10 steps for better headstands

Why headstand?

Headstand is my favourite posture in the Sivananda sequence. It allows us to see progress in the areas of the body that need to build strength and stamina to achieve it. For example, you notice your core and shoulders becoming stronger. You notice the opening in the shoulders as you begin to be able to bring the hips to stack over them. You notice when you finally get up and can take a breath in it!

When we start out learning headstand it feels so strange. To be on our head feels very unnatural and it can take time just to get used to that feeling. Rabbit pose is a great posture to practice to familiarise yourself with that upside down, head on the floor feeling.

Views on headstand

I have had two varying conversations this week about the practice of headstand. Some of my students have said it’s the reason they come to class, to be challenged and see their progress. They said that other teachers won’t teach it so they have never had the chance to try it.

On the other hand, I have received feedback to say that it’s dangerous, people fall out so it must be dangerous. Or that they have seen people in my class come up incorrectly. This is a misunderstanding of the practice and of my relationship with my students. I receive constructive feedback and take it on board. This blog has stemmed from the constructive feedback to show anyone who is scared of practising headstand, or not sure about it as part of a yoga practice, how to do it safely.

How I teach headstand

As a teacher, I am aware of those students who come to me every week who are likely to fall out as they begin to come up. I don’t teach headstand to students who don’t come to me regularly unless they already have a headstand practice. If someone is new to yoga and to my class, I don’t teach headstand to them straight away as it’s a long process built on trust and the relationship between teacher and student. This takes time. I always offer variations to those students who don’t want to practice it. It’s never forced upon anyone.

The students who fall know how to fall safely so each time they do, I don’t rush over to check on them. I choose not to make a scene of them falling as this can embarrass them and knock their confidence. But I do give them eye contact to see if they are hurt in any way. I acknowledge the fall as I am watching every student come up but it doesn’t need to be a massive affair if someone falls out of headstand. As I have been teaching these students for years, we can have this interaction without words. Sometimes, they give me a nod as if to say, ‘I’m fine’ and they try again. New students to the class may not notice this interaction between us and that’s the point. No fuss, no bother and no confidence knocked. If they have fallen due to incorrect alignment, I will go and speak to them quietly to help them to reduce their likelihood of falling again.

As a teacher, I can guide, adjust, repeat instructions but ultimately it is down to the student to take those instructions on board. Sometimes you can repeat yourself, demonstrate, adjust a thousand times and a student will still do it the way they want to. There are incorrect and dangerous ways to approach a headstand (and we all will be guilty of them in the early stages of trying to come up!) but generally, the most common mistake is people trying to kick up rather than coming in using core control.

As a teacher, I remind students to bring their knees into their chest first then lift the legs straight. If a student repeatedly chooses to kick up, ignoring my instructions, I can either advise them to stop or repeat the instructions again. This is teacher preference depending on the student/teacher relationship and the student’s overall level of ability. If someone is going to hurt themselves, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to lessen that risk. If you are a new student to the class, trust that the teacher and student have a relationship around their headstand practice. The teacher will always choose what’s best for their student.

Is headstand dangerous?

Headstand is not dangerous if you go with what your body will allow. If you push too hard too fast and you fall, you can injure yourself. If you go steady, slowly and you fall, you’ll be OK. You’ll do a rolly polly out.

Here’s a secret - when learning to come up into headstand every single person has fallen at least once. All those yoga stars on social media? They’ve fallen. Your teacher? They’ve fallen. How many of those have broken their necks or fingers? I don’t know stats…but I can tell you I never have, none of my students have and none of my teacher’s students have. If you listen carefully to your teacher’s guidance and your inner voice of intuition, you will be fine.

Once you are used to being upside down (after practising rabbit pose), you can begin learning to come in safely and very importantly, slowly. It’s a slow process to learn this posture but the benefits are worth it.

If you have high or low blood pressure, then please speak to your doctor before practising headstand.

You always start coming into your headstand practice from child’s pose which helps to regulate the blood pressure before coming to be on the head.

Step 1
Fold your mat to give you a guiding line to keep the elbows in line with each other. The mat should be folded to fit your hands and forearms in the top section. This isn’t an essential step but I found it immensely helpful when learning to come up. It means when you walk in, your elbows have a line to stay down on. You don’t want them to move at all while coming up. For example, when you begin to walk the legs in, you might find that one elbow moves forward. If that’s the case, come back to sitting on the heels and realign the elbows on the line of the folded mat and try again (more on this below).

Step 2

Step 2
Using the gap between the thumb and index finger, place this on the inside crease of the opposite elbow. Do this with both hands. You arms will now be crossed (see picture in the next step to help). This helps to align the elbows and shoulders - if you look down you will see that your elbows are the same distance apart as your shoulders.

 

Step 3
Place your elbows down on to the mat. If you have folded the mat, your elbows will be on the part that creates the line between the bottom of your mat and the top (see the pictures).

 
Step 4

Step 4
Bring the hands out and clasp the fingers. Do not bring the palms together. The palms are going to hold the back of your head so the hands need to be slightly apart. Try and keep your wrists from turning out. Roll the part of the wrist that is facing the ceiling in towards the centre of your mat. You can also tuck your little finger into the palm to reduce the chances of it getting squished!

 
Step 5

Step 5

Place the top of the head down between the hands, leaving a little space between the head and the palms so when you begin to walk the legs in (which is the next step), you are able to roll further back on to the head (almost to the point where the top of your head begins to become the back of your head). Roll your shoulder blades on to the back, so you’re moving your shoulders away from your ears.

 
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Step 6

Walk the legs in, keeping the legs straight the whole time. You want to stack your hips over your shoulders before taking your feet off the floor. This takes time as the shoulders need to be open. You shouldn’t go beyond this stage unless you can comfortably stack the hips over the shoulders. If your shoulders are tight and your hips only come a little way back towards the shoulders, keep practising this. Keep walking the legs in, walking them back out and repeat until your hips stack (this can take months or years depending on the regularity of your practice). Remember to keep the shoulder blades on the back all the time.

 
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Step 7

Bend one knee into the chest. Take the foot back to the floor and bend the other knee in. Keep repeating this until your core is strong enough to lift both knees in to the chest. Shoulders are away from the ears.

 
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Step 8

Bend both knees into the chest and hold. Once you can get to this position with core control and hold it, you’re ready for the final stages to complete your headstand. Remember to lift the shoulders on to the back which will help you find stability.

 
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Step 9

Once you can hold both knees into the chest, lift the knees to the ceiling and allow the feet to drop back towards the buttocks. Remember your shoulders, lift them away from the ears.

 
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Step 10

Straighten the legs, take the toes up towards the ceiling and ta-da! You’re in headstand! When holding your headstand (and this can take years to achieve so keep with it!) remind yourself to check in with your shoulders. Always checking they are lifting away from the ears.

 

To come down

You repeat the steps in. Bring the heels to the buttocks, knees into the chest and then feet to the floor. You end in child’s pose to allow the blood pressure to return to normal.

So there you have it. Those are the stages I teach to come into a headstand. If you want to learn more, come back in a couple of weeks to read about the benefits of the headstand and why it’s taught.

Yoga and Weights

What's all this exercising malarkey?

I am not an exercising type of person. It's not my 'thing' at all. I'd love to be fit like an athlete but the truth is, I like food too much. Before I found yoga, I didn't work out at all. I may have gone for long walks but that was about it. I stumbled upon yoga out of curiosity and feeling slightly unfit while travelling. 

I have been practising yoga three or four times a week, sometimes more, for five years now. It's helped me build strength and balance I never knew I had. I'm now at a point in my practice where I'm wanting to try the harder postures and have had to turn to other things to help.

Using other exercises to enhance your yoga practice

A year or so ago I heard Mark Robberds, a well renowned Ashtanga teacher, say he had been going to the gym to gain the strength required for the more advanced series of Ashtanga. I remember at the time I was shocked. I had thought he'd gotten so advanced in his practice due to yoga alone. I mean, the yogis in ancient times accomplished these postures without the gym. Why can't we?

The difference between then and now...

A year on and I'm thinking completely differently about it. Our lifestyles are much less physical than they would have been a long time ago. We (and I'm included in this) sit at a desk most of the day, our joints getting stiff and our bodies making very little movement throughout the day. We are sedentary beings now. Back when yoga was being taught in India 6000 years ago, life would have involved more movement with people living off the land. 

A life living off the land would naturally produce stronger humans. We'd be lifting things and moving around all day making the yoga postures more achievable. Today, we're learning these postures with lots of the damage already having been done from our sedentary lifestyles. We're learning these postures with our bodies being so tight and tense that all the postures are hard to start with.

Weight training to help your strength in your yoga practice

Having been doing some weight training on and off for two months, I can already feel the benefits to my yoga practice. This is a hard thing for me to swallow. I was adamant I could do it without any extra help but actually, I'm not a naturally strong person. I needed some props, so to speak. 

To be clear, I am not willing to start weight training to the point where it makes my shoulders and back so tight that I go backwards in my practice, not forwards. Yoga is my priority. I am only lifting small weights to help gain some more shoulder and chest strength to complement my practice.

You don't even have to do weights to gain some extra strength. I find practising a few press ups (with your knees down to begin with) is a massive help. I couldn't do one with my knees down when I started, now I can do ten (on my better days). You can incorporate some of these exercises into your yoga practice - it doesn't have to be another thing you have to find time for. Ekhart Yoga wrote a brilliant article on using weights in your yoga practice.

I see now that having other forms of exercise can improve your practice. If we can get into a posture because we feel stronger on a physical basis, it will have an uplifting effect on the mind. We will feel brave and full of joy. Of course, getting into the final posture isn't necessary in yoga - we only go as far as we reasonably can comfortably. But by me gaining more strength, my edge is increasing allowing me to experience things in my practice that I haven't before. 

Using another form of exercise to get our bodies fit is a positive thing. It means we can learn to clear our minds in another way, a way that's off the mat which is where we should also be practising yoga. It allows us more chances to cleanse the body through exercise. We will feel fitter. It might not have exactly the same benefits as yoga (stress reduction, relaxation, breath work etc) but working hand in hand with your yoga routine, it can surely only improve your practice in more ways than one.