I’d always looked at people in headstand with a strange mix of awe and terror. The same thoughts would replay in my mind each time, "Isn’t it dangerous?" What if they fall out? They could break their neck! It wasn’t until my first teacher training that I learned a simple truth: It’s easy when you know how. My fellow students encouraged me through the fear I’d never even realized I had, until one tentative leg after the other, my feet were pointing toward the sky.
In that moment, it occurred to me that I had never even bothered to try before. I’d written myself off as unable to do the pose, unknowingly afraid of the hypothetical consequences in my mind. Only nine days later, I went on to teach headstand in my final exam — nervous and a little wobbly, but safe in the knowledge that my body was perfectly capable of doing what I asked it to do.
If you find headstand scary, you’re not alone. Read on for advice and tricks to help conquer the fear and master this elusive pose.
The King of Asana
Dubbed the "king of asana," headstand is probably one of the most famous yoga poses and certainly one of the most photographed. There is good reason for its popularity, besides looking snazzy on your Instagram feed. Headstand offers a whole host of bodily benefits, from keeping your heart healthy to increasing immunity and balancing hormones. The physiological impact has a lot to do with the inversion involved in this posture: When the head is below the heart, the heart doesn’t have to work so hard — it can send oxygenated blood to the brain with ease. This efficient pumping of blood not only increases blood flow to vital organs, but it can also have a profound effect on the nervous system. Research demonstrates that headstand activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) responsible for kicking us into "rest and digest," mode and absolutely vital for an overall sense of calm and well-being.
(In case you still need more reasons, here are 10 Benefits of Inversions.)
Safety and Strength
Since fear is often born out of ignorance, the best remedy is to really know your stuff! The importance of practicing headstand safely goes without saying — I doubt I’m the only one who has ever looked at an upside-down yogi and worried that their neck is about to snap.
Before even thinking about turning your world on its head, it’s important to build up some core and upper body strength. Shifting back and forth between dolphin pose and forearm plank is a great way to prepare for headstand, but always make sure to stretch and open up the shoulders before practicing. It can take a little time to build up the strength required to lift the legs, but take this as the perfect opportunity to practice patience! Most importantly, do not rush out of this pose, no matter how long you manage to hold it for. Instead, rest the forehead on stacked fists for a few calming breaths, taking a moment of mindfulness to allow the blood flow to return to normal.
(More on keeping safe in this posture in, How to Safely Practice Headstand.)
Three Tricks to Conquering Headstand
If the prospect of headstand is still terrifying, try out these three tricks to get you started:
Set Up a Stable Base
If you’re here, you probably already know the basics: elbows below shoulders, fingers interlaced, crown of the head at the base of the palms. Have you ever tried setting up in this way whilst seated? Give it a go. Chances are, the top of your head will be sticking out, rendering the arms totally useless if you were upside-down.
Try it again, but this time, elevate the shoulders toward the ears. See the difference? The head is tucked neatly away and the arms are back in business. In headstand, this same elevation of the shoulders activates the big back muscles, made possible by really pressing the forearms into the floor. This will simultaneously shift power into the arms whilst protecting your precious head from all that body weight. For even more stability, try wrapping one pinky finger around the other, rather than interlacing them like the rest of the fingers. This will create a flatter base, helping to keep wobbles at bay.
'Jackie Chan Arms'
If I told you to adduct your arms and engage your serratus anterior muscles, it’s likely that you’d stare at me with a blank face. This was generally how I would respond to such a cue until I met Hang Nhan, a yoga anatomy enthusiast from Saigon Om. Before teaching headstand, she asked the class to show her our best “Jackie Chan arms” — that famous martial arts stance with forearms reaching forward, elbows drawn neatly into the ribs.
By getting to know your Jackie Chan arms before headstand, you’ll become familiar with the sensation of engaging your serratus anterior — the muscles spanning your first to eighth ribs, which are essential for maintaining healthy shoulder movement.
When practicing headstand, summon your inner Jackie Chan and imagine hugging your arms into the midline. This cue will create a strong foundation, keeping your elbows from splaying out and preventing you from collapsing across the shoulder girdle.
With your strong, stable Jackie Chan base in place, lift the hips and practice walking the feet towards and away from the head. This will help you to get used to the sensation of the hips coming over the shoulders whilst working wonders for your core strength. When you feel ready to face the fear, try first lifting only one foot at a time. Once both feet are off the ground, pause with the knees bent towards the armpits. For the first few tries, hold it here. Experience every aspect of how it feels; be present with the sensations, observe the engagement of the muscles, practice pressing the floor away. When you’re ready, straighten one leg at a time, but don’t rush! Practice with patience and you’ll soon enjoy headstand with ease.
Journey Through Fear
With all these benefits in mind, is headstand sounding a little less scary? If not, never fear. It is a daunting posture, quite literally the opposite of our day-to-day comfort zone — standing on two feet. For me, by far the trickiest thing about mastering headstand was the fear of being upside-down. After those initial wobbly attempts at the teacher training, it took many months of practice to truly conquer the fear, but this journey was undeniably more valuable than the picture perfect posture at the destination. Practicing headstand is an underrated form of meditation; a way to look deep within and stay present with what you find.
(Continue reading for The Nature of Fear & 5 Not-So-Scary Solutions.)