Headstand - Salamba Sirsana
I've been teaching steps towards supported headstand - Salamba Sirsasana. It's one of those poses that can be developed and practised over time providing you do not have any pre-existing neck injuries, or any conditions that would be contra-indicated. If you are fit and healthy, without pain or injury to your neck, back or your shoulders, then feel free to practice. It is important to know that this takes time to build over time and there are different components that need to be in place in order to build strength, flexibility and understanding of the pose.
This is a classic yoga inversion that many students aspire to. There are many benefits: It strengthens the whole body, can be calming for the mind, aids focus and concentration and one-pointedness, relieves stress and mild depression, improves respiration, aids the circulation of blood and lymph, helps improve digestion, helps to give a different perspective and view point that can be psychologically beneficial, helps to build confidence.
There are a few actions that are important for headstand, core engagement to help stabilise the pose, opening the shoulders as well as strengthening them and hip flexibility. It's good to know that it is the weight of balance that helps the posture to feel "light" and that the weight bearing aspect is mainly through the arms and not the head, so there is minimal weight transference through the head. It takes practice to feel and understand the action of using a strong support and base from the ground that allows the rebound and lift upwards that defies gravity. Through practice, you can gradually build the posture, take your time and move through the steps as you gain confidence and skill. It is a good idea to warm up the shoulders, engage in core strength and move with a few sun salutations before trying the steps below.
1. Sphinx Pose
This is a lovely backbend. Place the elbows under the shoulders, press forearms into the ground to lift the ribs and abdomen away from the ground. This helps to draw the chest forwards, so the shoulders can open and broaden and release down away from the ears.
2. Sphinx Roll Up
As you inhale start to lift the lower ribs, belly button, hip points off the ground, engaging the front of the body. Thighs lift, tail bone lengthens down and the shoulders round as you press your forearms into the mat.
As you slowly exhale, reverse the roll up by rolling down through hip points, belly button and lower ribs. Practice a few rounds co-ordinating breath and movement.
Sphinx Roll ups are great for strengthening core engagement, opening the shoulders as well as stabilising them.
3. Sphinx hands interlace
This is the exact arm and hand position needed for headstand. Pressing down through the hands, forearms and elbows helps to support and keep the shoulders lifted.
4. Forearm Plank
Once you are used to Sphinx Roll ups, and the shoulders are more open, you can roll up from Sphinx and lift the knees and stay for a few breaths in Forearm plank. This helps to maintain abdominal tone and engagement. Practice a few rounds to build strength, stability and stamina.
5. Forearm Dog (Dolphin)
Explore pressing down onto the balls of the toes, lifting the hips, core abdominals engaged and keeping the action of the arms pressing down. Keep the head lifted off the ground to traction the neck and let it be free. This can help you to get used to being upside down without any weight on the head, and to feel the secure support of your arms and the action of the shoulders in this pose.
6. Head positioning
Place the crown of your head lightly on the ground, with your thumbs and heels of your hand supporting the back of your skull. Maintain your arm position, keep the shoulders lifted and the front of the body engaged as you come onto your shins and tuck your toes.
7. Lifting the hips
This pose also requires flexibility of the hips. As you lift your hips up, make sure most of the weight is spread throughout the arms with around 20% weight on the head. As you press the arms into the floor, start to tip toe the feet towards the elbows until the hips are aligned above the shoulders.
8. Leg Lift
Once you have the alignment of hips and shoulders, you can explore lifting a leg straight up in the air. As you find your balance, the toes of the other leg may lift away from the ground with lightness and ease.
Don't try and kick the legs up - which is what I notice some students attempt to do - as this will throw the balance of weight off and bring too much pressure down into the neck. You can practice by a wall for that added feeling of security so you don't go all the way over.
Once both legs are up, squeeze the legs together and stretch the feet up as though you wanted to touch the ceiling. You can flex the feet as though in Tadasana upside down. Keep the abdominal wall engaged and pressing through the arms so you maintain alignment. Although you are head down, the feeling is a lifting away from gravity and a sense of soaring lightness of being. Come down after 5-10 breaths and rest in child's pose. Once you are comfortable and find ease in headstand you can stay for longer from 1-5 minutes.
10. Child's Pose
Take child's pose after headstand. This is a good neutral pose after supported headstand, it allows you to pause, feel and register the effects of the pose. Make sure to stay for a few breaths.