Neck Safety In Headstand
To invert or not to invert; it’s the new yoga controversy. The claim is that Headstand & Shoulderstand are too dangerous. Some yoga studios have abandoned them completely, commenting that we weren’t meant to stand on our heads and the neck is not strong enough to support the rest of the body.
This is NOT an article about why you should or shouldn’t practice inversions. But, it IS about practicing Headstand safely. The neck IS one of our achilles heels; severe injury can cause paralysis, and it’s more fragile and less protected than other areas of the body.
It’s important to have the guidance of a skilled yoga teacher when you begin your inversion practice. Small bits of information and alignment principles can truly help you establish a safe and lifelong relationship with Sarvangasana & Shirshasana.
For the latter, here are a few key points to help you sustain your practice.
1. Build Slowly
A student of mine told me the first time she learned Headstand in a classroom she fell in love. It felt so good after those 30 seconds upside down that she decided to do it again when she got home. Being from the “if a little feels good, then more is better” camp she hung out upside down for a good 10 minutes. The next day she had two black eyes!
It’s true that we aren’t made to stand on our heads, but neither are we made to run a marathon or go to the moon. But we do… Reaching the end result requires dedication, consistency and a gradual building. The capillaries in my friend’s face, as well as the muscles of the neck and arms, take some time to adapt to the increased pressure and weight of inverting.
- Start with a 30 second hold, against a wall for a minimum of 6 weeks before increasing the duration you stay upside down.
- Build consistency and practice regularly —a short amount of time one or two days a week is better than holding Headstand a long amount of time once a month.
- You’ll be ready to increase your duration in the pose when you can: relax while still being upside down, slow down and extend your exhales, have no pain or fatigue in your neck and arms.
- Don’t practice any variations with your legs until you can hold Shirshasana for at least 5 minutes. It may take you a year or two to build up to this!
2. Engage Your Arms
When placed well and engaged, your arms and shoulders will support your neck. They take over some of the role of power in the inversion so your neck need not strain.
- Learn healthy shoulder alignment in other upright postures first; it will be easier for your brain to compute the information upside down if you’ve already got it wired right side up.
- Press into the floor with your forearms (or hands if practicing Tripod Headstand) to build a steady foundation.
- Draw your shoulders back, not away from your ears, to engage your upper back muscles and create stability for both shoulders and neck.
3. Align Your Pose To Balance
This seems obvious, but needs to be said. If you’re wobbling around in Headstand your neck will be less safe. The bobble-head syndrome can be minimized if you stack your body in a plumb line for better balance.
- Once you’ve built up familiarity and endurance in your Headstand (say, you can hold it for 3-5 minutes) move a couple inches away from the wall so you learn where the true balance point is.
- Squeeze your legs together and reach up strongly through them to find better balance; make micro-adjustments with them to absorb wobbling.
- Use your legs and arms, instead of your neck, to absorb fluctuations in the pose.
- Move your waistline back to avoid a bent, banana shape.
4. Learn Where On Your Head To Stand
In my book Headstand: From Basics To Balancing, I spend an entire chapter on setting up the foundation of your posture. The basic gist of head alignment is to place your head in order to have a supported cervical curve. For many people this means you must be more towards your hairline than on the very center of your crown.
- Experiment with small shifts, front to back, in where you place your head on the ground. Stay up in Shirshasana for only 30 seconds to a minute, then assess how you feel before, during and after the pose until you find a “sweet spot.”
- Create a cervical curve in your neck, both through your daily yoga practice, but also by how you place your head on the ground; a flat neck is much more prone to injury.