your head where your block is balanced: It’s exactly where you’ll place your head on the ground when performing Headstand. This protects the cervical spine. You'll feel constricted in your throat if you roll too far back and experience pain in the back of your neck if you're too close to your forehead.
Dolphin Pose is ideal for building strength and mobility in the upper back to get you ready for full Headstand. To get into this position, place your knees on the mat and position your arms as instructed in Step 1. Tuck your chin toward your chest and place the crown of your head onto the mat right in front of your hands. (Your hands shouldn’t be touching your head.) Curl your toes under so that their cushions are on the mat, and lift your knees. Walk your toes in toward your elbows as far as you comfortably can without collapsing into your upper back. Push down into your elbows to keep your shoulders lifting (by making space between your ears and shoulders) and hug your upper outer arms in for support. This might be the pose you practice for quite sometime before you attempt full Headstand. Once you can hold this pose with ease for a full 8 breaths, then you’re ready to move on!
When you’re ready to get all the way up into a full Headstand, this is a great place to start: Reposition your mat near a wall and resume Step 1 with your knuckles touching the wall. Come into Dolphin Pose by walking your feet in toward your elbows as much as you can. Once you can’t lift your hips any higher, lift one of your legs and bend the knee drawing it tight into your chest. Practice little hops off the grounded foot while trying to bring your hips to the wall and both knees into your chest. With time, simply bend one knee into your chest followed by the second and engage your core to hold the position.
It’s full Headstand time! Once you can get both knees into your chest, focus on keeping your shoulders lifting; this will balance your weight so it’s not all on your head. Your mental mantra, at this point, should be “lift the shoulders” and “hug the outer arms in.” Next, with one leg at a time or simultaneously, straighten your legs up the wall. Flex your feet so that the only part your body touching the wall is your heels and knuckles. Draw your tailbone up toward your heels to engage your core and keep reminding yourself to lift your shoulders every few breaths. Start out holding here for 5 breaths and gradually work up to holding the position for 1 minute. When you’re done, take one leg down at a time and bring your heels to your bottom and forehead to the ground and relax in Child's Pose.
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 which releases on October 30th. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website. Come practice with Kathryn on retreat in February in Maui, Hawaii.