Protect thy neck: further thoughts on yoga injuries in headstand and shoulderstand

 In anatomy

Tonight in class, one of my students asked me to expand on the response article to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” particularly as it relates to two asana: shoulderstand and headstand.

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).  

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Showing 10 comments
  • Coco Ferrari

    Yay, I love this!

    xx

  • Chamonix Thurston-Rattue

    Thanks for this great article! Really helpful 😀 xoxo

  • michelle smith

    I am completely on board with all of this! I teach both of these poses uber conservative mostly using the prep poses and hold folks back to develop upper back and shoulder strength. I get the ego stink eye from a few, but they usually comply. Thanks for going out on a limb with your view! It’s greatly appreciated. I have often felt I’m out there alone with this one!!

  • Tony

    Excellent article that I can relate to having had neck issues doing Sirsasana. I wish all Yoga teachers were trained to be careful and aware of these issues!

  • Vera

    why never jump/hop into headstand?

  • Rachel

    Hi Peter and Vera –
    as a general rule, hopping into headstand isn’t a great idea because the head is stuck to the ground. If someone falls out of the pose and lacks the stability/ wherewithal to press off of their head, there is the potential that the weight of the body falling could torque the neck. Students can learn how to roll out of this pose, but for starting students out, I encourage them to find the most controlled entrance and exit to minimize any risk.

  • citizenphil

    Sorry guys, but if you want or insist to be upside down, get stronger and do a hand stand, and forget about any kind of head stand. Hand stands are not yoga, but they’re safe and if you can do them you potentially can do a head stand, but don’t have to do one ever, because it’s just a question of time to get hurt. As a certified personal trainer I always advise anybody to stay away from a practice that require to rest even 10% of your body weight on your cervicals. The neck is not built for that. Just because a 3000 year old Indian practice called Yoga advocate it doesn’t mean it’s great and should be attempted. They also advocate in some ancient text to try to make your testicle move back up inside your abdomen. Do you guys practice that too? If yes for what reason?
    Please, no offense, just curious here. I can do shoulder stands, I manage a perfect head stand the first time I tried one. No big deal. Most people who do head stands can’t do shoulder stands. See my point here?

  • Rachel

    Hi Philippe – I LOVE your response. It is so good to question the efficacy of anything the yoga practice asks us to do (or any physical discipline, really!). Like sucking your testicles into your body…ja, I’d say that’s worth some reflection! (The rationale behind semen retention seems to be a methodology to retain one’s “vital essence” – not sure about the testicles, but I’d wager it’s something along those lines.)

    It’s an evolving process to distill what really constitutes a healing prescription gleaned from years of practice, and what ultimately does not stand up to the scrutiny of science.

    Thanks for sharing this!
    R

  • NP

    Traditional yoga was done in a very slow manner with awareness to each and every movement unlike flow where people move from one asana to the other which is more like a physical workout than yogaasanas. The chances of having injuries were minimal.There has been enormous research done in India in 1920s and lot of research papers are published regarding yogic practices if one is interested.Unfortunately west knows only about BKS Iyenger and consider that to be traditional.
    Everybodys body is different and that is the reason yoga was not taught as a group ex program but it was one to one according to individual body. Props are needed to those who have physical limitation so it a good practice without doubt for modern human beings.
    Secondly, people(except few) are just limited to asanas and not giving importance to the other aspects of yoga.

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