Learning how to do a headstand can be scary and fun--but it should always be safe.
For some of us, the last time we were upside down was when we were kids. Walking into a studio and practicing yoga poses—especially inversions like headstand and handstand—is a chance to revisit the sense of fun and freedom that comes from literally flipping your usual perspective on its head.
But, how to do a headstand isn't often as easy as it was when we were kids. The idea of placing weight on our heads and necks can be scary, and in a drop-in class, yoga teachers are working with students at multiple levels so it can be difficult for some to find the time to really break down each pose so that you understand the benefits—and how to stay safe.
Headstand offers a wide variety of benefits and, when executed properly, is a safe pose. Headstands can improve your circulation, help you get energized (and help you relax), increase your core strength and more.
San Francisco-based yoga instructor Diana May Oppenheim points out that the restorative benefits of headstand are really powerful for the body, the mind and even your complexion—we’ve all heard of the yoga glow, right?
“One of my favorite benefits of headstand is the focus it inspires when you're in it. It requires incredible focus to sustain the pose and that is very calming for the mind. It also makes your skin flush with fresh blood so you look all rosy,” she says. Here, Diana offers support for those who want to learn how to do a headstand—and provides alternatives for students who want to receive the benefits of headstand without going into the full pose.
“There are so many reasons to build a headstand practice. But, as with any advanced pose, it’s the work that goes into it that is important, not the pose itself. Headstand requires you to build strength and flexibility in your shoulders and core. That strength comes from working toward the pose, not just doing it,” she says.
Getting Into Headstand
When teaching, Diana takes the time to show students how to do a headstand. She starts with a demonstration to show what proper alignment looks like. “It helps to see where to place your head because finding a really good placement is key. You don’t want to be on the crown or at your hairline, but somewhere in between. It’s different for everyone. It’s important that your throat is open on all sides and that the bottom of your chin is parallel to the floor.”
To help people feel this in their own bodies, she asks the class start standing and instructs them to focus on their chins. “Lots of us have a head that juts forward a little when we are standing up. I ask people to stand and feel what it is like to have your head truly in alignment over your shoulders, because any misalignment you have standing is likely to happen once you are upside down in headstand.”
Once students are kneeling with their heads properly aligned, she instructs them to interlace their fingers, keeping their elbows shoulder distance apart and their hands supple but strong. In other words, you don’t want to white-knuckle your way through the pose.
“This position with your arms creates a little support system for your head,” she says. “You don’t want to break your fingers with your grip; your goal is soft, strong hands. I see some students put their palms on the sides of their heads, which isn’t optimal. You want your wrists to touch, making fists. This action draws your shoulders down your back creating more space for your neck. You want as much support as you can get from your shoulders because if your shoulders aren’t strong, the muscles of your neck will naturally try to help out, and you don’t want that.”
From kneeling, Diana has students pick up their knees and move into dolphin pose, keeping their feet on the floor. “From dolphin, I ask everyone to pick their heads up and down off of the floor a few times to really feel the difference between their shoulders shrugging collapsing and their shoulders properly aligned down their backs.”
If you are in this position and cannot lift your head, you should stop here and keep working dolphin to build power in your shoulders and keep your neck safe. To move toward headstand, walk your feet in towards your body as much as you can and lean into the pose, lifting your belly up and relying on your core to lift your legs above your pelvis.
There are a number of safe ways to transition from dolphin to headstand. After positioning your head on the floor, you can lift one leg at a time (easier for people with open hamstrings) or curl into a ball and unfurl into the a vertical position. “There’s not a ‘right’ way as long as your shoulders and core are doing most of the work—use what you have,” says Diana.
There is, however a wrong way. Some people try to jump into headstand, which isn’t recommended. If you don’t have the core and shoulder strength to get into headstand in a slow controlled way, your body might not be ready for the pose. “A very tiny hop is okay, but I wouldn’t let jumping fly in a class,” Diana adds.
A wall can be a great tool to help you practice getting comfortable being upside down, and it can take some fear out of the pose. To safely practice at a wall, Diana instructs students to place their hands as close to the baseboard as possible. “The point of using the wall is to keep you from falling backwards. If you are too far from the wall and fall, you are far more likely to hurt yourself,” she says.
Holding and Releasing Headstand
Once you are in the pose, check the alignment of your neck by saying your name. Your voice should sound like it always does. “If you have trouble vocalizing, you might be out of alignment and you should come down. Otherwise, try an 'om.' When you are on your head, you’re stimulating your crown chakra and connection to the divine. So, once you are up there, doing an ‘om’ can feel great. Once you add those vibrations it’s a big energetic release,” says Diana.
If you are breathing well and feeling comfortable, hang out a while. Build your endurance in the pose by challenging yourself to stay for one minute, then two. But, be mindful and come down when you are tired. “I love to hold a five-minute headstand, but it takes time to build the strength in your shoulders,” says Diana.
Save some energy to lower down and release the pose slowly. Going directly into child’s pose is a good way to follow headstand. “I like an active child’s pose after headstand,” says Diana. “To try it, imagine that you are pushing the back of your head into someone’s hand behind you. Keeping your fingertips on the floor, lift your arms arms off of the floor.”
Who Shouldn’t do Headstand
People with neck injuries should steer clear of headstand and any pose that could potentially place weight in the neck. “In headstand, you are putting some weight on your head, and that’s okay. But, if you feel pressure behind your eyes or pain in your neck, stop. I think it’s okay to try and see how you feel as long as you are aware of red flags. Certain poses are easier for some people, but it’s important for everyone to understand the mechanics of the pose. Knowing how to get into alignment and where to place the majority of your weight can help keep you safe,” says Diana.
You have to be your own boss in class. A good teacher will stop and answer questions and won't push you into a pose you're not ready for and, really, none of the other students in the class care what you are doing.
Get the Benefits Without the Headstand
Diana explains that both dolphin and downward facing dog are offer similar benefits in terms of strengthening the shoulders and core. And, your head is below the heart in those positions just as it is in headstand. “Plank is a great pose as well, and side planks work on the shoulder girdle and require balance and core work that will help you prepare for headstand or get similar benefits.”
Even if you know how to do a headstand properly, it may be a pose you want to avoid because of prior injury. But, don't worry—you can still get the restorative benefits without inverting by lying on your back with your feet up the wall.
Get your rosy glow with Diana Oppenheim in San Francisco.
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