Main event: Sirsasana / Headstand (and “headless” headstand)

As we continue our journey of inversions, we arrive at the “king” of poses, sirsasana/headstand. Headstand is given this regal name because of the myriad of benefits that it confers: courage, increased focus, hormonal balance, relieving stress on the heart by reversing blood flow, improving digestion, strengthening shoulders and arms. It’s easier to master this pose than one would think, but preparation and technique is key – otherwise, misalignment of the neck and/or a fall can result in injury.

Fortunately, we also have the option of a “headless headstand,” a variation in which the weight of the body is held up by the arms only, rather than the head and arms, as happens in classic headstand. Thus, even those of you who have cervical vertebrae or disc injuries can safely practice this inversion (credit goes to Doug Keller, a teacher of therapeutic yoga in Virginia, from whom I learned this variation.) Read on to learn how to practice this fun pose.

Begin by stretching the backs of the legs with uttanasana/forward fold, adho muka svanasana/downward facing dog pose, or prasarita padottanasana/wide legged forward fold (pictured below).

Prasarita padottanasana variation with head moving towards floor. Hands are between feet and front spine is long – the bend comes at the crease of the leg/hip interface, not at the waist. Weight is shifting slightly toward balls of feet. Think “duck” to lift seat-bones here.

Next, wake up your core with forearm plank, pointing and flexing your feet to move the body forward and back over the elbows.

Be mindful of not lifting the hips, but rather sliding the body forward/back in one plane as you point and flex your feet.

Half-dog pose is an excellent way to extend the mid-spine region, which is a necessity when moving into headstand. In this variation, interlace the fingers, instead of using the block between the hands as we have in the past, but be sure to keep your elbows no further than shoulder width apart – if in doubt, it’s better for the elbows to be closer than further apart.

Begin with knees slightly bent, moving the belly towards the thighs, but keeping the lowest ribs drawn towards each other. You can remain here, or straighten the legs, but not at the cost of losing the extension in your spine and stretch in the shoulders.

Now, we are ready for the headless headstand! Move to a wall, and set three blocks on top of each other as pictured below.

Be sure to leave an inch or so of space between the wall and the bottom block to allow you to wrap the tips of your fingers around the block.

Wrap the ends of your fingers around the bottom block, placing the elbows (the thin end of the) block width apart – this is more narrowly than we usually place them. Press the edges of the wrists down strongly to activate the shoulder girdle, then lift your knees off the ground and walk towards the blocks until your back presses securely into the blocks. Your head is about 1/2 – 1 inch off the ground.

With the back firmly against the blocks, and forearms plus wrists anchored, raise one leg and kick up into the headless headstand. Note that not kicking up and just practicing raising one leg at a time is a perfectly good place to end your practice until you are confident enough to kick up on your own.

Keep the raised leg straight, give a little push with the standing leg (you may bend the knee a little) and let the uplifted leg “pull” your hips up and over your shoulders. It’s ok to hit the wall, even if it’s a little hard the first few times!

Once in the pose, you should be bearing all of your weight on the arms and none on the head, as I demonstrate by tucking my head towards my chest in the right side photo below. If you feel yourself collapsing into your head, come down immediately, one straight leg at a time.

Finish the practice with balasana/child’s pose until the blood readjusts in your body, then savasana/corpse pose to allow the benefits of the inversion to flow through your now-relaxed body.

Happy inverting! 🙂



Main event: Salamba sarvangasana / shoulder stand

We turn out attention to going upside down for the next few weeks – and it’s about time! Paraphrasing my yoga teacher, Barbara Benagh, if you don’t invert, you are just a dilettante…. Inversions have many benefits, including balancing hormones and lowering blood pressure (shoulder stand and head stand), fostering courage (head stand, handstand), and simply being fun (forearm balance)! However, do try them with a well qualified instructor first, so that you avoid injuring yourself.

If you have suffered from neck injuries, disc issues, or have very tight shoulders or extremely high blood pressure or glaucoma, then please seek the help of a teacher experienced in therapeutic yoga before trying shoulder stand, so that you do not aggravate these conditions.

Our sequence towards the shoulder stand main event includes several poses from this quarter’s previous classes, along with a few new ones to try. The key is opening the shoulders and activating the mid-spine region (sound familiar?!), so that the spine can lift up out of the shoulders.

Begin with a forward fold with the arms clasped behind your back.

Prasarita padottanasana with arms clasped behind back. Note what happens to the lower back when you first bring the arms together behind your back – likely a “duck” anterior tilt. Correct this by drawing your lowest ribs together and your abdominal wall up towards the ribcage.

Move to the floor and an upward facing table top; if that feels fine for your shoulders, you can work on the upward facing plank.

Purvottanasana variations: start with fingers turned back, feet under hips (note: “traditionally,” the fingers are turned forward, but this causes an inward rotation of the upper arms). Push the knees forward and open the angle behind the knees. Keep the chin in the chest if you have tight shoulders, or release the head back if it feels OK. If attempting the full variation, start with flexed feet, push the hips up and roll the thighs towards each other, then place the soles of the feet on the ground. Lift the sternum and mid-spine strongly.

Set up for block under the hips, first just resting in the pose, then wrapping the externally rotating arms around the insides of the ankles (as when we prepared for dhanurasana main event).

Block under hips, arms clasped: place the block under the sacrum, and relax the hips completely. Interlace your fingers beyond the block if you can reach. Lift the sternum (breastbone) up. Make sure your feet and knees are no wider than hip width apart.
Turn your arms into external rotation, as shown in the photo – start with thumb up and then rotate it away from the body towards the floor.
With both arms externally rotating, hold the ankles from the inside. This may or may not be available to you, so don’t struggle – simply try one hand at a time, and eventually your spine will extend enough to allow for this asana.

Then return to the initial pose, and use the block for a supported shoulder stand pose. This is such a great pose! I usually teach this pose for weeks, if not months, before the full shoulder stand to allow practitioners to experience the benefits of shoulder stand, without the effort of the full pose. This pose also works well for those with any health issues that might make full shoulder stand counter indicated.

Press the elbows into the ground and lift the sternum. Touch the knees together to active deep abdominal muscles, and lift both legs at the same time off the floor and then up towards the ceiling.

For those who wish to and can go further, move to the wall, and set up two blankets with the folded ends neatly stacked. The shoulders will go on the blankets, while the head remains off the blanket. It will probably be best to let a teacher who knows how to use these props show you how to do this the first time.

Lie down with shoulders on the blanket, head off. Place your feet on the wall, lift your hips and interlace your fingers, wiggling onto the outer arms. Then place the hands on the back, without allowing the elbows to splay out. (As you can see, the newest yogi is practicing inversions along with mama… 🙂 )

If you wish to go still further, move back to the middle of the room, arrange your blankets, and move into halasana, or plow pose.

Bring the feet over the head, clasp the arms and roll the upper arm bones under your back. Using the blankets keeps excessive pressure off the neck, but there is an art to getting into this pose with the blankets – again, please consult a well-qualified teacher the first time around.

Finally, our main event.

Salamba sarvangasana (or salami sarvangasana, as autocorrect keeps wanting to tell me…). From halasana (the previous pose), place the elbows on the back, careful to keep them from splaying out, press down on them and lift the feet up to the sky. Take care to place weight in your elbows, as well as your shoulders, and press down gently with your head. Baby seems to be enjoying being upside down and is making a bigger appearance!

And there you have it! You are officially not dilettantes! 😉

Happy practicing and namaste,

Sylvia (and Baby Omie – thank you, Janet, for the name!)