The yoga community has been hotly debating for years whether shirshasana (headstand) should still be a part of modern asana practice. The debate usually centers around whether the touted benefits of the pose outweigh the very real safety risks to the neck. Some studios have outright banned the teaching and practice of headstand within studio walls, citing potential liability factors. (See "King and Queen No More?" for a good discussion of the factors involved in the debate.)
Can shirshasana be performed safely? Absolutely. My teacher, Aadil Palkhivala, and his teacher, BKS Iyengar, had a three-hour inversion practice of three postures: 45 minutes of shirshasana (& variations); 90 minutes of sarvangasana (& variations); and shavasana. They maintained this practice for years; if the poses couldn't be done safely, these guys would have had severe neck issues. They stayed safe by doing the required preparatory work, cultivating the flexibility, strength, and awareness necessary for a safe pose. (And it's not just for asana masters; headstand is a regularly-led pose in the Purna Yoga community, with observation of effects over years of practice to insure it can be done safely.)
The problem is not the pose itself; it's a combination of poorly trained teachers and teaching formats (drop-in classes, dvds, written articles, etc.) that do not lend themselves to building to advanced postures. With a pose like shirshasana, you MUST have consistent, trained, individual supervision over time. If you want to do headstand, here are some suggestions for making it a part of your asana practice, safely:
1. Don't make the pose your goal.
If you are rushing to get to headstand, always looking ahead to that big day, you will never be present in your practice, and you by definition won't be doing yoga. You will also cut corners on important development work that is absolutely necessary to keep your neck and shoulders safe. You know what has happened to every master of shirshasana at some point? They've died, just like everybody else. Keep it in perspective; shirshasana is just a pose; it's not enlightenment, and it's not worth a neck injury for life.
Instead, view your movement towards the pose as a methodical conquering of the limitations that prevent you from doing it. Pay attention and learn about yourself as you work on each piece of the puzzle, one piece at a time. It matters NOT AT ALL if you ever achieve the full pose.
2. Find an alignment-based teacher.
Find a tradition that has a long history of safe and effective alignment, like Purna Yoga or Iyengar Yoga. Just because a tradition includes headstand doesn't mean they teach it safely. The teacher should be able to explain, clearly and concisely, exactly what should be happening in the shoulder blades, shoulder joints and neck in a safe pose. Here is a short list of major things every well-trained teacher of shirshasana will know and do:
- Review the contraindications: Shirshasana is not for every body; your teacher should discuss with you the reasons NOT to do shirshasana, including neck issues, heart issues, high blood pressure, seizure conditions, stroke, and eye conditions adversely affected by pressure. (Those are not all the contras, but they are some of the "biggies.")
- Assess your abilities with readiness tests: if any teacher tries to take you up into the pose without personal familiarity with your practice, run from the room. Shirshasana comes with specific readiness tests for shoulder flexibility, strength for entering the pose, and strength for holding the pose. These tests are important not only to insure neck and shoulder safety, but also to determine what work you, individually, need to do to prepare for the pose. (A side note: the study of neck loads in the article cited above used practitioners who could hold shirshasana for 5 breaths. If you can only hold for 5 breaths, even your first time up in the full pose, you HAVE NOT done the required prep work for a safe pose.)
- Talk to you about your serratus anterior muscles: your serratus is your best friend when you're standing on your head. If your teacher doesn't know where it is or what it does, find another teacher for headstand.
- Palpate your neck: there is no one universal head placement for shirshasana. Necks are individual, and the head must be placed to create an appropriate cervical curve for each person, one person at a time. That is an individual analysis that should happen in the preparatory poses as well as the full pose, and it should be repeated frequently to insure safety. Don't work with a teacher who doesn't palpate your neck. (This is one reason why you can't learn a safe headstand from a video.)
On the flip side, be wary of teachers who
- Haven't been specifically trained to teach headstand: how do you know? ASK. I would never let a teacher with only a 200-hour certification teach me headstand. For that matter, I wouldn't let a 500-hour certified teacher take me up in the pose unless he/she had additional, specific training in the pose. While those teachers can lead prep work for the pose, the intricacies and risk factors of shirshasana require more than basic certifications. In Purna Yoga, teachers must have a 2,000-hour certification to work with students in the full pose.
- Promise to have you in the pose in a certain amount of time: if a teacher's goal is to get you into the pose, that teacher's ego is involved in the outcome. Find a teacher who is focused solely on your safety.
- Teach or lead shirsasana in a drop-in class: how can a teacher possibly assess and know whether each person is ready for the pose without personal familiarity? I cringe in drop in classes when the teacher cavalierly instructs everyone in an all-levels class to go into the pose, with an aside to "take care of yourself." You only have seven cervical vertebrae for life; find a teacher who is ready to share responsibility for your safety with a measured approach to the pose.
3. Create a long-term plan.
I'm not talking weeks here; I am talking months and even years. (Refer to the first point above, at least one more time.) While every plan will be different, each plan should include some aspect of the following:
- Cultivating flexibility by freeing the muscles around the shoulder blades.
- Activating and strengthening the serratus anterior muscles to spread the shoulder blades, as well as the deltoids and triceps to keep the weight off of your head as you enter and hold the pose.
- Learning the foundation: proper placement of hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulder blades and head.
- Building abdominal strength to lift the legs once you are ready, as well as creation of hamstring openness to walk the feet in as you prepare to go up.
- Preparatory poses: mastering downward facing dog, shirshasana prep (feet still on the floor), ardha shirsasana (feet on the wall), and shirshasana at the wall.
- Acclimation to an inversion: time spent upside-down and supported by wall ropes, chairs, or other props.
- Cultivation of balance.
- Safe ways to exit the pose if you lose your balance.
Is it worth it? Yes, it is. Inversions have traditionally been considered the cream of yoga, and shirshasana has some amazing benefits. While science may not have proved them all (yet), committed asana practitioners have observed the effects of the pose for centuries, and that shouldn't be discounted just because a bunch of zealous marketers have made some questionable claims. If you want to do shirshasana safely, you have to have a commitment level commensurate with the benefits: find a skilled and experienced alignment-based teacher, and learn the pose in private sessions, a series of classes that allow building towards the pose, or a workshop format to get you started with the basic prep.
"Heading towards Headstand" >> Helsinki, Sept. 24; Cannon Beach, Oct. 22
To leave you with a feel for the depth of this great pose and the history of practice behind it, here's a brief video discussion of the importance of inversions by the great BKS Iyengar.