It’s Prep Time! is a column designed to take a “big” pose and look at it from the very beginning. Whether or not poses in this canon comes with ease the first time around, or it’s your Alamo, there’s good, important work to be done in cultivating a strong foundation in the body & the mind, which can protect the body from injury, which is important in a repetitive stress practice like yoga, and allow us to feel the full benefits of a pose.
The first set of poses we’re looking are inversions and what better place to start than with the king of all poses, headstand?
Raina highlighted an essential aspect of the yoga practice in her The Yogi Next To You profile. “In this busy life, listening is a learned skill and the dharma talk challenges me to fine tune and assimilate my listening skills. Listening is about clearing the mind, centering the body, and noticing what happens within.”
Our inversions practice sits squarely in the middle of this skill set. And, like mastering any good skill set, it takes practice, patience, and time to learn, cultivate, hone, and employ the facets of these skills with confidence and grace. It can also be where other emotions like ego, frustration, and the temptation to short cut the process of learning come into play as well.
As we look at headstand (there are many versions of headstand. We’ll look at what Mr. Iyengar calls Salamba Sirsasana I. Salamba means with support and Sirsa means the head), we’ll examine the solid foundation needed to build a skillful pose. As with any other yoga pose, we learn headstand from its foundation. And, as we know, our foundation constantly shifts as our inner awareness expands. Lots of things can make our awareness contract as well, and often, in the case of upside-down work, that contraction is fueled by fear.
Inversion practice has a large canon of preparatory work that we can draw upon to learn the proper actions in the body to go upside down safely and achieve the full benefits of these poses that are unique to yoga. Strong prep work builds the confidence muscle in the yogic heart, the proper actions in the physical body, and corrals the skills of the discerning mind to work the pose. There’s nothing that says “yoga” like throwing yourself like a drunken ass at the wall at the end of a yoga class in order to get into headstand. Prep work is also great because it creates a good conversation with any fear bubble that hovers over inversion work.
Let’s go through one variation of headstand prep that can be practiced at home or in class. This variation doesn’t require any props other than your yoga mat and it’s an accessible prep pose, as it draws upon other actions we’ve already learned in bearing weight on all fours and in downward-facing dog.
Step 1: Inward intention steadies the outer work
Highlight the intentionality of your mind/body connection. Being intentional in our work creates clarity around our actions and we can draw strength from that clarity as we prepare the body to learn something new. Sit quietly for a moment, with your outer focus redirected inward on your breath.
Step 2: Engage those serratus anterior!
Julie Gudmestad wrote two wonderful articles — Spread Your Wings and Dump the Slump — that eloquently explain the anatomy involved in building a safe headstand practice. Gudmestad does justice to the complexity and delicacy of the shoulder girdle and explains the important anatomical points in lay yogi’s language.
If you’re not so inclined to geek out on the anatomy, the bullet point for you to take away is to engage your serratus anterior.
These muscles are the guardian angels of the shoulder joint in our weight-bearing practice and proper use of them can prevent injury, which is really important in a repetitive stress practice like yoga. These nine weave-shaped muscles (they look like a wicker basket) stabilize the naturally mobile shoulder girdle, acting as a clamp (think of a big black binder clip clamping down a large stack of papers so they can’t blow away) so you can bear weight on your shoulders – like you do your hips in everyday life. The big difference is that the hips are designed for this sort of weight-bearing and the shoulders aren’t!
To feel the engagement of your serratus anterior, come to all fours and press your knuckles and the heel of your hand into the floor.
Inflate the armpits so they hollow out and draw the sides of your shoulder blades towards your ribcage. The upper armbone then snuggles into its socket and your upper shoulder blades broaden away from the upper spine while the lower shoulder blades pin towards the lower spine.
Step 3: Assume the position!
With your newfound shoulder stability, it’s time to place your upper body into the position that becomes the foundation of your headstand pose. We’ll practice the foundation without bearing weight. This allows our bodies to get used to being upside down while we build strength and find the north star on the compass of our upside-down practice.
Draw yourself onto your hands and knees like you would for cat/cow pose. Place the pinky edge of your forearms on the yoga mat with the elbow points armpit-distance apart. Interweave your fingers. Press that pinky edge of your hand firmly down into your yoga mat and track this work through the outer forearm that’s connected to the floor. Observe your forearms and see that the upper forearm bone (radius) is neatly resting on the lower forearm bone (ulna) – if you had placed a ballpoint pen on your upper forearm, you wouldn’t want it to roll off to the floor.
Close your hands and keep a nice hollow in each palm. Imagine you’re making a house for a ladybug in your palms. There’s a good seal on both the thumb and pinky side of your hands, which further trains the wrists and forearms not to roll, or collapse, to the floor. Then engage your serratus and watch the connection start to emerge from the oceans of your fingers through the current of your arms to the dock of your shoulders.
This secure foundation takes time to stabilize. We’re so used to the arms moving around in daily life. The stillness of intention is important to cultivate from the get go, as it helps mitigate fear and stimulate courage. We’ll hang out in this space for a while and get used to it.
Now that your shoulders are supported by a solid foundation, you’re ready to test drive full headstand prep!
Step 4: Launch!
Keeping the integrity of your upper body position, steady the breath, tuck the toes under your feet and bring the spine, hips & legs into downward facing dog position. Note that your head is OFF the floor at this point! I know it may be counter-intuitive, but until the shoulders are ready to bear weight and protect the neck, we’re going to keep the neck out of the picture.
Actively draw the shoulders towards your hips as you press your forearms into the floor. Keep your shoulders in place by engaging serratus anterior and keep working length in the spine while the thigh bones pull back in space. With the vigilance of a watchman at the foot of the castle, watch that the elbows don’t splay off to the sides – the gum of your forearms to your yoga mat secures the elbows. The elbows are the bellwether for the shoulders — losing your elbow position will yank the shoulders out of alignment. Not so good! So press everything touching the floor down, lift those shoulders up, and fire the legs.
This is not easy. Prep doesn’t mean easy. But, steady breath, proper alignment, and clear intention can cultivate ease in the pose. Hold for five breaths and slowly increase your breath count as you gain confidence in your pose. To come down, place your knees on the floor, unwind your fingers, and take a child’s pose. Use your breath to track any sensation that’s arisen in your body during this process.
In our next It’s Prep Time!, we’ll look at a few things you can do to open the nexus of the upper back/shoulders, which is key to stable headstand, as well as other poses that cultivate the connections our bodies need to make to find a confident and graceful headstand.