Headstand and Shoulderstand – labelled the King and Queen of Asana by Iyengar for their therapeutic properties – got a bad rap in the NYTimes article. And no wonder. These are high demand poses, asking practitioners to support the entire weight of their body with their mobile shoulder girdles. Unfortunately, some practitioners foray into them before they’ve developed the strength and flexibility to sufficiently support their body weight, which means that they are slinging weight instead into their cervical spine.
How to Protect yourself in Headstand
Tip 1: First of all, practice Sirsasana A, not B. Sirsasana A is performed with the forearms on the floor and the hands interlaced behind the head. Sirsasana – also called tripod headstand, or teddy bear – is done with head on the floor and the hands flat, elbows at a 90 degree angle. The problem here is clear: in Sirsasana A, you have the opportunity to use your the muscles of your arms and back to take weight off of your neck, while in Sirsasana B, there is no choice but for your cervical spine to bear weight.
I know, I know. Some of you have heard that Sirsasana B is “easier.” It’s not easier, it’s more accessible. There is a critical difference between the two. It’s more accessible because it doesn’t require your shoulders to be as open and you have an easier time balancing. However, it’s far more treacherous for your neck since your head is weight-bearing.
Tip 2: Support yourself on your forearms, not your head. Although yogis extol the virtue of stimulating the crown chakra by having the head on the floor, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably wiser to start by protecting your neck. Keep your head light, and root like heck through your forearms – especially during your transitions. Worry about the subtle body after you take care of your spine.
Tip 3: Never jump or hop into headstand. Be patient. There’s no gold pot of liberation once you get up there, so practice until your body can smoothly and safely sustain the transition. Therein lies the actual reward.
Tip 4: Neck feel cramped? Some of us have lovely long necks. If this is you, there won’t be any amount that you can press through your forearms to get the weight off your head because your proportions will make this impossible. Instead, place blankets under your forearms evenly so that your arms are artificially longer. Presto. Instantly reliever for neck compression. Now press down your forearms with gusto and get the weight off your neck.
Tip 5: Keep your neck in its natural curve. Take care when you’re on your head (even though you’re not putting a lot of weight there), to ensure that you are not rolling forward or back on you head, but that you can lengthen through all four sides of the neck evenly. Maintaining the natural curve of your cervical spine will protect the delicate vertebrae of your cervical spine, which are not designed to be weight bearing.
How to Protect Yourself in Shoulderstand
1. Use blankets. For the love of God. Please. I know you want to “get into the pose already” and going and getting props is a drag (especially when the teacher doesn’t suggest them), but trust me. For the long terms health of your neck, there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by folding some blankets and putting them under your shoulders so that you’ve got some space for your neck. Here’s why: when we’re in shoulderstand, the weight should actually be on the triceps, elbows, shoulders and (slightly) the back of the head – not the upper thoracic spine or the neck. Most of us can’t sufficiently lift through our upper backs (nor do we have the opening in our shoulders in extension) to get our vertebrae off the floor without props. So instead, we wind up putting all of our body weight on our upper spine, rounding through the upper back, and bringing the neck into extreme flexion. While this may not bother you now, over time this can cause an over lengthening of the ligaments in the back of the neck that protect the natural cervical curve. Read more about this in Roger Cole’s Yoga Journal article.
Dr. Jeremy Brook add, “As a chiropractor, the problem I have with shoulderstand relates to most people’s habitual patterns, injuries and structural imbalances. Many people sit at a desk for hours, collapse on their sofa and sleep on their stomachs. While this example is extreme, most modern bodies are far different from those of the ancient yogi who practiced asana hours each day, meditated, read sacred texts and slept on a hard straw bed. Thus, a modern practitioner may possess the same spirit, but in a body with a far different, and likely compromised, neck. ”
2. Do a modified pose if you don’t have blankets. Grab a block and come into a restorative shoulderstand with your hips on a blocks, legs up, and your upper back essential in bridge pose. Same benefits, much less risk on the cervical spine.
3. If you’re a teacher, then Teach the Pose. Let’s get rid of the habit of tossing shoulderstand in as an “if you want to,” or “if it’s in your practice” last minute offering. Take some time, get out the props, teach it conservatively, and let’s reclaim the therapeutic potential of this Queen of Asana. Maybe then it can really become the “the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages” (Iyengar, Light on Yoga).