“Sometimes when we believe in monsters, they take up residence under our beds.” – Shane Koyczan.
For a long time, headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) was my worst enemy. Back bends? Bring them on. Splits? Yeah, I like a challenge. But headstand? No way.
Why? I was afraid.
I was afraid of falling. I was afraid of hurting myself. I was afraid that if my world was turned upside down, I wouldn’t be able to cope.
And then I signed up for a yoga teacher training course. My teacher, the absolutely amazing Cat Alip-Douglas, assessed my practice and accepted me on the course. BUT – and this is an important but! – there was ONE condition. I had to learn how to do headstand, and I had a month to do so.
Panic set in. What?! I don’t do headstand!
But I cared about getting into Cat’s course more than anything else. So I practiced. Every day, several times a day. Cat gave me the tools to break it down into stages. I filmed myself, not for Instagram fame, but to check my alignment and to assess my progress. I fell out and cried and started again – countless times. But every time I felt I was getting a little bit stronger. A little bit less wobbly.
By the end of the month, not only I could get into headstand – I could hold it for 5 entire minutes.
And that fear that scared me so much – that monster – was gone.
So this is what I learnt about headstand… I hope that working on it will be a transformative journey for you as much as it was for me.
STEP BY STEP
- From Child’s pose: extend your arms forward and interlace your fingers. You’re trying to build a triangular shape with your forearms and hands. The base shouldn’t be wider than your shoulders.
- Place the top of your head in the middle of that triangular shape on the floor. The back of the head should be resting against your cupped palms.
- Press down with your forearms and the side of your wrists and hands.
- Tuck toes under and move your legs forward, close to your face, until your hips are above your shoulders.
- Keep pressing down with your forearms.
- Check your shoulders are not collapsing and your abdomen is engaged. Your neck should be long.
- Bring one knee into the chest, then the other knee into the chest. If this is too hard, stay with one knee into chest until you find the balance to bring both knees up.
- Bring both knees (still bent) parallel to the floor.
- Your abdomen is VERY engaged. Warning: your hips will be moving slightly back to accommodate this transition. Don’t worry: it’s just a phase.
- Bring your knees up (knees are still bent).
- This means also bringing your hips back to a central position: to build a solid structure, they need to be stacked above your shoulders.
- Keeping your abdominal muscles engaged will help you move through this transition with control.
- Extend the legs up and squeeze them together as if you had a block between them. It will help with your stability.
- Check your alignment: now your ankles should be above your knees which should be above your hips which should be above your shoulders.
- You’re in headstand! Hurray! Keep breathing.
- Go up in stages. When you can comfortably hold one stage for at least a minute, progress to the next one. As lots of things in life, there’s no shortcut to headstand. So… no jumping up. You need to put the work in by gradually building muscle memory & strength.
- Check your abdomen is engaged throughout the whole process. It’ll help you find/maintain stability.
- Constantly check your shoulders are not collapsing and your forearms are pressing down. There should be almost no weight on your head and neck.
- Learn how to fall out of it. There’s no shame in falling as long as you do it safely. Also – same as in climbing – learning to fall takes the fear away.
Rolling out of it is great – but mind your knuckles! Untangle them as soon as you feel you’re about to fall.
If you have a super bendy back you might instinctively fall into a bridge. Just be prepared.
And yes, it should go without saying, but… remove objects, furniture, kids and animals from the area where you’re practicing!
USING THE WALL – 3 variations
If you’re afraid of falling – totally understand the feeling! – use a wall for support. But – and this is an important but! – ABSOLUTELY NO JUMPING UP.
Option 1. Prepare your Child’s pose facing the wall, so when you go up into headstand the wall will stop you from falling backwards (in other words, when you are in headstand the wall is behind your back). The distance between you and the wall should be approximately the same length of your lower legs – so you will have space to go up in stages with bent knees, and you can use the feet against the wall for support. You can experiment with extending one leg at a time to build up strength and endurance. IMPORTANT NOTE: do not bend your back into a banana shape. That’s not the point of headstand, and it’s actually quite bad for you!
Option 2. Prepare your child pose with your back to the wall in order to use it as a support as you go up into headstand (in other words, when you are in headstand you are looking at the wall). The distance between you and the wall should be approximately the same length of your legs – so you will have space to go up in stages with bent knees if you wish, but you will also be able to go up with your legs extended and use your feet against the wall for support. You can experiment with extending one leg at a time to build up strength and endurance.
Option 3.Prepare your child pose with one side next to the wall, so if you feel wobbly you can lean against it at any stages. The distance between you and the wall should be minimal – you can actually rest one of your elbows against it for further support. I would suggest you should use this option once you’ve built endurance and strength, but you’re still working on balance.
WHAT THIS POSTURE TAUGHT ME
To break down my fears into smaller parts. By working on each stage, I learnt to face the monster bit by bit. I now use the same ‘exposure’ strategy when I project a route: can I work through one scary thing a time? Am I ok with falling? Am I still alive after each bit? Cool, then let’s move forward!