Entering into Headstand – 4 Variations

Here are four entries into headstand, for beginners to advanced level.  Follow the same principles of the posture, which I outlined in my blog Headstand with Blocks, to set the foundation of the pose up.

1) Entering with Knees Bent: find your balance with one knee to chest, gently push your weight off the other leg, till then both knees slowly come to chest. From here, lift your knees towards ceiling, and move feet over your head towards the floor behind you.  Lastly lift your feet up into the final posture. Come down the same way

2) Entering One Leg at a Time: Lift one leg up, keeping it very straight and strong. Keep lifting this leg towards the ceiling. Gently push off your foot on the floor, make little movements until you find your balance with both feet off, and at this point slowly raise the second foot up to meet your first foot.

3) Entering Lifting Both Legs Together: walk your feet in as close as you can, keep lifting your hips as high as possible. Push down through your wrists, lift your shoulders away from ears, and fix your shoulder blades.  Lift both legs up.  For flexible students, be careful not to arch your back, especially the lumbar.  Keep the back of your body extended. Come down continuing to lift hips and shoulders up.

4) Jumping into Tripod Headstand: Mukta Hasta Sirsasana A is a headstand from Ashtanga’s Second Series, and takes some courage to jump into.  Enter from downward facing dog, keep your hips and shoulders lifting, jump lightly and engage your core. Remember, your core is your back muscles (latissimus dorsi, serratus, etc – which you can engage with your shoulder blades), as well as your abdominals.  Come down the same way, till it’s time to lift your head off – then let your arms take over and your feet land into chaturanga.

 

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Headstand with Blocks

Salamba Sirsasana.  Salamba = supported, sirsa = head, asana = pose

Lots of my students ask me for help in headstand, and I don’t always have time to help everyone individually in my busy classes at Triyoga.  So here are some tips:

Headstand is a balance, if you feel you are holding on for dear life, chances are you are arched and having to grip/clench hard to stay up. It is less effort once balanced, remember you are looking for Sthira Suckham in each pose.  This is why the wall is useful in the beginning – it can teach you how it feels to balance, with your body aligned.  Headstand should be learnt once you have been practicing consistently for 6-12 months, and have learnt how to support your body with your armpit chest/shoulder blades and legs.  First things to focus on when learning are:

1) wrists must be upright. Inner and outer wrists equally upright. Hands cupped- not collapsed out, and not joined at palms

2) elbows shoulder width

3) shoulders must lift strongly away from ears, the back of your body must lift and lengthen up, lift hips up (don’t collapse the lumbar)

4) abdomen must be soft and long, with arms, shoulders, legs and hip muscles doing the work: arms rolling out and pressing down, the rest lifting up strongly

Using the blocks behind your thoracic spine stops you from pushing your back forward and compressing your neck – and teaches you to lift up:

Getting in:

Put your knuckles against the wall (as close as possible), place crown of your head just inside your hands. Place your knees inside your elbows so your back has to curve and lift.  From here, lift your knees off the ground and hips up. Walk your feet in, lifting hips.  Get a friend to put the blocks between your shoulder blades and the wall.  Then lift one leg as high as you can, and swing the other up to the wall.

Work in the pose:

Slide your heels up the wall, activate your legs by keeping kneecaps firm/quads lifting, lift your buttocks towards your heels and engage the muscles of the gluteal crease. Move tailbone into your body.  Press buttocks forwards, inner thighs back.  If this is hard to implement, put your buttocks against the wall and slide them up the wall, before taking them off and balancing with just heels on wall.  Keep your body symmetrical in the pose.

Once you’ve learnt to balance upright comfortably, with knuckles against the wall and rest of body off the wall, you can move away from the wall. This progression with take different amounts of time for different students.

Benefits:

Headstand ensures fresh blood flow to the cells of the brain, pituitary gland (metabolism, growth, thyroid, pain relief hormones, and water balance via kidneys) and pineal gland (which produces melatonin, a hormone regulating sleep and connected to nervous system functioning). Increased blood flow to these glands rejuvenates, nourishes, and stimulates. People who practice headstand regularly experience increased vitality, immune functioning, capacity to think, and ability to relax and sleep soundly.

Caution:

Headstand should be practised with the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Do not practise headstand during menstruation, if you have neck or back problems, a heart condition, or if you suffer from high or low blood pressure. If you experience discomfort or pressure in your eyes, neck, or ears, come down. Don’t attempt during pregnant, unless you are an experienced practitioner.

Floating – techniques for jumping lightly

Recently a student from one of my beginners courses emailed me about jumping in Ashtanga- how is it possible to jump with control, or as we like to call it, to “float”, rather than landing with a rather loud thud and risk breaking a toe?! Here is our exchange, and let me know how your jumps improve!:

Student: I’ve been practising about 5-6 days a week and am definitely feeling stronger and more flexible. My feet are quite sore though and I think it’s because I’m landing too hard when I jump back in the sun salutations. In fact I nearly killled my cat yesterday when she unwisely strolled across the end of my yoga mat just before I landed.  I’ve looked on YouTube and in John Scott’s book, I get the impression it’s about applying the bandhas, but I’m not sure if I’m doing it right and I’m finding it incredibly hard to rest my weight on my arms and hands and use the shoulders as pivots.
Me: You need to build up more strength in your core, and trust your arms to support you, keeping the weight in your hands/arms/shoulders rather than transferring it to the rest of your body (hips/legs/feet), which is making your legs heavy.  When people talk about bandhas, all they mean really is a state in which your body is in the right place alignment-wise in order to engage all the right muscles (pelvic floor amongst others), for the energy to flow freely.  Jumping back is about keeping the weight of your body in your arms and using your core (the core being the whole torso, back muscles as well).  The way to engage the core is by drawing the front of the torso in and up towards the spine, so to create a curve and length, like we looked at in Cat Pose last class.  Practice some handstands against the wall, to get used to feeling your body weight in your arms.  Put a bolster between your head and the wall, so you are not tempted to arch your back by lifting your head up. Start in down dog (hands shoulder width) with your hands about a foot away from the wall, then walk the feet forward on your toes lifting your hips upwards as much as you can.  Then step one foot in, and kick the other up.  Once you’re up, straighten your arms, move your elbows towards the wall, press your shoulder blades into your ribs, lift shoulders away from ears, let your head hang down, lift your feet and legs up, lift buttocks up towards your heels, move your coccyx into your body (to engage mula bandha). Then practice coming down really slowly, one leg at a time, keeping your hips lifting up as much as possible (so you need to curve the lower back). You start to feel your abs kicking in to control your descent.  This is the same action you want when jumping back. Ie, you get to feel how much you need to push down through the hands, and lift up through our core, keeping the legs engaged.
Here are three clips I’ve filmed for beginners, to help with jumping back, forwards, and a handstand exercise to help you build up the technique to float.  
A quick note on handstands:
In traditional ashtanga yoga, handstands are taught at the end of second series.  This is for a good reason, as you need to have an open enough chest and back in order to bind in various poses in second, so when you’ve got to the end you know you’re definitely strong and open enough for handstands!  In Iyengar yoga, handstands are taught to beginners, and are a really important part of the sequence.  They are energising, strengthening, increase immune system functioning and circulation, and help students to overcome beliefs around what they think they can and can’t do (very liberating to do something you thought you’d never be able to do!).  I love handstands and always encourage students to practice them if they want to, as they are such fun and always make me smile.