Headstand (Sirsasana) is an advanced yoga pose. But is it good for you?
The short answer is: yes!
When performed correctly, doing headstands provides various health benefits. However, there are some risks involved. This article will explain how to prevent injuries by making sure to prepare the body well for the posture as well as going over the correct alignment for headstands.
Benefits of practicing headstands
Practicing headstands comes with various mental and physical benefits.
As for the mental benefits, headstands are amazing for calming the mind, as the advanced posture requires 100 % of your attention and thus gives your mind a break from overthinking or worrying. Furthermore, headstands can lead to a release of the feel-good hormone endorphin, and lessen symptoms of stress and depression.
On a physical level, doing headstands strengthens the core and upper body, which can improve posture and alleviate back pain. Apart from this, doing headstands gives your immune system a boost by supporting circulation for the lymphatic system. Some people also report that practicing headstands helps them to prevent headaches, however, this couldn’t be proven scientifically yet.
How to establish a safe headstand practice
When headstands are done with poor technique or before being ready, headstands can cause cervical spine injuries due to the pressure on the neck.
It is not advised to do headstands if you currently have injuries, especially if they are located in the neck, shoulder, or upper back area. When in doubt, about whether or not you should try headstands, consult your physician first.
Practice with a professional yoga teacher who can guide you. Start slow and take it one step at a time. Before attempting a headstand, make sure you’re comfortable in the preparatory poses. It is fine to practice near a wall in the beginning, however, it is important to learn to use your core strength versus developing the habit of kicking your legs up.
If you’re practicing without a wall or someone guiding you, you can place a couple of pillows on your mat behind you to make your landing softer should you fall out of the posture - which doesn’t have to be scary. Just tuck your chin, release your hands, round your spine, bend your knees and let your body roll over.
Preparatory Headstand Poses
In order to do headstands safely, you need core-, back- and shoulder- strength and good flexibility in your hamstrings, side body, and your triceps muscles. Some good preparatory poses include:
For stretching the hamstrings:
All variations of standing or seated forward fold: To come into a seated forward fold, sit down on your mat, extend your legs in front of you, bend the knees as much as you need to, lengthen your spine on your inhalation and as you exhale, fold your upper body forward. The movement should emerge from the hips. Your arms can either rest by your side, or you can try to reach your feet with your hands.
For stretching the triceps and side body:
Downward facing dog, Dolphin pose, and side body stretches where the arms are lifted up and over the head are great for improving side body- and triceps flexibility.
For core- and shoulder strength:
Dolphin pose is a very popular preparatory pose for headstand. Simply come into a downward facing dog, bring your forearms down to the ground and hold. Once you’re comfortable in dolphin, walk your feet closer to your head while keeping your shoulders engaged and your forearms pressing down to move your shoulders away from your ears.
Other beneficial poses are plank, chaturanga, and downward facing dog.
Examples of back-strengthening poses include plank, cobra pose, locust, and warrior lll.
How to get into a headstand
You can choose between two main versions: the forearm headstand and the tripod headstand.
This version is safest for the head because the majority of the weight is on the forearms and not on the neck.
Step 1: Measure out the correct placement of your arms and head by placing your hands in the opposite elbow creases. Next, place your forearms on the mat, release your hands from the elbows, and keep the elbows where they are while turning your forearms out until you can interlace your fingers. To create a more stable base, bring the bottom pinky finger next to (instead of under) the other pinky finger.
Step 2: Bring your head down on the mat, and let your hands support the back of your head.
Step 3: Press into your underarms and slowly lift your hips up by walking your feet closer to your head. Keep your legs as straight as possible.
Step 4: Engage your core and keep pressing into your forearms as much as possible while slowly lifting your bend legs up. Don’t forget to engage your leg muscles and point your toes.
Step 5: With control, straighten your legs. Once you are in your headstand, try to stay here for 10 deep breaths.
Step 6: To come out of the posture, slowly, with control, bend your knees to lower your legs back down.
Step 7: Don’t come up straight away! Instead, give your body time to re-adjust by resting in child’s pose for 20 deep breaths.
The tripod headstand version is a little bit easier accessible than the forearm headstand as less core strength is required to get into the posture. The downside however is, that there’s a larger amount of pressure on the neck, which highly increases the risk of injuries.
Step 1: Figure out the right distance between your hands by measuring your shoulder-with by placing your hands in the opposite elbow creases and placing your arms on the yoga mat in front of you. Your hands should be placed where your elbows are.
Step 2: Create a triangle shape with your hands and your head by placing the head down a couple of inches in front of your hands. Keep your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle.
Step 3: Again, walk your feet closer to your head while keeping your legs as straight as possible.
Step 4: Place both of your knees on top of your upper arms, and point your toes. Once you get more advanced you can skip this step and bring your legs up straight away.
Step 5: Slowly, with control, lift your legs up until you’re in full headstand.
Step 6: Attempt to stay here for 10 breaths.
Step 7: To come out of the posture, slowly bend your knees and with control, lower your legs back down, on your elbows or straight to the ground.
Step 8: Before you come up, take 20 breaths in child’s pose.
Once you are comfortable in headstand you might want to challenge yourself and play around with some leg variations.
Wide legged headstand
Either come into your headstand with spread legs right away or slowly begin to open your legs once you find stability in your regular headstand. Keep your core engaged and by tilting your pelvis forward, start to turn the tops of your thighs and toes down to the floor.
If you’d like to add an extra challenge here, you can incorporate some core work into your practice by letting your feet sink down to the floor and bringing them back up using your core strength.
Headstand with Butterfly legs
Bring your legs into butterfly position by externally rotating your legs out, bending your knees, and pressing the soles of your feet together.
Headstand with Eagle legs
To bring your legs into eagle legs, start by wrapping one leg up, over and around the other one - just like you would in a regular eagle pose. Bend your knees as much as you need to and keep your core engaged to avoid collapsing in the spine.
Headstand with Lotus legs
If the regular lotus pose is easy for you, you can try to bring your legs in lotus in your headstand. Simply do it, like you normally would, but without the help of your hands.
Headstands are an advanced yoga pose with various health benefits. To avoid getting injured it is important to only attempt headstands when you are ready and preferably under the guidance of a yoga teacher.
The most important points to keep in mind while doing headstands are:
Protect your neck by pressing into your forearms or hands, depending on the variation
Keep your core, glutes, legs, and feet engaged to protect your spine from bending or collapsing
If for whatever reason headstands currently aren’t a good option for you, you can always practice different inversions with less risk to receive similar health benefits.