“So, do you stand on your head?” That’s one of the first things people ask me when they learn I practice and teach yoga. The answer is yes, an answer inevitably followed by a “Wow,” “Really?” or “Galing!”—you know, like I just admitted to swallowing swords or walking on hot coals.
A headstand, known in Sanskrit as Salamba Sirsasana, is one of those cool “tricks” people think all yoga practitioners can perform. And yes, it is really galing, because it takes quite a bit to do—strength, control, patience, and, as I have discovered as a teacher, the guts to overcome a slew of psychological barriers, not the least of which is the fear of being upside down.
All yoga inversions, in fact, count among the “funky” stuff most yoga students aim to do. These include shoulder stands (Salamba Sarvangasana) and handstands (Adho Mukha Vrksasana—literally, downward-facing tree).
In Iyengar yoga, the style we practice and teach at the Iyengar Yoga Center Manila, under the guidance of our director and founder Rina Ortiz, the headstand is called “the king of asana,” a sublime pose that can cure a slew of ills, from respiratory problems to bad eyesight and even depression.
In my case, it did help keep me relatively healthy over the last 11 years, despite existing illnesses and the fact that I’m no longer a lithe, nimble young thing.
If the headstand is the king, the shoulder stand is the queen, done after the headstand and helping to cool down the body after the heat and intensity of the previous pose. When one learns to balance on one’s shoulders and keep the neck free, this pose can be calming and restorative. That’s why shoulder stand and its precursor, Halasana (plough pose), can actually help cure insomnia.
Handstands, meanwhile, even done against the wall, are challenging and absolutely exhilarating. The pose is a wonderful mood booster when you’ve got the blahs, not to mention a good way to strengthen your arms, shoulders, back and legs, while releasing the neck.
Like any “trick,” however (yoga devotees will cringe at the word), an inversion requires practice, and is less about showing off than it is about perseverance and, later, knowing when to rein in your ego.
Understandably, the feeling of accomplishment when you’ve managed an inversion is huge; it’s great for your self-esteem and body confidence. I’ve had students scream “Oh sh-t!” or “OMG!” the first time they come up on their own.
It’s when you think that you’re the hottest thing since yoga mats, however, that you’re bound to lose focus and/or hurt yourself.
I like to teach headstands because I’ve pretty much gone through every possible phase of learning. Being a big girl, I had to face the challenge of bearing my (considerable) body weight on my arms, shoulders, and neck, so I humor any student beset with the fear of breaking his or her neck; after all, I’m still alive, despite being probably twice the weight of some of my students.
“What if I fall?” they ask. I learned to balance in the middle of a room with throw pillows strewn around me. Of course I fell, but following Guruji’s instructions (Guruji is B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar yoga, 90 years old this year, and still standing on his head), I never hurt myself seriously.
In fact, in his seminal book, “Light On Yoga,” Guruji says the best way to fall is to relax, roll down and smile.
A handstand requires a literal leap of faith, and it’s often the surprise of finding your entire body weight completely dependent on your arms that rattles students. That’s why other poses, like Ardha Dandasana (literally, half staff pose), sometimes called half handstand, is a great way to prepare yourself, both psychologically and physically.
A shoulder stand, although supported with hands on your upper back, appears less challenging, but the nuances of this pose are many, and when done wrongly, strain can occur because of the vulnerability of the neck. We learn to do this supported by layers of blankets to protect the cervical spine (that’s the topmost vertebrae, leading up to the neck).
Your whole body
It is important to understand that it takes not just great balance and a hard head, but a strong body—your whole body, plus your mind—to stand on your head. That’s why all the other asana help; as we like to say in Iyengar yoga, it’s all poses in one and one pose in all.
If you don’t have the stable shoulders and arms you develop in some standing poses, the solid legs of active forward bends, and the strong back and chest muscles necessary for backbends, the king will be elusive.
You will be unable to hold your balance, or end up curving like a banana, your legs drooping behind you, which can wreak havoc on your lower back.
Thus, you can’t rush learning a headstand; sometimes we help students flip to taste what’s in store for them, but after that, they’re going to have to work hard to do it again.
We once had someone walk into the studio and ask to schedule a week of intensive daily private classes so she could learn to stand on her head in a week. One look at her Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog pose), though, and you knew her weak arms and lower back wouldn’t be able to manage it—not in a week, or even a month. We advised her to return for regular classes; she said she was on a tight schedule, and never did.
Which brings me to a specter that accompanies many fancy, poster-worthy poses: the ego. It’s something all serious practitioners have to deal with, whether they admit it or not.
In a world where everybody wants to become better, stronger, faster (with all due respect to the Olympics—which yoga is not and should never be a part of, incidentally), you really do ask sometimes, in your heart of hearts, in a class full of people in designer yoga wear, “I wonder if my headstand/ form/yoga/outfit is better than hers?”
It was this kind of thinking that once pushed me to constantly stay in a headstand longer than was prudent, even when it had become more agonizing than peaceful. The resulting shoulder injury haunts me to this day, but is a built-in reminder of why I’m doing this in the first place.
Like a corkscrew
In class, it’s best to leave your ego at the door, we like to say. I had another student—a certified teacher, she informed me—come up in a headstand that looked more like a corkscrew than a pose.
“Please come down so I can fix you, you’re not straight,” I asked gently. “But I am straight,” she insisted. “No, you’re not, and I can see you better than you can see you, so come down,” I retorted. She did, albeit begrudgingly.
My teacher Rina, meanwhile, once had to deal with a fellow in a shoulder stand who kept asking “Why?” whenever she asked him to come down and fix his pose—even when he was the color of a cherry tomato, sweating profusely, and about as straight as Kennon Road.
Like all sweet fruits of labor, however, inversions inevitably come with more ease. That’s not to say that an asana is something you tick off your bucket list; you may be solid as a rock in a headstand today, and still struggle with your balance tomorrow.
A pose is an organic thing that changes with the state of your mind and body, so good luck if you think you’ve “perfected” it. I like to think that a pose must be respected and eventually befriended.
One time, confident that we were “friends” with our headstands, Rina made us come up in the middle of the room—blindfolded.
It was meant to be a restorative pose, shutting off the senses and making you contemplate, with your points of reference now irrelevant, which really is right side up, and what is the “correct” way of looking at the world.
We finished the pose with minds that were incredibly calmer—and a lot more open.
Rina Ortiz of the Iyengar Yoga Center Manila (IYCM) will be conducting a weekend workshop on inversions, “Right Side Up,” on June 8, Saturday, 9-12 nn, and June 9, Sunday, 9-12 nn, open to practitioners of all yoga styles with experience in inversions. Call IYCM at 7980070 or 0917-5359711; e-mail [email protected]. The studio is at 4/F Joya South Tower, Rockwell Center, Makati City. For more information, visit www.iyengaryogamanila.com.