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How to do a Yoga Headstand and Safely Teach Headstand to Yoga Students

how to do yoga headstand

Sometimes having your world “turned upside down” can be a good thing. This is definitely the case with yoga inversions. If you’re looking for more energy or a midday pick-me-up, a yoga headstand is far better than an afternoon coffee. Here is a step-by-step guide to learning and teaching Sirsasana. 

Inverted (upside down) poses improve circulation and boost the immune system by increasing the flow of white blood cells and lymph throughout the body. Not to mention, being upside down brings freshly oxygenated blood straight to the heart, leaving you feeling more energetic and focused. Sirsasana helps open the third eye chakra and bring more clarity to the mind.

Sirsasana (headstand) is sometimes called the “King of Yoga Postures”. It’s a challenging and rewarding asana with many physical and spiritual benefits. Headstand builds core strength, improves balance, and increases upper body strength, but it can also be potentially dangerous if the pose is entered improperly. 

Are Yoga Headstands Bad for Your Neck?

In recent years, many yoga communities have voiced concerns about the safety of Sirsasana. Some studios have abandoned the pose altogether. 

The reality is, any asana can be unsafe if students are not properly guided by their yoga teacher. Yoga asanas have been around for thousands of years. Even elderly practitioners like BKS Iyengar (in his 90s) reportedly begin many morning yoga practices with a 30 minute Sirsasana pose. 

While it takes many years to master an inverted pose like headstand, balancing and strength building are worthwhile endeavors at any age or skill level. Yoga teachers have the unique opportunity to coach, assist, and motivate their students to safely explore this rewarding asana.

How to Get into Headstand

Traditionally, there are seven different forms of the Headstand posture. The standard modern cues for teaching Sirsasana are usually along these lines:

  1. Start on knees with hips square
  2. Place forearms on the floor with elbows shoulder-width apart
  3. Clasp hands together to create a “V” with the arms
  4. Gently place the crown of the head on the floor
  5. Cradle the back of your head with your clasped hands
  6. Engage the upper body and core
  7. Press elbows and wrists into the floor
  8. As you press down, lift your shoulders up toward the ceiling 
  9. Slowly use the core strength to lift legs off the floor and up, keeping legs flexed and straight until the body is vertical and balanced 
  10. Stack the knees, hips and shoulders in a straight line
  11. Hold your head in one position; do not adjust the head
  12. Keep core, shoulders, and forearms strongly engaged

Seems easy enough. But then, the nuances come in. How much weight should be on the head? How much weight should be on the forearms? How do you protect your neck and prevent injuries?  

Some yogis insist on the Pareto principle: 80% of the weight on forearms and 20% on the head. Others say that there is no precisely “correct” way of distributing your weight in Sirsasana because everyone’s bodily proportions and ergonomics are different. There are also many different ways to enter and exit the pose. While we cannot control anyone’s body proportions, yoga teachers can clearly control how to cue a pose. 

How to Keep your Students Safe

As a yoga teacher, it is your job to teach a diverse range of students how to approach asanas in the safest and most advantageous way for their practice. Perhaps it should go without saying that certain students- particularly those with disc generation, osteoporosis, or other spinal issues- should avoid Srirasana. 

For yogis with solid spines, strong cores, and an eagerness to learn, achieving a headstand could be that “breakthrough” moment for their yoga practice. Thankfully, there is some useful science on headstand safety that will help yoga teachers and students alike. 

The Science of Headstand Safety

In 2014, researchers at the University of Texas Austin decided to investigate the weight loading and force on the head in 3 different types of yoga headstands. In the study, 45 yogis who were experienced with headstands were asked to perform 3 different entry/exit strategies. Researchers measured the peak force on the heads, loading rate, center of pressure, and cervical alignment of each yogi in each type of headstand. 

3 Types of Yoga Headstand 

  1. Pike-up and pike-down (both legs straight at the same time)
  2. Curl-up and curl-down entry and exit (both legs bent at the same time)
  3. Split-leg entry and exit (legs bent one at a time) 

How to Achieve a Slower Entry and More Neutral Spine 

The study found that the “symmetrical extended leg position” (pike-up and pike-down) method caused the lowest load rate on the head and neck. However, these yogis were intermediate to advanced in their headstand practice. This pike method of entry is usually the most challenging for beginners. 

Their data also showed that this straight-legged (pike-style) headstand created slower entry and exit rates into and out of the pose. The cervical spine also remained more neutral when the legs came up straight together, rather than curling or scissoring them upward. 

Clearly we can teach headstand entries in many different ways, but it appears that keeping the legs straight and together is the safest method, leading to only 40-50% of the body weight in the head and neck, rather than 80% in the other headstand types.

Keep Legs Straight and Lift Them Together

Moral of the story? The head and neck stay safer when the core is strong enough to lift the legs straight up together. With this method, about 45% of the body weight is distributed through the head and neck, and this should not cause a problem for healthy people. We shouldn’t instill fear about practicing yoga headstand, but we should definitely approach it safely. 

How to Teach Headstand Safely in Yoga Classes

Some yoga teachers will say it isn’t safe to teach headstands to beginner or elderly students. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what you feel comfortable with in your classes. 

The force of pressure on the head and neck is significant, but it is not going to fracture or injure the neck on its own. This pressure is distributed throughout the bones, muscles, and soft tissues in the head and neck. 

But it is important to be sure that students understand the risks and benefits of Sirsasana before they attempt it. For students who don’t want to attempt it, always offer an alternative such as holding a dolphin pose.

Who Should Not Do Headstand? 

Headstands are complex and not for everyone. Anyone with these issues should not practice sirsasana: 

  • People with neck injuries of any kind 
  • People with osteoporosis
  • People with glaucoma, as inversions increase the blood pressure in eyes 
  • Pregnant women, due to the risk of falling 
  • Children under 7, as their skulls are still soft
  • People with heart problems
  • People with regular migraines 

Use a Thick Blanket or Pad

If you are practicing on a wooden or hard floor, it is vital to use a thick folded blanket or pad to protect the head during Sirsasana. Place the blanket directly under the top of your head. Be sure that the blanket will not shift during the inversion nor intrude on proper arm placement.

Start with Dolphin Pose

Dolphin pose is the best way to prepare for inversions by strengthening the shoulders, stretching the upper back, and activating the core. 

  1. Start on your knees with knees hip-width apart
  2. Place clasped hands on the floor, creating a “V” with the forearms
  3. Check that elbows are shoulder-length apart and a couple inches in front of the shoulders
  4. Stack your wrist bones and firmly press elbows and forearms into the floor
  5. Lift your pelvis and press heels toward the floor as if in a Downward Dog
  6. Make sure your shoulders are not compressing toward your ears
  7. Gaze at your feet and lift your hips to the sky
  8. Allow your head and neck to hang freely between your shoulders

Use the Wall 

Some yogis insist that practicing a headstand against the wall is a distraction, however others have found a wall super helpful when trying to overcome the mental hurdles of this inversion. Practicing against a wall will help you find your balance and courage to progress inthe posture.

  1. It’s very important that you don’t lean against the wall- simply use it as a safety net in case you start to fall
  2. Start with the clenched hands 3-6 inches from the wall
  3. Place the head and follow headstand entry cues as usual
  4. Only use the wall as a guide to catch you
  5. Avoid arching the back or coming out of alignment trying to touch the wall with your feet

*You can also use the wall to practice a right angle “L” headstand as pictured below 

Emphasize Core Exercises

Core strength is the root of all inversions (and all stability in general). A strong core will prevent injuries and make entries/exits that much easier. Prepare students with a variety of core exercises such as:

  • Plank
  • Side Plank
  • Shifting Dolphin Plank (pull forward)
  • Boat Pose
  • Twisted Chair Pose
  • Revolving Side Angle

Tips for Teaching Headstand Pose

At the end of the day, teaching Sirisasna is all about emphasizing strength, activation, and courage. Make it fun for your students and don’t be afraid to demonstrate your own failures, catch their legs when they fall, and use humor to lighten the mood. You can also offer a few bonus tips to make students feel supported and prepared:

  • Avoid eating for 2-3 hours before practicing Sirsasana (or any inversions)
  • Thoroughly warm up the body before attempting headstand, especially the arms and core
  • Actively push shoulders away from the ears to prevent excess pressure on the neck
  • Keep hips aligned with shoulders and do not arch the lower back
  • Squeeze the abs and glutes continuously 
  • Ensure that the very crown of the head is touching the ground (not the forehead or base of the head)
  • Flex and engage the legs as you lift, keeping them as straight as possible and shifting weight into the forearms 

Have you successfully taught headstands to a beginner? What was the most useful cue for them? We’d love to know in the comments below.

Happy headstanding! Namaste.

About Julien

Julien Raby has been in the web marketing industry for 15 years. An avid yoga practitioner himself, he's now the full-time owner of The Yoga Nomads where he helps yoga teachers earn more from their passion.

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