As I begin to type this blog post I am mentally bracing myself for the feedback I'll get from my peers and students. Here's the deal, I don't teach any variation on Headstand in my group yoga classes. I could be wrong, but it's been probably at least four years since I've taught the posture to a large group of students, with the exception of on a retreat with a small group that I've worked with regularly and another teacher was assisting me. At the time of this post I can't even remember the last time I did a traditional variation of Headstand in my own practice.
Back in 2012 I attended my first Yoga Journal Conference in New York City. I was so excited to take class from big names like Dharma Mittra, Shiva Rea, and Ana Forrest. Ana has a reputation in the yoga world as a strong, powerful teacher and I was so excited to learn from the master in her inversion workshop. Ana's class was fun and athletic. She worked us hard in a variety of arm balances, however, my excitement quickly came to an end when we switched gears. Ana vehemently called out over her microphone, "Please move to the walls if you cannot balance in Forearm Balance or Handstand in the middle of the room. Unless you have been practicing with me personally for a few years, I ask that you do not move into Headstand." What? Who did this lady think she was? I do Headstand all the time and, even though this is my first time studying with Ana, I should be able to do Headstand!
At the time I was a pretty young yoga student and teacher. I was offended by Ana's request. It took me some time for me to figure it out. Now, after teaching thousands of group yoga classes, I get it. In a giant conference room full of over a hundred students that she had probably never met before I completely understand why Ana provided us with strict guidelines.
I see a lot of students every day. Many students regularly take my class once or twice a week. Over the years I have developed a decent understanding of these students' practices. Even with the regular students that I know well I won't offer up Headstand. In a group setting I can't give every student my full attention.
Here's some reasons why I don't teach Headstand in my classes:
- Due to the nature of the posture, Headstand requires attention. I am only one person and I cannot give my full attention to every student in a single moment of practice.
- Consider the shape your body is making. You are completely upside-down with the weight of your body on your head and neck.
- Ideally your arms and shoulders will also be working in Headstand, however, it takes a lot of understanding of how the shoulder joints work in order to give your head and neck adequate support while upside-down. I struggle with getting a large portion of my students to just understand their shoulders in downward facing dog.
- Group classes easily become a game of monkey-see, monkey-do. New students often try to do what their neighbor is doing without actually understanding the posture. (I know this because I was that student that regularly mimicked my neighbor without listening to my teacher.)
- Most of the studios I teach in don't have the necessary props to support Headstand. In a perfect world I'd have blankets available and ample wall space for students to prop themselves up.
- Majority of the studios I teach in are heated. I've witnessed numerous students slip on a sweat puddle while trying to move into an inversion. I'd rather not see a student slip while bearing weight on their head.
With all that, I think Headstand can be an incredibly beneficial posture. There's a reason why Headstand and Shoulderstand (another posture I don't teach) are known as the king and queen postures of yoga. They're powerful, but they require a tremendous amount of practice, discipline, and understanding of the body. This is not to say that my students are not well practiced, disciplined, or out of touch with their bodies. As someone facilitating a group practice I have made the clear decision to just eliminate the posture completely from my classes as the benefits do not outweigh the potential risks.
Rather than working on Headstand, I choose to teach arm balances, Handstand, and Forearm Balance when I teach inversions in my classes. The head and neck are in less vulnerable positions and they require the same, if not more, focus and discipline as Headstand. Can't balance in Forearm Balance or Handstand, but want to get upside-down? Use a wall for support, indulge in Legs Up the Wall with a block under your sacrum, or (even better!) get yourself a stack of blocks and prop yourself up into Headstand against a wall. By placing the stack of blocks under your shoulders you'll get the lovely inversion of Headstand without the potential pressure on your cervical spine. I've taught this variation to many students and every one of them eventually comes down with a blissful look on their face. Check out this video tutorial for more insight!
If you have a regular Headstand practice and feel comfortable in it, stick with it! It's never my intention to dismiss an aspect of a student's practice that they enjoy. It's just my choice, as a yoga teacher, to not include some postures in my group classes. Want to actually learn the mechanics of Headstand in a safe, supportive environment? Ask your favorite teacher for a private lesson or sign up for a workshop-style class that focuses on breaking down headstand in a slow, methodical manner.