Home Practice: Turn Your World Upside Down

At its best, autumn is a season marked by fresh starts and new ventures. The cool air moves us along. We shift our wardrobes, our food cravings, and the temperature of our beverages. Our moods mingle with the changing colors of the trees. But this quickly evolving landscape can all to often wrench us into a frenzy of activity.

I've rustled up a practice for September that will satisfy the back to school appeal of new perspectives and exciting projects, while honoring a slow and steady pace.

Sirsasana, the headstand is an epic pose know as the king of the asanas. Holding the pose with good alignment for extended periods of time benefits multiple systems of the body and brings clarity of mind. In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar writes:

“Regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.”

A practice of headstand invites us to orient ourselves to a new point of view and reversed relationship to gravity. It's an excellent forum for exploring Abhinivesha. Abhinivesha is one of the Kleshas (obstacles/afflictions in the yoga sutras) and is associated with our deepest innate fears and will to live. Remember, the process of working toward headstand is not about doing an impressive pose. It's about coming to know yourself better through exploration – facing fears, and overcoming obstacles.

Take good care of yourself. Approach with caution if you have any shoulder or neck injuries, history of stroke, unregulated high or low blood pressure, glaucoma or detached retina. If you are pregnant and have no prior experience with headstand skip it for now. You can always come back to it later and practice with your kids!

The first steps below are for those new to headstand. My aim is to demystify the pose by outlining simple strategies for preparing your strength, range of motion, and mind/body awareness. After getting over the upside down bit (easier said than done, I know) it's a beautifully simple pose.

Experienced practitioners, read on! I've provided a few variations at the end that are sure to spice up your journey.

Start by stopping.

Pause for a few breaths, seated in Virasana (kneeling with your seat on a block) or Sukhasana (legs crossed with your seat on a block or blankets). The little dude below has chosen Virasana, the hero pose.

Interlace your fingers, straighten your arms and reach your palms to the ceiling. Take your awareness inside. Close your eyes or keep them open, but have your eyes wide open inside.

Watch yourself.

Observe any and all sensations that arise. Notice where you feel rigid, where you feel loose. Where does the fabric of the body feel thick, thin, heavy and unresponsive, or delicate and sensitive? How and where is your breath moving in the body? Lower your arms, switch the interlace and repeat. Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana (upward bound fingers pose).

Now take Garudasana (eagle) arms. Right arm on top, left arm on top. Hold for 8-10 breaths on each side. Look inside. Breathe into your back.

Repeat Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana and observe any sensations that feel different from the first time.

Come onto hands and knees. Practice cat/cow, synchronizing movement and breath. From extended child's pose, transition into Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog pose). Move forward and back between down dog and plank several times on your breath. Arms straight. Widen your shoulder blades in plank pose – like you did in eagle arms. Hold plank pose for 5-10 breaths. Hold down dog for 5-10 breaths. Walk to Uttanasana (standing forward bend) and interlace you fingers behind your back.

Stand in Tadasana (mountain pose). Practice two cycles of Surya Namaskara A (sun salutes) and Prasarita Padottanasana A (wide leg forward bend).

Go to the wall

for the Chaturanga Dandasana (four-limbed staff pose) “trust fall.” Stand 12-18 inches away from the wall. Inhale, turn your arms open, widen and lift you collar bones – notice how your ribs push forward. Exhale, draw the front of your rib cage away from the wall toward the back of your rib cage. Maintain a neutral spine and stability through the lumbar spine. Bring your arms into a chaturanga-like position. Fall forward into the wall and catch yourself with your hands.

Did you break in the middle? Move the front of your body towards the back of your body – resist thighs, abdomen, and low front ribs away from the wall. Did you break in the shoulder girdle? Firmly anchor your shoulder blades on your back and widen your shoulder blades. Make your body like a stick!

Now when you are on the wall, pull yourself off the wall. Take a smooth breath in. On your exhale, move the front of your body toward the back of your body to float back to standing. Resist the urge to push with your arms. Do very little with your arms and more with your feet, legs and abdominals. It's not about pushing with the arms, but pulling the rest of the body away from the wall. Experiment with moving closer or farther away from the wall. Find your center of balance over your feet, moving from your center. This will come in handy later...

Practice Chaturanga a few times on the floor and notice if you break in the same places you did at the wall. Stand in Tadasana and do Gomukhasana (cow face) arms.

Get your headstand on!

STEP 1:

Dolphin pose with you head

off

the ground. Forearms on the ground, fingers interlaced, elbows shoulder width, hips up. Press down through your hands, forearms, and elbows to lift your head and rib cage away from the floor. Practice this variation until you can hold the position with confidence for 5-10 breaths. Practice walking your feet closer to your elbows without rounding your upper back.

STEP 2:

Dolphin pose with you head

on

the ground. Place the very top of your head on the floor (a little closer to the hairline), back of head next to thumbs. Repeat above and get familiar with taking a little bit of weight into the top of your head. Shoot for 90% of the weight in the arms and legs, 10% in the head – or something like that. Light on the head to begin.

If you find steps 1 and 2 to be challenging, stick with them for a few weeks, a month, a year. Take your time.

STEP 3:

From step 2, walk your feet closer to your elbows. Press your forearms into the floor strongly and lift your shoulders up. Come on to your tippy toes and lift your hips higher. Pull one knee in

close to the body

.

Ever carried a heavy bag of groceries? You carry it close to the body to manage the weight more efficiently over your center of gravity. Ever tried to carry a child whose arms and legs are flailing in all directions? Not an easy task. But if you hold that child close with arms and legs in tight it's much easier. Same principal applies here.

STEP 4:

Once you've got one leg pulled tightly into the body, practice shifting your weight from the leg on the floor into your forearms. The more you press you forearms down, the better. You need to engage your back muscles in an effort to extend your spine, tipping the weight of the pelvis over your center of gravity. This action will make the foot on the floor light. No jumping allowed! You must lift. Hug both knees tightly into the body and maintain this compact shape, balancing. This position of the legs in headstand is called Acunchanasana.

As you practice this step, consider moving close to a wall for use as a safety net. Have the wall there just in case but come up into the pose without touching the wall.

Personally, I'm a big fan of learning headstand without the use of a wall, and here's why.

  • The wall provides a false sense of security that can coax some practitioners into headstand before the necessary strength, flexibility, and proprioception (awareness of the body in space) have been established. If you can't get into the position on your own, you might not have the faculties to maintain the pose safely.
  • If you are leaning on a wall, you are never balanced on your centerline. The alignment of the pose is thrown off its central axis. If you ever do decide to practice coming off the wall to balance, the wall feels like a big magnet sucking you back to the more familiar leaning alignment you have grown accustomed to. If this experience sounds familiar, consider beginning your headstand practice all over again. It's a gift to be a beginner! Re-learn the pose in the center of the room, re-train your muscles and proprioceptors and find your central axis. You just might find new parts of yourself along the way.
  • It's fun to practice in the center of the room! A whole world of variations and play.

Stick with step 4 until you have developed a smooth transition into Acunchanasana, have the strength to maintain the pose for 1 minute or more, and feel confident in your balance.

STEP 5:

Keeping your weight centered over your base, slowly unfold the hips and knees. Go straight up. Find a slight internal rotation of the thighs at the hips, join your feet and reach up evenly through the heels and balls of the feet. Lengthen your buttocks toward your heels. Draw your front ribs toward your back ribs. All the while, pressing your forearms down and lifting your shoulders up. Hold for as long as you feel comfortable. Save enough strength to come down with control. Press your forearms into the floor strongly on the way down, fold your legs into Acunchanasana (the compact ball shape) and alight your feet onto the floor. Rest in child's pose.

Finish your practice

by taking Padangustasana (big toe pose). Fold forward and hold your big toes with your first two fingers. Let go of the weight of the head to traction length into the neck. Come into a supported bridge pose with a block under your sacrum. Supine twist to both sides. Savasana.

Adventurous headstanders

, try these twisting variations in the center of the room.

"With your feet in the air and your head on the ground, try this trick and spin it, yeah."

(sorry, couldn't resist).

To prepare, practice Jathara Parivartanasana, Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, Parivrtta Trikonasana, or other twists of your choice.

Parsva Sirsasana (side headstand). Come into headstand with a foam block between your feet. Yes, that means you have to come up with both legs together. If you want to challenge your balance/strength, try coming up with straight legs. You will need to shift the pelvis back to counterbalance the weight of the legs. Nothing wakes up the feet and legs like holding onto a block. Reach up through your legs. Twist to the right and lift your right shoulder strongly. Come back to center, pause. Twist to the left and lift your left shoulder strongly. Come back to center, stay for a bit. Touch down with control.

Now lose the block. Come back into headstand. Take your legs wide like in Upavistha Konasana. Twist to the right, extending one leg forward and one leg back. Internally rotate your thighs at the hips. Lift your shoulders. Know that the back leg will be lifted higher than the leg in front of your body. Be brave! Lift the front leg and lower the back leg. Come back to center with legs wide. Repeat on the left side. Slowly turn from side to side, fanning out your legs in big sweeping circles, legs firm and straight. Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana (revolved split-legged headstand).

Come back to center and join your legs. Pause in regular headstand. Lower down with control. Rest in child's pose. Finish with Salamba Sarvangasana (or an alternate pose) and savasana.