Explore the Anatomy and Correct Alignment of Headstand Pose
Knowledge dissolves fear. With a basic understanding of the structures in your neck, and application of these five keys, one can practice sirsasana safely.
Let’s first take a look at the anatomy, and the neck’s role in our daily life.
The seven little bones of the cervical spine (neck bones) are unique in that they are designed for mobility rather than stability. Like other joints in the body, where stability is sacrificed for mobility, the primary purpose of the C spine in daily life is ease of movement. Therefore, ideal alignment and muscular harmony are particularly important.
The load bearing structures of a cervical vertebrae are the body and two articular facets. A typical cervical vertebral body is approximately two centimeters in diameter depending on the vertebrae (C3 – C7), gender, and individual differences. This is comparable to the diameter of a dime. One may make the comparison of a lumbar vertebral body and cervical vertebral body to the chunky heel of a walking shoe to a high heeled pump. Imagine walking a gravel road in stilettos versus the former.
Another feature worth noting is that the C spine houses the vertebral arteries. Transverse foramen, or holes from top to bottom on the side wings of the bones, house this paired blood vessel which travels up to the brain, taking a rather alarming posterior jog at the top of the neck bones before entering the skull. Symptoms of blocking this small artery include dizziness, blurred vision and occipital headaches. Any lesion compromising the integrity of this passage way is exacerbated by misalignment and the additional and uncustomary weight of your body on the cervical vertebrae in a posture like sirsasana.
Nerves exit the intervertebral foramen (holes in the sides between the neck bones), the branches of which pass laterally between the anterior and middle scalene muscles. These muscles help to hold your head and neck up like guide wires, and provide movement in your neck. Overuse these muscles through misalignment or overload them, and they will become inflamed or tight, possibly pinching the nerves.
How to Safely Practice Headstand (Sirsasana)
Armed with this information, how can you incorporate sirsasana safely into your practice? Headstand or any posture for that matter doesn’t have to look like the pose in your yoga syllabus to start. Practice the actions of the pose in a modification, and you will receive more benefit than forcing the pose.
Here are some important points to practice sirsasana.
1. A strong headstand begins with sensible upright posture.
Carry your upper palate above your physical heart. Assume a natural lordosis in your neck. Your best posture will be your tallest, most easeful posture. Maintain this easeful alignment of your spine in upright yoga postures. If you don’t know what good alignment feels like upright, you won’t know what it feels like upside down.
Practice holding Tadasana in ideal alignment and full attention for several minutes. To simulate the postural muscles further, root down from the outer hips into your feet. Place a block on top of your head while standing, and root up into it from your upper palate as you gently resist. Breathe fully to expand and lengthen your torso. Drop your shoulders away from your ears, and slide the upper arms back to widen the clavicles (collar bones). Invite the ribs back, as this action tends to cause them to splay forward. Breathe into your back, particularly just above the waist.
Practice integrating your body from head to feet with these polar actions of rooting and lifting. When you are in perfect alignment, your body will feel like your favorite pair of walking shoes: No friction, no effort, just ease.
Which brings me to the next key.
2. Stretch your hamstrings and plantar fascia.
To get into any posture, the closer to ideal postural alignment you can get, the less likelihood of injury. To keep your neck safe in headstand, you need to be able to align your entire spine before taking away the support of your feet. In order to achieve this, the back of your legs and soles of your feet must be supple enough to walk into the posture without rounding the lower back and therefore the neck.
3. Apply the rules of progressive overload.
No one walks into a gym and does a clean and jerk with 150 pounds off the bat with no experience. So why would headstand be any different? The neck is accustomed to bearing a mere ten pounds of weight. Add resistance incrementally in weight and duration.
4. Create a stable foundation.
** **When you are ready to do sirsasana, interlace your fingers into prayer hands, with the exception of your pinky fingers. Your pinky fingers should be stacked, overlapping each other front to back. You should be able to see both middle fingers from above but not any of your palm to start–so slightly pronate your forearms. Once you tuck your head into your palms, the tendency is to roll onto the dorsum (back) of your hand. Starting in slight pronation will bring you into neutral alignment once you are in the posture. Now root down through parallel upper arms into the forearms, wrists and hands while keeping the spine neutral and your chest open. Nestle the back of your head into your hands. Distribute the weight between the crown of your head, forearms, wrists and hands.
5. Keep your mouth shut.
This one is mostly for teachers. Although designed primarily to aid in tongue movement and swallowing, the variety of muscles attached to the base of the tongue help to support your neck. Anchor the tongue to the roof of your mouth for additional stability. When it comes to standing on your head, recruit as much help as possible. So teachers, explain your demo first, and don’t speak once you are in the posture.
Precautions and Contraindications
There are precautions and contraindications to performing sirsasana, such as osteoarthritis of the C spine, any autoimmune disease affecting the musculoskeletal system, diabetes, heart condition, degenerated discs, down syndrome, or any other pathology affecting the neck.
However, even with these conditions, one can enjoy many of the benefits of the pose by simply embodying the actions of the pose in a modified form. With patience and keen attention, headstand can be performed safely to benefit your wellbeing.
Naomi Friesen possesses a deep understanding of the physical body through 20 years of teaching movement and anatomy. Students beneﬁt from her knowledge of sound biomechanics by receiving safe and effective instruction. A personal trainer, pilates instructor and lifestyle/weight management coach for 12 years, she now teaches yoga after receiving her yoga instructor certiﬁcation through Open Source Yoga School. Naomi’s intention is to facilitate connection for herself and students through yoga – connection to Source, connection between the parts of our body, our connection to others.
Facebook: Victoria School of Yoga
Poor Posture and Pressure on your Spine
Freddie Mercury was right: we’re under pressure. Nothing can be truer when it comes to your spine. It’s because of simple physics: the pressure or load on your back increases as you move away from a neutral posture. Here are the numbers: Standing straight puts 100mm of pressure on the intervertebral discs of your spine; add a forward bend while flexing or rounding your back and you’ve more than double the pressure, or 220mm. Can you see now why reaching your toes in Uttanasana or any standing forward bend before you’re ready isn’t worth the potential harm to your back?
What poor posture means to the ongoing health of your back?
Over time, poor posture causes the discs between the vertebrae to wear down and lose their ability to cushion and act as shock absorbers. The discs are pushed out towards the back from their normal position which causes bulging or herniated discs. These bulging and worn out discs can cause a more serious problem by increasing the pressure on the spinal nerves and the spinal cord itself. The result is pain in the legs, including sciatica, arms, shoulders, and neck, and problems with muscle innervations, movement patterns and the sensation of temperature, pressure and pain.
These same problems can be worsened when sitting, believe it or not. Sitting, in contrast to standing, actually increases the intradiscal load compared to standing; spinal pressure “sits’ around 140mm pressure. If you slouch (I’m talking to you desk slouchers!), spinal pressure increases to 190mm; add some weight and you’ve put a whopping 275 pounds of pressure on your spine. This is why in certain methods of yoga like Iyengar students learn standing poses before sitting ones as a general rule as they’re considered more advanced.
Sitting for long periods of time can definitely cause back pain or worsen an existing back problem. Sitting is a static posture that increases stress on the entire back, shoulders, arms, and legs, and especially the muscles of the spine. Slouching overstretches spinal ligaments and surrounding structures of the spine and nerves, blood supply is interrupted and the back muscles are overstretched.
If you’re not a yogi yet but find yourself slouching or sitting for long periods of time during the day, your yoga can be as simple as doing the following:
Getting up periodically to stand up and take the pressure off your spine
Sit back into your chair so your back is supported. In yoga postures, ground evenly into your support and allow your spine to straighten up
Use a lumbar roll between your lumbar or lower back and your chair. To judge the proper size of the roll, sit back in your chair, place your forearm behind your lower back between it and your chair and lean back. Your forearm is approximately the size of a lumbar roll. This works when driving too.
Move! Joints don’t have much blood flow. Joints get nutrition in and waste out by physical movement. Move freely in your chair instead of sitting still for hours at a time.
For you yogis, body awareness is key to minimizing the pressure on your back. I’m not saying never practice a forward bend or a seated pose but rather know how to practice them safely. Even a seemingly friendly pose like Savasana can do harm. Sure, while lying down you’re at the lowest end of the spinal load spectrum at 25mm. As a teacher, I ask my students to roll to the side before sitting up not simply to avoid feeling dizzy and lightheaded but also to reduce the pressures on the spine. For the record, resting on your side applies 75mm pressure on your back, which is quite a bit less than pulling yourself straight up from lying flat on your back.
So, the take home message is: do the work in other poses which don’t load the spine first to lengthen your leg muscles and hamstrings, and strengthen your back before you throw yourself into a forward bend. Realize which types of poses are right for you. Gentle flexion of the spine isn’t for everybody and that’s ok. Once your body is ready, you’ll be reaping the benefits of practicing Uttanasana instead of causing harm to our back.