This past week has been very exciting. I've met Richard Freeman…
[Photo by Lauren Nelson]
One of the trademark poses in yoga is Salamba Sirsasana, better known as headstand. Sirsasana is often referred to as “king of all asanas” (yoga poses) because of its many valuable benefits such as longevity and increased mental clarity.
But is Sirsasana really a headstand? I don’t think so.
In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois writes:
Aspirants should note that merely putting the head down and the legs up, and then standing upside down is not Sirsasana; very simply, this is wrong.
He then explains:
..no one should be deluded into thinking that Sirsasana is and easy asana. The proper method for it must be carefully learned. For example, the entire body must stand upside down on the strength of the arms alone.
According to this description it seems pretty clear that Sirsasana is a forearm balance rather than a headstand.
In my experience this is true. I find that resting the weight of my body on my head hurts my neck and is likely dangerous in the long run. I prefer to practice Sirsasana as described by Jois: using my arms to sustain the weight of my body while making sure that my head is only lightly touching the floor. This way I have to engage my whole body and cultivate a sustainable balance that keeps my neck happy.
When I look at the anatomy of the spine I find it corroborates this approach to the pose. Let me explain.
[Vintage Anatomy Print from Etsy.com]
If you compare the anatomy of the cervical spine to that of the lumbars you will find some important differences. For example, the lumbar vertebrae are quite thick and wide, becoming progressively larger towards the base of the spine. This is because they have to bear the weight of the entire trunk. Also, notice how the disks between the lumbar vertebrae are really thick. Their job is to provide shock absorption to the spine when we walk, jump or run. They thicker they are the more shock absorption is needed from them.
By comparison, the cervical spine is not as sturdy. (If you like these images you’ll find more here). The vertebrae of the neck, and the disks that separate them, are much smaller. This affords the head and neck a lot of freedom: we can turn our head with precision so as to focus our gaze on what we want. More mobility however means less stability. Often the more movable joints in the body are the most susceptible to injury. We need to take care of them.
[X-ray Image found on Tumblr]
In addition to this, we must also consider that our lifestyle puts our necks under a lot of stress already. Most of us, myself included, suffer from tight neck and shoulders. This is likely due to the fact that we spend many hours a day typing on our laptops and straining our gaze towards the screen. Moreover, a lot of people tend to accumulate tension in their neck as a result of stressful life situations, tense work environments or both.
This is why I think Shirsasana is to be approached with patience and care. It is important to take the time to build the strength and coordination necessary to enjoy this posture for many years to come and reap it’s incredible benefits.