Neck Safety and Yoga Inversions
Turning the World Safely Upside Down — The Safe Practice of Headstand and Shoulderstand Yoga Poses
Yoga inversions can be a joyful, empowering, perspective-altering experience. They require us to do things with our body that we might not have experienced since childhood. What makes yoga inversions so exciting is the fact we are using our arms and heads in ways we do not normally do. We can also make them high risk, leaving us susceptible to injury. Our necks, in particular, can bear the brunt of injuries in certain inversions.
To understand how to practice yoga inversions safely, let’s first discuss the anatomy of the neck.
The neck, or cervical spine, is formed by seven vertebrae that stack on top of each other. The vertebrae form joints with the one above and below, and move by gliding on the joints. The neck has a forward curve known as lordosis. During development, the curve of the neck is formed when we started to lift our heads as infants.
The vertebrae are separated by a disc, which acts as a shock absorber and a pivot point for motion. The exception to this is there is no disc between the first and second vertebrae, which are shaped completely different than the other vertebrae of the spine. The second vertebra-also known as the axis vertebra-has a peg-like protrusion that fits into a hole in the first vertebra, also known as the atlas vertebra.
The cervical spine has a vast range of motion capable of rotation, flexion, extension, and side bending. It has the most motion of all the sections of the spine. This mobility means that stability is sacrificed. As the vertebrae move in relation to each other (gliding on the joints), the discs also move. As the cervical spine flexes forward, the discs move backward, and as the spine moves backward in extension the disc moves forward. The disc is full of a jelly like substance known as the nucleus pulposis, and if the outer fibers of the disc tear, the internal substance can be squished out resulting in what’s known as a disc herniation.
Top as Bottom
When we use our head as our foundation, instead of our feet, we need to recruit stability for an unstable surface. The architecture of our head and neck is such that it is made to float and move, not to bear weight. We need to support our neck and head when we go into poses like Sirsasana, or headstand.
Headstand can help us change our perspective, conquer the fear of inverting, and traditionally is thought to stimulate the pineal and pituitary glands, as well as tone the abdominal organs. There are many variations of headstand (tripod with head and palms on the floor; supported with head and forearms on the floor; and variations of head on the floor with finger tips out and arms extended).
The safest version of headstand is Salamba Sirsasana or supported headstand against a wall. Using the forearms on the mat allows us to recruit the strong muscles of the shoulder girdle and to create space for the neck. It also allows us to distribute our weight between the head and forearms.
Using a wall helps us to avoid awkwardly falling out of the posture. The most common way to injure our discs is when our neck is forced into flexion. This causes the disc to move backward, and if the fibers of the disc tear, the nucleus pulposis center can herniate out, causing irritation to the nearby nerves that exit the spine. These nerves supply the muscles and skin of the arms and hands, and, if injured, can result in months of painful recovery. Unsupported headstand, unfortunately, leaves us vulnerable to this type of injury.
Headstand is an advanced posture and should only be practiced under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Individuals with high blood pressure or ocular disorders should consult a health care practitioner familiar with yoga before proceeding.
Not a Neck Stand
Another common inversion is Sarvangasana or shoulder stand. Shoulderstand can be a great chest opener, a way to relieve swelling in the legs and is traditionally credited with stimulating the thyroid gland and abdominal organs.
Shoulderstand requires us to place the neck into a deep flexion. It is important that we support the cervical spine by allowing weight to rest on the fleshy part of our upper shoulders and back. We can improve this by rolling our shoulders under slightly to begin the pose, so that we are open across the collar bones and help maintain the lordotic curve of the neck.
To take some of the weight off of the neck and upper shoulders, we can practice Ardha Sarvangasana or half shoulderstand. In this version, we do not bring the feet all the way up to vertical, but allow the weight of the body to be well supported by the hands on the lower spine with the body and legs at approximately a 45 degree angle. It is important never to move the head around in the pose to avoid awkwardly weighting the neck.
Shoulderstand is an advanced posture and should only be practiced under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Like headstand, individuals with high blood pressure or ocular disorders should consult a health care practitioner familiar with yoga before proceeding.
The Joy of Limitation
Once we understand the anatomy and mechanics of our bodies, we are better able to practice yoga with respect for our limitations. Knowing what we are capable of and what our potential weaknesses are allows us to challenge ourselves in other ways and opens doors in our yoga practice we may never have thought to open. Embrace the many variations of yoga inversions and enjoy the view from down there.
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