CategoryPractice

Perfect Poses to Prep for Headstand

Perfect Poses to Prep for Headstand

Headstand is one of my favourite poses. A headstand demands much. It requires strength AND flexibility but that is not all. Turning upside-down and balancing on your head takes courage. And self-belief. A headstand is a mental and physical challenge which, once mastered, continues to be a highlight of time spent on the mat.

Though many of us effortlessly stood on our heads as children, it seems that it is a skill lost to us as adults. So often life robs us of the physical attributes and self-belief that a head stand demands. For me a headstand requires 4 things – 4 things that can be relearned and woven together to become the joy that your first adult headstand will be. And it is truly a joy.

So What is a Headstand?

A yoga head stand is usually salamba sirsāsana or sirsāsana 1- ‘the king of all poses’ and one of the 12 original poses of hatha yoga.  Here the weight of the body is supported on the forearms and head with the legs in line with the body. Having said that, there are a whole host of variations to headstand – sirsāsana 2 (tripod headstand); mukta hasta sirsāsana (no hands) and any number of leg positions from padmāsana (lotus) to garudāsana (eagle) legs. The world is your oyster.

Preparation Pathway

The journey to a headstand is a long one path paved with many smaller goals. It is a wonderful journey – full of achievement and self-awareness. For me it took 2 years. 24 months of patient, mindful practice then one day it just came together and there I was upside down. Have I persuaded you to step on to this path? I hope so. And this is how you can get there.

1. LONG HAMSTRINGS

To be able to get into a headstand you need a whole lot of length down the back of the body. Particularly in the hamstrings. Short hamstrings draw the pelvis forwards from their ideal position directly over the shoulders and head before you lift the legs. This forward pelvic position makes balancing incredibly hard when you lift the second leg.

The solution? Working on hamstring length within a practice before attempting the pose can work if your hamstrings are nearly long enough.

forward fold yoga headstand prep
Image Credit: Jen Armstrong via Zenarmstrong.

But for most of us it will be a case of working on hamstring length over weeks or maybe months before you can achieve that ideal of hips over head. My favourite poses for this are parsvottanāsana (intense side stretch), janu sirsāsana (head to knee pose) and every version of uttanāsana (forward fold).

2. SUPER SHOULDERS

While balancing in headstand, the forearms are actively pushing down into the mat to allow the body to grow upwards from a firm base. All of the muscles round the shoulder blade are engaged to stabilise the actual shoulder joint. It takes time and effort to build enough strength in the right places achieve this action. This is where arm balancing poses will help – adho mukha śvānāsana (down dog) and any plank variations are a great place to start. As your shoulders strengthen up move on to ardha pincha mayurāsana (dolphin) and maybe bakāsana (crow) as they will really reap further benefits upper body strength.

3. CORE CONTROL

Headstands need core strength in spades. Your core is what provides the stable foundations from which you can lift your legs. It is what gives the inversion stability and balance. Core strength can even compensate for lack of hamstring length or upper body strength.

plank core prep headstand yoga
Image Credit: Li Sun via Pexels.

My favourite core strengtheners are side planks and planks in any variations you like. They are great for static strength. But what about the dynamic strength needed in the core as the legs leave the ground and float overhead? For that you need a dynamic workout. I use forearm plank into dolphin and back. Repeated 5, 10, 20, 30 times – starting with just a few reps and gradually building up by adding 1 or 2 reps each week. As a strength and conditioning workout his exercise is best done on alternate days – not every day. It is fabulous at getting a strong and toned core – what is not to love?

4. COURAGE

For me this is the keystone of any inversion. You can have all of the physical elements of a headstand in the bag but if you head won’t let you turn upside-down it will never work. It takes nerve to balance on your head. It is natural to fear toppling over and hurting yourself. So how can we work to build the courage to try our first headstand?

Spend time in dolphin – stay there for a few breaths at a time. Try lifting one leg at a time to get the body used to the action needed to get into headstand in the future. Try using the headstand arm and head position in a variation of dolphin and walk the feet towards the head to work on getting the hips over the shoulders. This also helps you to get used to being upside down. One day you will feel a delicious lightness in the body as you reach the point of balance. Here is where leg lifting is possible. If you find this point – practice lifting one leg at a time in line with the body into one legged head stand. And when you can do this you are almost ready for the full expression of the pose.

prep headstand yoga inversion
Image Credit: Dane Wetton via Unsplash.

But most importantly – imagine your self floating into the perfect headstand. Picture yourself poised on your head as you breathe deeply. Explore how it will feel and what you will see in your minds eye. Did you know that imagining an activity actually lights up the same parts of the brain that we need use to physically do an activity? This sets up the neural pathways needed to succeed. It makes that activity familiar and altogether less scary when you try it for real. Isn’t that amazing?

Bringing it All Together

The path to a perfect headstand is not always smooth. You may find some of the elements come easily but others elude you for months. Be patient. Do not rush. Headstands are worth waiting for.

And of course, not every yogi will be able to achieve a full headstand. Injuries may make it impossible. Headstands are traditionally contraindicated for folk with high blood pressure or hiatus hernia amongst other things. I would also add that anyone with neck problems should think carefully before attempting the full expression of the pose. This is where a headstool still might be worth considering if you want to invert but not put pressure on your neck.

I really hope you enjoy your journey to headstand as much as I have enjoyed mine. It has been one of the most satisfying yoga poses I have, as yet, accomplished. I wish you happy headstand-ing!

Sally Schofield

6 Basic Principles for Beginners and Beyond

6 Basic Principles for Beginners and Beyond

Ever wondered how your yoga teacher knows when to breathe in or out as you move through a sequence of poses? Do you know how hard to push that stretch – I mean, how much stretch is a good stretch after all? And what is that ‘microbend’ in knees and elbows all about? I know it all confused me to begin with – knowing when to do what was a bit of a ‘black art’ I thought. But no – there are a few basic rules that can be learnt and applied to any pose or practice.

And getting to grips with a few basic principles opens up a whole new world of yoga opportunities. Home practice becomes SO much less daunting. You might become confident enough to try a mysore class (where students work through poses at their own pace without instructions from the teacher). Or you might just enjoy your current classes more because you have one less thing to worry about. Wherever you are on your yoga journey, these simple rules really do have the potential to deepen your practice. So, read on to discover some of the best foundations for your yoga practice.

1. INHALE TO BACKBEND

Anytime you are doing backbends or opening the front of the body you are extending the spine and hips. Think bhujańgāsana (cobra) or utthita hastāsana (arms overhead) and notice the stretch at the front of the body. When this is happening the chest is able to expand beautifully too, so taking a deep breath in as you back bend makes sense. Working with the body like this adds value to the extension and expansion combination of the movement – we are simply working with what nature designed us to do. And it feels good!

2. EXHALE TO FOLD

yoga fold janu sirsasana
Image Credit: Jonathan Borba via Pexels.

Folding forwards stretches the back of the body and ‘squashes’ the front. Think about uttasāsana (standing forward fold) or janu sirsāsana (head to knee pose). Notice that there is less room in the chest for air as the diaphragm is pressed up under the lungs – basically the abdominal contents are squashed upwards. This makes us naturally breathe out when we bend forward so this basic principle is real easy to get the hang of. Breathing out on forward folds is simply more comfortable than the alternative.

3. EXHALE TO TWIST, INHALE TO RETURN TO CENTRE

This one is partly about space available for air too. As we twist the abdominal contents are squashed and press up under the diaphragm just like on forward folds. So air is naturally pushed out of the lungs as we move into a twist and we are, once again, working with nature here. When we untwist and come back to the centre, our abdominal organs all settle back down taking the pressure away from under the diaphragm and that the lungs can fill again. Hence, breathing out to twist and in to return to centre makes good biological sense.

4. SUKHA VS DUHKHA

sukhasana yoga pose beginners
Image Credit: Patrick Malleret via Unsplash.

Translated form sanskrit this means ‘comfort vs suffering’. Think of a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 = really comfortable (sukha) and 10 = horrible (duhkha). Then imagine you are awarding a number between 0 and 10 to how comfortable a particular yoga pose is for you as you are doing it. If you are awarding high numbers (maybe 6/10 or over) then you are probably pushing too hard to achieve something that your body is not yet ready to do. On the basis that yoga should never be painful then low numbers are generally better than high numbers so my advise would be to ease off until you are more comfortable. Poses like savasana (corpse pose) or sukasana (easy pose) need to be really comfortable, ideally scoring 0 or 1, so modify the pose and use props until you can score 0 or 1.

5. HOW MUCH STRETCH IS A GOOD STRETCH?

One of the great joys of yoga is the way it increases flexibility. In fact, many people will start yoga simply to get more mobile. But can you stretch too much? Yes, yes, and yes again – you can definitely stretch too much. Over stretching risks damaging soft tissues and causing injuries. So how do you know when to stop stretching – when to stop pushing?

The answer is simple – listen to your body. Ask yourself a few simple questions. Is the stretch feeling comfortable? If so, good – if not, ease off. Is the stretch increasing or decreasing as I hold the pose? A stretch feeling that is decreasing or staying the same is a good, safe stretch. A stretch feeling that is increasing is a bad and dangerous stretch – ease off! Mild, comfortable stretches that stay the same or decrease when held are the ones that safely and easily increase range of motion in soft tissues. Trust me – they are the ones that you want.

6. MICROBENDS IN KNEES AND ELBOWS

yoga knees bend beginners
Image Credit: Roman Davayposmotrim via Pexels.

This is also about protecting the soft tissues around the joints. Allowing the knees or elbows to flop into a passive stretch risks injury to the back of the joints. Keeping a microbend activates muscles around the joints and allows the stretching forces to fall on the tissues that can safely lengthen while protecting those that need protecting. The same principle applies to the spine too. Keep the abs activated to prevent the lower back just folding into a hinge in back bends and keep the chin gently pulled towards the chest any time you are looking up activates the right neck muscles – both will protect your spine.

So, next time you are on your mat – think about applying these few simple rules and see just how your body likes them. Be mindful and work with what nature designed for us – it really does work a treat!

Sally Schofield

Self Care: Welcoming the New Year with Ayurveda

Self Care: Welcoming the New Year with Ayurveda

As the New Year approaches, many of us are drawn to reflect on the past year with the intention to create something new, something better than what we experienced the preceding year. Your soul wants to expand and your mind wants to work diligently to discover, analyze, and create a new story. In this scenario, we’re oftentimes driven by the ego-mind which gives us a sense of Self. The ego-mind is what you learned about yourself from outside sources: other people, experiences you’ve had, and the society where you grew up. And so, it’s helpful when it comes to navigating the practical matters of life that we’ve created. For example, thanks to the ego, you can identify yourself as a Mother, Father, European, Accountant, etc. And while it helps create order it also creates a sense of separation, which ultimately is devastating to humankind. You can, however, use the ego-mind as it was intended, to help you evolve. The gateway to do so begins with self-care. Self-care gives you the space to quiet the ego-mind, look within, and create more consciousness.  (more…)

Jaclyn Andrews

Yogi’s guide: Starting a Home Practice

Yogi's guide: Starting a Home Practice

The New Year will soon be upon us. That time where resolutions and good intentions abound. Are you wanting to start something to improve your fitness? Maybe help you deal with stress or sleep better? Are you looking for something to look after your physical and mental health that only takes up a few minutes a day? Well, a home yoga practice could be just the thing for you. (more…)

Sally Schofield
One Weekend Workshop to up your skills

Cheeky Yogi Teaches for the First Time – blood, sweat and a sandwich

Cheeky Yogi Teaches for the First Time - blood, sweat and a sandwich

I had spent hours agonising over the contents of my first ever class. So many decisions.

Pranayama? Yes. Something short, but essential.

Music? Yes. A carefully crafted playlist to enhance the yoga journey.

Chanting? Yes. 1 short mantra, 3 OMs, and 3 Shantis.

As soon as I was allowed to teach yoga (half-way through my 200-hour course), I set up a 6-week beginner yoga course in my local, damp and dark village hall. Ready with my matching purple mats and yoga blocks, incense to mask the fumes, and a few electric candles (think health and safety) for ambience. I had genuinely thought of everything; even a selection of herbal teas should people mingle after class and create the epic yoga community I envisaged. I had invited a few work colleagues and friends to join me for free. I might not make a whopping profit, but at least the class wouldn’t be empty and the real punters would feel this was an actual pukka yoga class.

(more…)