How to Headstand (Salamba Sirsasana)
Inversions are not my friend. I am not naturally a strong person, especially when it comes to my arms and shoulders. It was well into my second year of yoga that my feet ever came off the ground in a headstand. Forearm stand took four years. And I’m still waiting on those dang handstands. So believe me when I say I know just how challenging inversions are! They have not come easily to me by any means.
But! I’ve learned a lot through trial and error and have grown so much. I’m proud to say my headstand has improved leaps and bounds. It's still not "perfect" (I'll show you), but the more I practice, the better I become. So if you, too, struggle with inversions, know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel! And I’m hoping that this little article can shed some of that light to better assist you in your journey upside-down.
Here are the Key Components to Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand):
I cannot stress this enough. The shoulders are your foundation. You need strength and stability in your shoulders and neck. In the basic, foundational headstand, our weight is actually grounded in the shoulders, not the head, so shoulder integrity is a must. Push the forearms into your mat, be strong in the shoulders and keep them out of the ears. The muscles of the shoulder blades, upper arms, and back (more specifically, serratus anterior, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, rhomboids, teres minor, triceps, biceps, deltoids, and latissimus dorsi) are engaged and stabilized.
Many students allow their elbows to splay out much wider than their shoulders. A little bit wider may be okay, depending on the individual’s physical build, but most of the time, the shoulders splay out too wide and cause destabilization for the inversion. So the yogi is pretty much doomed from the start! Do your best to avoid compensating shoulder and back weakness- keep those elbows close in, the back lengthened, and shoulders out of the ears by engaging the shoulder muscles along the back (perhaps most important is serratus anterior).
Have you ever gotten your legs up in headstand only to become a floppy, confused fish in the air for half a second before crashing to the ground? I’ve been there. And then I learned about bandhas. In headstand, engaging the bandhas will help you stay compact and in form while you’re up in the air. It will bring awareness, control, and stability to the entire body. It is a must!
The bandhas could really get their own entire blog post (and they will!) because they are so important for the entire yoga practice. But I’ll keep it very simple here: we want to engage mula bandha and uddiyana bandha for a healthy headstand.
Here’s what that means:
Mula Bandha: In Sanskrit, mula bandha translates to “root lock.” Engaging mula bandha is essentially squeezing the entire pelvic floor in and up into the body. It’s like having to pee really badly but being forced to hold it in because there’s no bathroom around. Pattabhi Jois, the Ashtanga Yoga guru, would say “Squeeze your anus!” to his students and this is what he meant.
Uddiyana Bandha: This is the practice of pulling the lower belly, from the belly button to the pubic bone, in toward the spine and up toward the ribs. It’s essentially sucking the lower abdominals in and keeping them there, even when we inhale.
So, put simply, you want the entire lower part of your torso activated. The inner body is working against gravity with the bandhas. It’s the secret to floating gracefully in your vinyasa class, deepening your asana practice (along with the breath, of course), and it's the secret to controlling your headstand. Engaging the bandhas makes you feel lighter, stronger, and conserves your energy. Engage your bandhas!
Combining the two above mentioned bandhas should keep your pelvis and lower back in proper alignment, even when you’re upside down. But double check that your ribs are pulling into the body and the tailbone is reaching energetically toward the sky.
I know it’s tempting, but try not to get ahead of yourself by jumping or kicking one leg up into the sky and hoping that you’ll stick your headstand. Build a firm foundation first so that the strength is there for the pose rather than luck.
1. Set up. Knees and forearms on the mat, interlace your fingers and place the top of your head down on the ground, cupping the back of your head with your hands. Engage your shoulders now! Activate your bandhas!
2. Prepare. From there, try straightening the legs and walking the feet in toward the face. We want the hips directly over the shoulders and the spine to stay long. If you’re very tight in your forward folds, this will be harder for you, but that’s okay- all comes with practice. Once you feel as though your hips are over your shoulders (or as close as you can get today) just breathe here. I stayed in this position for an incredibly long time before I ever felt like it was even humanly possible to lift a leg into the air. Like previously stated, I didn’t actually get up into a headstand until about two years into my daily yoga practice. Patience and practice.
3. Bend One Knee. When you feel solid in this position, bend one knee into your chest. Switch sides, straightening that leg back out and taking the opposite knee into the chest. Feel strong and comfortable here before moving on.
4. Lift Off. Bend both knees into the chest and stay here, breathing. If your hips aren’t over your shoulders yet and if your bandhas aren’t engaged, and you try floating both knees to the chest, you will probably just lean forward and fall. Which is fine! Play! Try it! Have fun!
5. Straighten the Legs Up. Once you feel comfortable with both knees in the chest, start to straighten them up toward the sky and balance there.
***See how the alignment of my body shifts off the midline when I straighten my legs? My whole body leans forward, my hips are no longer right above my shoulders and my ribs splay out. Part of this is due simply to my body fearing it's going to fall backward, so it compensates. But it also is a strength issue that I'm working on. For whatever reason, this only happens in headstand, though. My forearm stand is wonderfully straight! I think it's just the positioning of the head and shoulders that throws me off here. It is what it is for now.***
6. Eventually... Leave the Bend Behind. One day you will float the legs up toward the sky without bending the knees into the chest at all, keeping them straight the entire time.
When you come down from your version of headstand (after 5-25 breaths), take a child’s pose for a couple breaths before lifting the head back up to avoid dizziness and the like.
Let me know if you have any questions! Remember, practice and all is coming.