Headstand (salambashirshasana) is one of
the yoga poses that is considered an inversion pose. Inversion poses involve
any asanas that lift the feet above the head. Other inversion poses that are
well known include shoulder-stand (salambasarvangasana) and half shoulder-stand
(viparitakarani). Even lying on the floor with your legs on a chair is an
The concept behind inversion poses is
expressed in yoga texts as viparitakarani. Viparitakarani is translated as
meaning ‘opposite process’. This simply means facilitating a different
perspective. From the purely physical point of view, this different perspective
in inversion poses is literal – in terms of looking at the world from a
different physical viewpoint – as well as involving the body being supported in
a different way.
But as yoga is more than simply physical
exercises, there are other processes that are assisted. A lot of yoga is
designed to help us change mental habits as well as physical habits. Through
increasing our ability to adapt to change, instead of being stuck in old
habitual responses, we increase our capacity for growth and transformation.
This applies in all areas of our lives.
There is a theoretical concept in yoga
about why inversion postures help. Ayurveda considers that many of the body’s
impurities are in the lower abdomen. When we raise our feet above the head,
gravity is assisting us to move these impurities towards what the Ayurvedic
system calls agni, or ‘fire’. Agni particularly relates to our ‘digestive
fire’, and is thus located above our lower abdomen.
So, by being upside down, and by using
the deep and slow breathing typical of yoga, we help ‘burn off’ the impurities
that were previously stuck.
Improved circulation is a more readily
apparent and less ‘esoteric’ benefit of inversion yoga poses.
Whilst inversion postures have many
health benefits, the ability of an individual to receive those benefits depends
as much on their capacity to comfortably hold these sometimes difficult
postures. For example, headstand and shoulderstand should simply not be done if
people are pregnant, have neck pain, high or low blood pressure, neck injuries,
or are menstruating. And neither of these postures should be attempted without
the appropriate preparatory postures. Otherwise the risk is there that an
injury, or stiffness, particularly to the neck area, will result.
Likewise, if doing these postures is very
uncomfortable and difficult, more benefit will be derived from doing either the
modified versions, or simply working on other yoga poses that strengthen these
There are several important
prerequisites for getting the most benefit fro inversions. The first one, a
strong neck, I’ve mentioned. The others are a strong back and abdominal
muscles, and the capacity to breathe well whilst in the posture. The latter is
going to get better with practice, both of yoga itself and the inversions. It
is also somewhat tied into having a strong back. Our back and stomach muscles
will provide the support to hold the legs straight, which inturn opens up the
thoracic cavity, and increases our ability to breathe well whilst upside down!
Tips for Doing the Inverted Postures
For Half Shoulderstand:
- Lengthen the exhale
- Don’t lock the chin
- Keep your weight not on the head but
on the wrists and elbows
- Don’t try to pull your torso (and
legs) into the vertical like in full shoulderstand if you have difficulties with
your neck. By doing so, you’re placing more pressure on your neck.
- Make sure you do the appropriate
balancing postures afterwards. These include shalabhasana and bhujangasan.
- Don’t worry so much about keeping your
elbows and arms parallel. This will create more tension in your neck if you’re
not proficient in this posture.
- Do the appropriate balancing postures.
These are the same as for half shoulderstand.
- Don’t ever make adjustments whilst in
headstand. If you feel your alignment is not quite right, come down and do it
- Never do this posture first up, or
without the prerequisite postures. It will lead to stiffness in the neck at
best, and injury at worst. And the negative effects can build up over time.
This posture is never done traditionally without preparation, and there is
reason for this.
- Use a wall for support as a learning
- Support your head with all of your
fingers, including the little fingers and thumbs.
- Finding the right position for your
head will make sure weight is distributed evenly, and ensure you don’t have to
overly press down with your elbows to compensate.
- Think of the support for the whole
body as being distributed evenly across both elbows and the head.
- Don’t hold your weight too much on the
back of your body. It will place too much pressure on your neck.
- Don’t use props that allow the neck to
be free. It will lead to the neck muscles contracting.
- Use the balancing postures.
Shoulderstand is the traditional, but Mohan recommends half shoulderstand
- Rest your neck before doing the
balancing postures, however. Lie down with your legs bent.
- Other balancing postures include
chakravakasana, dvipadapitham with the arms, and shalabhasana.
There may be fears or a sense of
limitation about doing inversion poses that will be confronted. Sometimes, it’s
best to start an asana gradually. Shoulder stand comes with a few variations
that you can use to build up strength and flexibility, as well as overcome any
fear based feelings about the posture and your ability to do it.
Overcoming the fear, and finally being
able to do a difficult pose that you thought you couldn’t, can create positive
psychological effects. When we prove to ourselves that our fears don’t bind us,
that we can move beyond our limitations, we are more able to make changes in
other areas of our lives where before we thought it just wasn’t possible.