Monday, November 29, 2010

The elusive headstand

Ah, the elusive sirsasana - climax of the Primary Series. It seems like the pose to conquer. It make my neck uncomfortable, but for the past few months, I can't seem to stop attempting the pose whenever I can! Talk about OCD....

[Addendum: Preparatory steps before attempting a headstand

I know I know, everyone wants to attempt a headstand right away. It looks cool and you want to try it out, even if it means falling on your face during your first attempt! I wasn't that brave, but I did want to start practicing the full version as soon as possible. However, my awesome teacher, having observed many headstand-related neck issues, made us practice the dolphin pose each class and told us that we should not start practicing the headstand until we could hold this pose for 30 breaths.  How to practice the dolphin pose: head completely off the ground, support body weight on forearms and shoulders, fingers loosely interlaced, slowly walk the legs closer towards the arms until your body feels vertical (shoulders over elbows) and your feet are on tippy toes. This pose does NOT feel good... in fact, it feels a lot less comfortable than doing the actual headstand. However it's way safer and builds strength in your arms and shoulders required to do a safe headstand. ]

Yes I realize I should put 90% body weight on my forearms/elbows, only 10% pressure on my head, but once my legs are off the ground, my attention goes to the dangling legs and the body, and my poor head and neck are sadly neglected until my feet land on the ground again. I mean, I can feel my head and neck being somewhat uncomfortable the whole time, but my mind says to them, "You guys shut up! Quit complainin' will ya? Just stay put and support the rest of the body! You're on the ground so you're safe. I'm going to worry about the moving body parts instead." I'm not very nice to myself I guess.. that's probably why my neck has been sore for the last few weeks :p

My teacher teaches the version where both legs rise up slowly together. Some people kick one leg up and then try to get the other leg to meet the one up in the air. For some unknown reason my teacher discourages that, so I've been practicing it his way. When I try it at home, I could feel tremendous engagement in my abdomen and psoas, and then as the legs rise up, at some point the abs and psoas seem to lose the intense engagement with the legs, and then I panic and either smash my feet into the wall if I'm near one, or, if I practice it in the middle of the room, my legs kick wildly, losing balance, then I roll over jamming my interlaced fingers. Yay clumsy me! Thank goodness for thick carpets. [ To avoid rolling your head on your interlaced fingers (ouchy knuckles), tuck your chin into your chest if you end up falling over ].

It's fun to practice the pose with someone spotting me in class. Feels very different than practicing next to a wall. I don't really know why the hands guiding the hips help so much. I used to think that it was my teacher lifting my legs up in the air, but if I really think about it, that's a lot of weight to lift up with just a few fingers. So really, they just act as guides for my mental security, but they seem to help so much! Also, I used to practice to lift my legs until they make contact with the wall. Not a very good habit because I always rely on the wall being there. The mischievous yoga teacher, on the other hand, lets me make contact, then moves away, causing me to go into a major panic mode before giving me his shoulder or hand support again. It always felt like a disaster (sometimes he doesn't manage to catch my legs so they come crashing down), but a classmate behind me told me after class recently that I had a nice-looking free headstand.. huh? Really? I managed to stay upright on my own for an observable amount of time? Yay! Certainly didn't feel that way while I was in the pose, but thanks!

After a few weeks of struggling with up-side-down balance, I can now do a free headstand at home! Yay! The trick is to not panic when I feel I lose my core engagement when my legs are about 10-20 degrees from the vertical line. Trust that my legs are already up in the air, and let my body (and head) do their balancing act. Then work on trying to straighten the legs. Actually I have no idea if my body is straight or not because I can't see myself in a mirror. Right now I still can't do it in class without a spotter because I'm usually too exhausted 2/3 way through the Primary series. Hopefully in the next few weeks (or early next year) I'll be able to get it in the classroom, without assistance (and not fall on anybody)! Someone fell on me once; I think that's why I hesitate to be more daring in class.

Yoga. is. fun. Makes me feel like I'm still a kid, which I still feel like one at the age of 30.

[Addendum: As Loo pointed out in the comments below, I did *not* anticipate that even after I have built enough arm/shoulder strength practicing the dolphin pose, it's still possible to put too much weight on my head due to negligence/laziness. That's when this whole blogging / getting feedback from the online yoga community thing comes in handy :) ]


  1. It seems like you've made great progress with sirsasana. Congratulations! All the teachers I've studied with also discourage kicking; it's because kicking usually translates into a jarring motion on the neck, which is bad for the neck. But some people tell me that their teachers are totally okay with kicking. So, I don't know...

    Working more on your vinyasas will enable you to gradually build up enough upper body strength to put more weight on your arms/shoulders, and less weight on your neck.

    Yes, I totally relate to the headstand OCD part. When I first got headstand, I wanted to do it all the time! I think there's something very exhilarating and fascinating about apprehending the world from an upside-down perspective.

  2. I've been wondering about that forever (I thought it was a body control issue, but neck jarring sounds more serious and more likely the teacher's concern). Thanks for solving the mystery for me! I think once you get headstand, you can get up however you want, but in the beginning it probably makes a difference.

    I need to try to practice less headstands and more arms and shoulders strengthening. This is going to be tough...

  3. I was a neck jammer too until I hurt it. And then I went back to the drawing board, not going up, just working on walking my feet in and keeping the weight off my head as I open up the shoulders. Quite frankly, it sucked. Its way more uncomfortable to stay in this partial pose and you have to deal with the ego BUT BUT BUT it worked! It was the only way to stop the habit of putting weight on your head and neck which will eventually hurt you. Just something to consider.

  4. Hi Loo, thanks so much for sharing your experience! That's how my teacher taught it too. I guess my ego wanted to achieve the up-side-down part first. Now is probably a good time to tell the ego to *back off* and re-focus on pushing down with the arms and elbows part :)

  5. Ahh.. This is what I call useful help! Thanks for writing this. I am the kind of person who needs written instructions. talking to me just confuses me because I'm trying so hard to show off my manners that I forget to understand. This is like a map.

  6. Hi 52, thank you for commenting! Loo's and your comments made me realize that I should try to be more comprehensive in my post, in case anyone wants to use this as a sample guide! I'm editing my post to include preparation steps before practicing the headstand. Thanks again!

  7. This is a great post. I've been struggling with headstand for the past 9 months or so, and still don't have the guts to do it without a wall, especially after a few collapses ;) I totally agree with the importance of doing preparatory poses, but like what Loo said, it's HARD! But I'm beginning to see progress...I can now tuck my legs into my chest, unsupported, so that's one step closer to the full pose, hopefully.

    I've been reading your other posts as well, and really like your writing style.

  8. Thanks for your kind words Danielle. Headstand *is* really hard. I can get up with no problem now but am still not always careful about the minimal weight on crown of head part and I still get neck issues. There's the whole balancing act too. If you can tuck your legs into your chest then you are very very close! Keep on practicing all is coming for you!

  9. Another issue with headstands (that I suffer from) is that sometimes a person's anatomy limits the poses you can accomplish. My upper arm is very close to being too short for me to do a headstand without putting nearly all of my weight on my head and neck, which is, of course, completely unsafe. The trick is to make sure I rotate my shoulders from the front to the back, rather than just bringing my arms in from the sides (does that make sense?).

  10. Thanks for your suggestion Amanda. Yes it does make sense. One of my teachers likes to say "lengthen your neck", which didn't make sense to me at first, but I think the shoulder rotation you mention has the same effect as "neck lengthening".

  11. I recently started to practice headstand at ashtanga yoga (for one week) and at times in the day, I have those weird electrical shocks in my head and my spine.
    I suspect it is from headstands as I did'nt practice dolphin pose, my teacher never told me about that!! I will surely do the dolphin until I can hold it for 30 breaths, thanks for the tip. Yoga can be very damaging by the way, I experienced other pain issues before!

    1. Hi Ariane, thanks for checking out my blog. The "electrical shocks" are not just from headstand. You get them from the breathing and the stretching of your fascia and and blockage clearing of the nadis. It can be quite scary but as long as they are not persistent (ie. goes away a few hours after your practice), they can be good for you. It takes awhile to differentiate healthy vs. harmful body sensations but I think it's worth it to learn them through yoga. Yoga is mostly damaging for people who ignore warning sensations in the body and push too hard. If you can slow yourself down and really pay attention to what every body part is telling you, it can be a very healing practice. But yes, definitely be on the cautious side for your neck, shoulders, and knees during practice.

      Good luck with your Ashtanga journey!! It can be very frustrating in the beginning because it's pretty darn hard, but once you have gained some strength and some flexibility, it becomes super addictive! :)