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by Donna Farhi
Considered the "father of all asanas," this challenging inversion has powerful physiological effects that contribute to overall health, well-being, and longevity.
During the initial popularization of yoga in America in the 1960s, Headstand, or Sirsasana, became virtually synonymous with the word "yoga." The kind of bizarre but impressive behavior usually associated with an eccentric aunt, it was considered best practiced behind closed doors. And to be fair, Headstand is a weird position to put the body into, when you consider the likelihood in the course of the average day of finding yourself precariously balanced upside down on a part of the anatomy usually reserved for hats.
We might well ask how such a posture was first developed. I often joke that such discoveries occur when one has too little food and too much time on one's hands - two conditions with which ancient yogis were undoubtedly familiar. Actually, I suspect that the creation of such an important asana was a serious endeavor designed to produce a dramatic result that might not occur in more mundane postures.
In fact, the classification of Headstand as an asana appears to be relatively recent, contends yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein. Significantly, many scriptures classify it instead among the mudras, or "gestures," which Feuerstein contends are far more dynamic than the asanas and effect deeper changes in the human personality. Unlike asanas, which they readily explicate, the texts treat mudras as highly secret techniques, enjoining the student to keep them concealed from the uninitiated.
In modern times, Sirsasana has been grouped with the asanas; in fact, it is referred to as the "father of all the asanas," while its counterpart Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) is considered the "mother." Both postures have powerful physiological effects that contribute to overall health, well-being, and longevity. Although there are plenty of Western explanations for how these poses might evoke such results, the ancient explanation is perhaps the most intriguing. Yogis thought that the pineal gland in the head—which they viewed as a cooling, or "lunar," agent secreted a special fluid of immortality called amrita, which in upright posture would drip down and be burned away by the solar plexus. By turning the body upside down, preferably for long periods, the amrita might be retained as a regenerative elixir, creating vibrant, glowing health. (Curiously, the pineal gland is one organ that modern Western physiologists know almost nothing about.)
But health and longevity - obsessed as we are with these qualities today were not the primary focus or concern of the ancient yogis. The fundamental intention of all yoga practices, from devotional chanting and meditation to pranayama and asana practice, was to purify and calibrate the human system in order to transform consciousness and bring about a realization of one's original nature. Almost all such ancient technologies for this transformation focus on the upward movement of the raw, powerful energy in the lower chakras through all the other chakras to the crown of the head. The secret channel through which this energy flows is called the "hollow bamboo" by the Taoists; some tantric texts call it the "inner flute." It begins at the perineum the point that lies between the anus and the genitals - and moves up through the body tof the crown of the head.
This energetic pathway is not generally recognized as an anatomical reality by Western science. However, as Margo Anand points out in The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, this channel "does follow actual physical and neurological pathways through the body that connect the endocrine glands. These seven glands - the sex glands, adrenals, pancreas, thymus, thyroid, pituitary, and pineal - regulate the body's vitality and energy flow." She suggests that by opening this channel we "irrigate" these subtle pathways, stimulating their latent potential. Interestingly, the primary flow of force in Sirsasana is through this central channel.
By vitalizing the major players of the endocrine system and honing their ability to regulate the body, a practitioner may be able to experience a concomitant refinement of consciousness that will allow access to deeper and more subtle layers of the organism.
Many students ask whether spending time in a gravity inversion device - such as the popular inversion swings - might give the same benefits as Sirsasana without any of the risk to the neck and back. In my experience, hanging upside-down - while producing some benefits creates a rather unpleasant rush of blood to the head and has none of the calming and centering effects of Sirsasana. Somehow, the pressure of the cranium against the ground seems to stimulate an energy loop from the crown of the head to the perineum and back again. I don't think it was purely chance that ancient yogis recommended standing on the head, not hanging from a tree. Yogic positions have little power until they are fertilized by the movement of force through the body between the two polarities of earth and sky. In this way the human frame acts as a conduit for channeling and integrating the material and spiritual aspects of our nature.
While it is certainly interesting to speculate on Sirsasana's origin and meaning, real understanding of its benefits can only come through regular practice and direct experience. Like other powerful medicines that have great healing potential, Sirsasana also has an equal potential to injure us. In this article, we are going to look at the second variation of Headstand, Sirsasana II, where the hands press against the floor in front of the head rather than being clasped behind it. This variation demands impeccable alignment through the head, neck, and shoulders to maintain the integrity of the vertebral spaces. To attempt it, you must already be comfortable practicing the basic Headstand (Sirsasana I) without support in the middle of the room. Even with these preliminaries, it is best to practice this posture under the guidance of an experienced instructor. Please review the contraindications before proceeding.
You may have admired the grace and strength of native people carrying provisions balanced on their heads. These people intuitively understand that the least stressful position for carrying added weight is neither in front, behind, nor to the side of the body, but directly over the central axis. By elongating the spine upward against the weight above the head, they maintain the spaces between the vertebrae and develop strong, steady muscles.
We need to create a similar dynamic in the head and neck to perform a successful Sirsasana. To stimulate the correct feeling in the head and neck, find a large, heavy book or object that can be easily balanced. Place it directly on top of the head. Elongate up through the crown of the head as you descend down through the heels. Notice that if you lift the chin, the book will fall. Spend a few minutes walking and standing, then remove the weight. Can you feel a new lightness and ease in the neck and head? This is the sensation you want to recreate in your Headstand. The intention of all yoga practices was to purify and calibrate the human system in order to realize one's original nature.
One common myth about Sirsasana is that the weight of the body should pass through the arms, not the head. While it is true that beginners should first learn to carry most of the weight with the arms, so they can lift the head off the floor, this technique is a means to an end and not the end itself. When you learn how to use the arms correctly and to draw the shoulders away from the ears, the shoulder girdle and arms will create a frame that enables the neck to successfully elongate and bear weight.
In Sirsasana II, in which the arms are forward of the head, almost the entire weight of the body comes down through the central axis into the neck and head. Problems in both Sirsasana I and Sirsasana II occur when the shoulders collapse down or out, destroying the "frame." When the muscles collapse or move in the wrong direction, the spaces between the cervical vertebrae narrow and the cervical curve becomes flattened or accentuated. This distortion makes it impossible for the bones to effectively carry the weight of the body.
An excellent pose for learning how to create this frame for the neck is Prasarita Padottanasana (Expanded Foot Pose). Stand with the feet very wide apart and the toes turned slightly in. Pivot forward from the hips and place the hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart, with the fingertips in line with the toes. Spreading the fingers wide, begin to bend the elbows so the forearms form a right angle to the floor.
The natural tendency is to let the shoulders round toward the ears and the arms splay outward. This position compresses the neck (Figure 1: Incorrect). Instead, broaden the shoulders away from the spine and roll them back away from the ears. Extend the elbows away from the face so the centers of the shoulder joints align with the ears (Figure 2: Correct). When you have a clear sense of the correct position of the neck, head, and arms in a nonweight-bearing position, you're ready to proceed to Sirsasana II.
Figure 1 (Incorrect): Splaying the arms outward and dropping the shoulders toward the ears causes the neck to collapse and compress, thus preventing the neck from becoming an effective structure for carrying the weight of the body.
Figure 2. Drawing the shoulders away from the ears and keeping the elbows centered creates a "frame" that enables the neck to extend freely and carry weight without disturbing the spine.
The following instructions assume that you've already mastered the basic Headstand and can balance without assistance in the middle of the room. If you can't, do not attempt Sirsasana II. If you're qualified to begin practicing Sirsasana II, you might wish to attempt the following movements with a wall directly behind you for security or under the guidance of an experienced instructor.
To estimate the correct distance between the head and hands, kneel on the floor and place your hands directly in front of you, shoulder-width apart. Now move your knees forward so you're kneeling between your hands with the edges of the kneecaps in line with the tips of the fingers. Your knees may press on top of your thumbs in this position. Then place the crown of your head on the floor directly in front of the knees (Figure 3). Without letting the arms splay apart, slowly straighten the legs. If you keep the elbows aligned, you will feel your legs brush against your arms as you come up. Before proceeding, check that the forearms are perpendicular to the floor.
Figure 3. To approximate the correct distance between the head and the hands, place the knees in line with the fingertips in a kneeling position. Then position the head on the floor directly in front of the knees. Press the elbows inward as you unfold the legs so you feel the legs brush against the arms during your ascent.
Although the preparatory position will get you in the ball park, differences in individual body proportions may make it necessary to move the hands either closer to or farther from the head. If your hands are too close to or too far from the head, the forearms will not be perpendicular to the floor and the shoulders will either be collapsed back or pulled forward (Figure 4: Incorrect). If you discover that the position isn't right once you're upside down, come down before repositioning your hands or your head.
4 (Incorrect): If the hands are placed too far from or too close to the head, the forearms will slope off the perpendicular line and the frame for the neck and head will become unsteady. Be willing to come down and make corrections to ensure this correct positioning.
Now walk the feet toward the head, maintaining the lift of the shoulders away from the ears and the vertical position of the forearms. Especially check that the elbows continue to release out away from the shoulders so the shoulder blades don't collapse toward each other onto the upper back and neck. If your hamstring muscles are sufficiently flexible, you will be able to lift into Headstand with the legs straight without losing the frame of the arms. If you find that your back is rounding as you approach your ascent, you may want to come up by bending the knees and "hopping" up. Otherwise, continue to walk the legs toward you until the hips come over the shoulders. As the abdomen releases back toward the spine, the legs will effortlessly come off the floor. As you bring the legs up into the vertical position, maintain your concentration on your shoulders and arms so you don't collapse downward.
Once the legs are vertical, sense the connection between the crown of the head and the perineum as you extend down through the head and up through the heels (Figure 5). One common error in this asana is to keep the legs slightly forward of the torso out of fear of falling over backward. This position creates unnecessary tension in the abdomen and the thoracic spine. Carefully bring the legs back so the ankles are directly over the center of the head. With the legs vertical, begin to draw the coccyx towards the pubic bone, bringing tone and support to the pelvic floor and thereby bringing the pelvis into a neutral position. As you do so, feel the inner thighs and inner ankles drawing toward each other and up. By extending through the medial part of the legs and feet, you will begin to feel a lift up through the central channel of the body so that the spine feels light and open.
If you're new to Sirsasana II, you may want to start with brief one-minute sessions, gradually increasing your stay to three to five minutes. Don't increase your time if you experience any discomfort in your neck. To balance the heating and stimulating effects of Sirsasana, make sure that you practice Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) either directly afterward or later in your practice.
Sarvangasana has a cooling, sedating, or neutralizing effect on the body and should always follow Sirsasana, although it can be practiced on its own to good effect.
While you're practicing Sirsasana II, keep your eyes soft and your attention directed inward, sensing the inner core of the body, rather than reaching out with your awareness. As Feuerstein contends, "Yoga is a kind of comprehensive reversal of 'normal' human behavior, which is essentially externalizing and centrifugal." By focusing our senses back into the central channel of the body, Sirsasana serves to draw us centripetally back toward the Self.
• Stimulates the nervous system, increasing mental alertness and clarity.
• Nourishes the endocrine system (the glands and the hormones they produce), thus promoting a balance of all metabolic functions in the body.
• Increases and improves circulation and prevents the build-up of fluid in the legs.
• Heats the body and increases the gastric fire and that of the solar plexus. Prolonged practice may contribute to weight regulation.
• Together with Sarvangasana, helps promote bowel regularity.
• Do not practice Sirsasana II until you've mastered the basic Sirsasana position and can balance in the middle of the room for 10 minutes with no discomfort either during or after the practice.
• Do not practice Sirsasana II if you have any injuries to the neck that would be exacerbated by increased weight through the cervical vertebrae.
• Avoid this pose if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, detached retina, glaucoma, or high or low blood pressure or if you're currently menstruating.
• During the third trimester, pregnant women should practice Sirsasana I instead of Sirsasana II (and only if comfortable and under the supervision of a teacher).
This material was originally published in : yoga journal May/June 1994
Donna has been the asana columnist for both Yoga Journal and Yoga International Magazine (U.S.A.), and has been profiled in four separate publications on exceptional contemporary teachers of our time, including Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga. Donna is the author of the contemporary classics, The Breathing Book, Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness and Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living. Her fourth book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship is used as a curricular text in teacher training programs worldwide. American Born, Donna now resides in Christchurch, New Zealand where she pursues her passionate love of horses.
These articles appear on this website by permission of Donna Farhi and are all copyrighted materials.
One Woman's Yoga
Moving Inside the Breath
The Window In
Moving Outside the Square / The Sun Salutation
Flexibility & Focus / The Arm Balance Sequence
Coming to Stillness / Janu Shirsasana / Head-to Knee Pose
Supta Padangusthasana / Reclining Big Toe Pose
Virabhadrasana II / Warrior 2
Sirsasana II / Headstand 2
Salabhasana / Locust
Ardha Chandrasana / Half Moon
Finding your Inner Compass / Parsvottanasana / Flank Pose
Yoga for Enlightened Living
A Blueprint for Optimal Movement
Moving with the Breath
more to follow..
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