Two Ways to Prop Headstand for Different Body Proportions
As a yoga teacher trainer, I do my best to teach new yoga teachers techniques to make asana safe and sustainable, both for them, and for the students they will one day be teaching. I teach them how to spot potential hazards on the mat, how to protect their shoulders in chaturanga and how to prevent knees from over-twisting in hip-openers. One pose we spend a considerable amount of time on is Sirsasana (headstand), also dubbed “King of the Asanas” by Krishnamacharya for its purported health benefits.
Where to Bear Your Weight
Just like many asanas, your body proportions affect how you practice headstand, and where you can attempt to place your weight in the position. BKS Iyengar wrote in Light on Yoga that “the whole weight of the body should be borne on the head alone and not on the forearms and hands.” Pattabhi Jois, on the other hand, wrote in Yoga Mala, that in Sirsasana “…the entire body must stand upside down on the strength of the arms alone.”
Many teachers view the latter option as the safer of the two. When we look at the spine, it is easy to see that the cervical vertebrae are much more delicate than their counterparts, the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae in the mid- and lower spine. Because of its smaller structure, it is safe to say that the cervical spine was not biologically designed to carry the weight of much more than the head. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t carry more weight safely; like everything in yoga, what kind of load the neck can bear is completely individual.
Due to this individuality, many teachers have chosen not to teach headstand in their public classes. Besides having to quickly assess which students in the class have the upper body strength to safely support the pose, it’s also incredibly difficult to know which ones have optimal lordotic curvature in their necks, which ones are free from nerve damage, and which ones might possibly be at risk for osteoarthritis, stroke, or aneurysm. It’s impossible to say that Headstand could be the sole cause for any of these ailments, but more and more teachers are choosing to play it safe by subbing in poses such as Viparitakarani (Legs Up The Wall) instead.
I still teach Sirsasana in my teacher trainings, and although it does not fully eliminate risk of injury, I cue my students to bear the weight of their body in their arms instead of the head and neck. This essentially turns headstand into a pose that feels a bit more like Forearm Stand. When instructing the pose, I give prompts like this one; “Press your forearms into the floor so strongly that you float the crown of your head off the mat enough that you could slide a piece of paper underneath.”
This cue is well-meaning, and great for those who can do it, but what about those who can’t? Several of my able-bodied students over the years simply could not lift their head off the mat. I started to question my approach. What was preventing these students from following my cues? Inversely, why was it that some students were not able to place the crown of their head on the mat for headstand even if they wanted to?
Below we will look at ways to modify Sirsasana by using props in configurations to support those with shorter arms to head/neck ratios, and those with longer arm to head/neck ratios.
Measure Your Proportions
To achieve this slight floating effect in Headstand, your head plus neck to humerus (upper arm bone) ratio needs to meet certain criteria. In order to tell whether or not you will be able to float without props, you will need to measure this ratio, which is easy to do in front of a mirror.
Stand facing the mirror, and reach your arms overhead, like in Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute Pose). Note where your elbows lie in relation to the very top of your head. If they are higher than the crown of your head, you can potentially float without props. If your elbows are quite a bit higher than the top of your head, you might have difficulty even bringing the crown of your head down to the mat without rounding the shoulders forward and compressing the neck. A solution for this is to place a folded blanket under the top of your head when setting up for the pose.
If, however, your elbow creases fall exactly even with or below the top of your head, you can do one of two things: first, while keeping your shoulder blades down the back as much as possible, try lifting your arms up enough so that your elbow creases are now higher than your crown. This is the right-side-up version of pressing the floor away from you in the pose. If your elbows are still below or level to the top of your head, you will need to use props to bring weight out of your head and into your arms in Sirsasana.
How to Modify Your Headstand
Modification 1 – For Short Arm to Head/Neck Ratio
If you have difficulty reaching your head to the mat without rounding your shoulders and shortening your neck:
Use a small, thin blanket or a hand towel, and fold it into a triangular shape. The width of the base of your triangle should not be wider than the distance between your elbows when you set up for Sirsasana, as your elbows need to remain on the mat with only the head being supported by the blanket.
Once you have your triangle, set up your base for headstand with the blanket in the space where your head will land. Note that only the head should land on the blanket, not your forearms or your hands.
Set up your arms by bringing your elbows no wider than shoulder-distance apart with your forearms touching the mat in the diagonal line just outside of the blanket. Have your hands beyond the tip of your triangle so that when you clasp them and come into the pose, they will also be on the mat rather than on the blanket. You should be able to come into the pose with a broad collar bone and long neck. If this is not the case, simply release and add more height to your triangle.
Modification 2 – For Long Arm to Head/Neck Ratio
If you are not able to lift your head off the mat, you will need two thin blankets to artificially lengthen your arms. Fold your two blankets lengthwise, so that they are long enough to support the entire length of your forearms. Place them down on the mat in front of you in an upside-down “V” shape, like the roof of a house or a tipi.
Set up for the pose with your elbows no wider than shoulder-distance apart, and place your forearms down on the blankets. The extra lift provided by the blankets should be enough to allow you to float your head in the pose. If you are still struggling, come down and add more blankets.
As yoga teachers, it is important to learn to read our students’ proportions and help make each pose appropriate for them. It is also worth mentioning that the instruction to carry your weight on your forearms is not always enough. Each of us has a different body and thus needs to adjust in different ways to different poses, or skip them entirely. When it comes to teaching headstand, individuality is key.