Confession: I’m a fitness editor and I’ve never done a headstand. Yeah, never.
I do yoga pretty regularly, and I like to consider myself well-versed in the practice: Warrior II? Chair Pose? Full bind? You got it! But any time the instructor calls for this intimidating inversion, I freeze. (Yeah, I’ll just hang over here in child’s pose, thanks!)
I’m definitely curious to try headstand, after all, it feels like one of those poses you have to achieve to be considered a true yogi. But for some reason, when I think about flipping my body upside down with that much weight in my head, I picture snapping my spine in half and collapsing onto my sweaty yoga mat. (Too, dramatic? Well, welcome to my nightmare.)
My only consolation is, when I look around the room at my fellow classmates, most people are sitting out of headstand pose, too.
Which brings me to my next question: How does one actually master headstand? Is it worth it? And am I a total failure if I never do this pose?
For some answers, I consulted Heather Peterson, certified yoga instructor and chief yoga officer at CorePower Yoga.
What’s the point of headstand?
Well, for starters, Peterson explains that headstands are known in yoga as “inversions”—poses that bring your heart over your head, or flip you upside down. According to Peterson, inversions are said to benefit the cardiovascular system along with the lymphatic system. Headstands are also a great physical challenge. “You have to work everything to hold this posture,” notes Peterson, including your arms, core, glutes, and legs.
Not to mention, there are some mental perks, too: “I think one of the benefits is pure, clean fun!” says Peterson. “Plus, refreshing your perspective and putting everything upside down is incredible, psychologically.”
Before you try to do headstand…
Realize that it’s totally okay if headstand isn’t right for you, or your body. There are a number of factors that may get in the way of your doing the pose that are totally out of your control, notes Peterson.
For example, if you have degenerative disk issues, structural imbalances in your back, or neck and shoulder issues—DO NOT DO A HEADSTAND. “It’s just not worth it.” But even if nothing is standing in your way, there are some things to keep in mind before attempting your first headstand.
Practice alignment. When it comes to headstand, keeping your spine and body in the proper position is crucial, says Peterson. To practice your alignment, do mountain pose, where you stand straight up with your arms raised overhead and toward your ears “to work your neck and build strong muscles.”
And when you do prepare to do headstand, “have an instructor watch you and check the alignment of your neck,” she advises. “Are you at the right place on the top of your head? Is there a curve in your spine?” These are all important things to consider to prevent injury.
Don’t put all the weight in one place. “The goal is to have less than 10 percent of your body weight in your head,” notes Peterson. That means, it’s crucial to engage the rest of your body, like your arms, core, glutes, and legs. You can also practice with less weight, by placing yoga blocks under your forearms, to take any pressure out of your head.
Control your speed. You shouldn’t be popping up into this pose at lightning speed. “You’ve got to go up slow, and you’ve got to come down slow,” says Peterson. “That will decrease the weight and pressure in your spine and head.”
It’s not a marathon. To truly master headstand, you may be under the impression that you need to hold the pose for a really, really long time. But that’s just not true. “Don’t be up there long,” says Peterson. “Three breaths or less is fine.” And if that feels too long, that’s okay, too.
Work your way up to headstand.
“If you’re brand new at it, go step-by-step,” says Peterson. “Realize everyone has to work at it.” Build your way up to it with other poses, like downward dog or dolphin pose, wide-leg forward fold, or legs up the wall (where your torso is on the ground and your feet are up the wall).
You can also practice using a chair. To do so, get into dolphin pose (seen above) with your hands cradling your head and put your feet on a chair or bench. Then practice extending one leg into the air, then the other.
In fact, she notes that these are all great alternative inversions, if you find headstand really isn’t your thing.
How to do a headstand
Now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: Here’s how to actually get your body into that headstand. Again, if it’s your first time, make sure an instructor is nearby to check your alignment, says Peterson.
How to: Begin by interlacing your fingers and placing your hands on the ground, with palms facing toward each other. Place the back of your head into your hands, and position the top of your head on the floor. Your shoulder blades should be rotated out. Start with your legs in dolphin pose, and check your alignment before proceeding—your head, shoulders, spine, and hips should be in one line. Take five breaths here.
Then, lift one foot up into the air, and using your core strength, lift the other to meet it. It should feel like your elbows are punching into the ground. Your core, thighs, and glutes are engaged. Keep your legs straight and quads extended. Your body should feel like a solid, secure cylinder, with minimal weight in your head. Hold for three breaths, then slowly lower your legs back down.
Remember you’re not a failure if headstand isn’t your thing.
Peterson notes that whether you can pull off a headstand or not, that doesn’t make you any more or less of a yogi (phew!) “Yoga is all about skillful action, so as long as you’re making choices with deep why and personal power, that’s yoga,” she says. “The way that you approach each pose is just as important as the doing of the pose. It’s still yoga even if you choose not to headstand.”
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