The Art of Balance: Mastering Headstand
Sometimes the only way to see things clearly is to turn my world upside down.
With life pulling us in every direction – work, family, health, money – it can be easy to lose sight of what really matters and fall out of balance. Whenever I feel like the weight of this world is simply too heavy to carry, whenever I feel like throwing in the towel, I take it to the mat and flip it up. Sometimes the only way to see things clearly is to turn my world upside down.
Every time I hit the yoga mat, I find a way to fit in a headstand, or Sirsana pose. It’s a great pose to practice if you’re feeling down, depressed or slightly out of whack. Known as the king of all poses, Sirsasana requires core strength, flexibility and balance – all great tools for a happy life, whether at work, at home or in your favorite yoga class.
Like all inversions – be it downward dog, shoulder stand or hand stand – Sirsana helps the body defy gravity and circulate more blood flow to crucial organs that rest above the heart, like the brain and the thyroid. It also helps increase immunity and serve as an instant mood, metabolism and energy booster. But be warned: the myriad benefits of this pose come at a price. To get up into handstand, you’ll need a strong core, flexible shoulders, and strong forearms. One other thing you’ll need: to balance on your head, which is why this pose is not recommended for beginners. It took me nearly ten years of teaching and practicing to master headstand.
That being said, I can assure you it’s not as daunting as it looks. Here’s how to do it:
1. Set an intention. Whether it’s feeling free, boosting your mood or just having fun, it’s important to set an intention before any yoga practice. Sit in silence for a few minutes, sing a chant or whisper a simple prayer like “Om” to connect you with a higher purpose, power or affirmation you can come back to as a guide through the pose. Let this mantra be your drishti, a focal point during your practice.
2. Charge up your core. Like the center of a scale, you’ll need a strong center of gravity to get into and maintain this pose. Before attempting a headstand, charge up your front and back abdominal muscles with several minutes of core practice. This is one of my favorites. Try bicycles, planks, and dolphin down dog, which also helps build forearm strength. You’ll need all of these muscles firing together in order to balance and feel stable in your headstand.
3. Open your heart. With an open heart, it’s easier to accept the shift in reality that inverting your body will invariably create. A rigorous heart-chakra flow like this one can get your heart pumping, and will also help open up your shoulder joints, which are key for stabilizing and balancing your body’s inverted weight. It will also prepare you for the exciting emotional journey of defying gravity!
4. Free up your hips. Warm up your hips with a simple pose like malasana, which will help open them up enough to align with your shoulders as you kick up. This is key to going fully vertical in headstand.
5. Up against the wall. Now that you’re all warmed up, it’s time to get inverted! Place your mat on the floor, vertically against a sturdy wall. Start in downward dog pose, with your head and hands facing towards the wall. Place your hands on your mat, no more than 2-3 inches away from the wall. Though it doesn’t look like it, this will give you plenty of leg room and support to kick up safely into the pose.
6. Create your foundation. From down dog, charge up your core and rest your forearms on the mat. Press down into your elbows. Cup your hands together firmly so the fingers are stacked one on top of the other, strong enough to keep your head propped up. Allow your head resting in your hands and your forearms to form an open triangle, with your hands coming together at the top of the triangle and your forearms creating two equal legs of the triangle. This is part one of your foundation. Next, root firmly into your pinkies and place the top of your head gently onto the floor, resting just in front of your cupped hands. Your hands should be firmly grasped against the back of your skull for gentle guidance and support. Both before you kick up and throughout the pose, be sure to keep your neck and shoulders long, strong and pulled away from the mat to avoid crunching your body weight into your neck vertebrae.
7. Now find your “sweet spot”. Every inverter has a “sweet spot” on top of their head where they can rest comfortably in headstand, balancing their body weight. No two heads are shaped alike so the balance point will vary for different practitioners. For some, the sweet spot is on the crown of the head, a couple inches past the hairline. For others, it’s easier to balance on the very top of your head, like an egg on a table. Like trying on a new hat, feel free to experiment, rocking gently back and forth between your crown and your forehead until you find the perfect spot on your head to comfortably balance for an extended period.
8. Kick it up. With your feet still firmly planted on the ground in downward dog position, engage your core, shoulders and forearms then lean slightly forward toward the wall, carefully balancing your weight between the head, hands and forearms. Take a deep breath. When you feel steady, slowly kick your dominant leg straight up (not bent, this makes inverting harder), balancing on one foot until the kicking leg reaches the wall behind you. This may take a few tries. Aim to get your hips directly above your shoulders for optimal vertical alignment.
9. Balance. Though staying in headstand looks stagnant, Sirsana is an active pose that forces us to come back again and again to our center, our drishti and our intention in order to stay vertical. To be balanced in life and on the mat, letting go is just as important as holding on. In headstand, there may be parts of ourselves we have to release in order avoid falling. Perhaps the glutes or the hips? Perhaps old ideas about what we aren’t capable of, or who “should” or “shouldn’t” be? There are also places we have to engage – our shoulders, our abs, or maybe a core part of our strength that lies hidden deep within. Throughout the pose, check in regularly to see where either letting go or engaging deeper might create more peace, breath and effortless balance.
10. Breathe and trust the process. The idea of doing a headstand is a lot more complicated and scary than actually doing a headstand. This pose defies the intellect, so don’t think about it too much, just do it! Stay in the pose as long as you are able to breathe comfortably without too much tension. And don’t push it. You know your body better than anyone, so be sure and listen to what it has to say. If it’s telling you that it can’t safely support you in the pose – including slowly lowering your legs back down to the mat with control – do yourself a favor and rest in child’s pose. Be patient – you can always try again another day! Let go of expectations of what the “perfect” pose “should” look like. All that matters is what’s actually happening in your body in the present moment. Each day on the mat is a new journey. What we learn about ourselves during the adventure is why we practice yoga.
What do you need to engage or release within yourself today to maintain your life balance? Channel that, and you’ll master headstand – and life.
Medical Disclaimer: Be sure to consult your doctor before attempting any new yoga practice, and especially before attempting advanced poses like this one!