Yoga Practice, Yoga Tips & Tricks

Overcoming fear of the headstand

The state of my headstand circa 2009. It made for a great party trick!

I remember the first time I learned about headstands, a month into attending Iyengar classes at the campus gym. I didn’t know it was a “thing” that everyone did or strived to do in yoga. I didn’t particularly care to try. Our teacher gave us an up-the-wall version for safely attempting it, and most of us in class (pretty new to the practice) quietly sat there and observed.

When she asked anyone who wanted to give it a try to find a spot on the wall, only 2 people moved their mats. We were all a little scared and confused. Why would you want to stand on your head? It looked painful, with faces turning red and arms trembling. Legs were swaying about. I even heard one guy grunting as he attempted to keep his balance.

I used to do gymnastics when I was in preschool, so the idea of inverting wasn’t scary in and of itself. When you’re 3 years old and fearless, handstands and hanging upside down on the monkey bars were no problem. When you’re in your 20s going on 30s, your body may protest to such movements.

The teacher warned the class of the dangers of falling and hurting your neighbors. A more seasoned yogi in class was doing headstand right in the middle of the room, without walls to catch him. When she said that, we all kind of nonchalantly moved a couple inches away from that guy. No one said yoga was supposed to be dangerous!

So when I started an ashtanga beginners series, we learned a few postures of the primary series at each class. Our last week, we broke down the closing postures, which includes sirsasana. Here it was again. The dreaded headstand.

By this time, I was 6 months into establishing a yoga practice. I was saluting the sun and vinyasa-ing on a regular basis. I was mentally prepared to go upside down and see what this whole headstanding thing was about.

With the help of my teacher, I created my base (making sure to bring my elbows closer in than what felt comfortable) and stepped my feet up as close to my face as possible. One leg tucked in. A couple attempts at the second leg getting tucked in. I stayed in that tucked position for a few breaths. And then I slowly (with my teacher spotting me) started to stretch my legs in the air.

I was a wobbly noodle up there, but for a split second, I felt like I was floating. A-ha! A flicker of enlightenment? All the blood that normally sluggishly makes its way from the legs to the heart suddenly flowed freely? I don’t know, but that split second, I got a glimpse of what headstand was supposed to feel like, and it was pretty freaking cool!

And then, I summersaulted out of it as I lost my balance, likely due to my lack of concentration. How could I concentrate when I felt like I was weightless? 🙂

From there on out, I kept practicing. I kept rolling out. I kept working on my lats to build up the proper shoulder and back strength to fully support my body. I stayed in the tucked position for a year. It took another year and a half before I truly felt comfortable with my legs up and able to hold it for 15 breaths.

Headstand is good for circulation. It’s somehow calming. It gives you a new perspective. It makes you feel young and alive and strong. And it makes for a pretty great party trick!

Why it’s at the end of a long challenging ashtanga practice, I’m not sure (someone care to share?), but what I used to dread and fear is now one of my most beloved postures.  I did headstand through 33 weeks of my pregnancy, which is when my belly weight affected my balance too much to even safely attempt. While I had to give it up for a few months, it’s back in my practice fully.

I’m really glad I got over my fear of headstand. I have more confidence in my body now after working through the emotions it conjures up while upside down. It also paved the way for variations on headstand, other inversions and arm balances.

You can’t go into it thinking you’ll be rocking it out within a couple weeks. Give yourself the time to try, fail, modify and try again. It’s pretty amazing when you get up there. I promise!

And remember, safety first! As with any physical practice, use caution when working on inversions. Learn to roll out safely (tuck your head toward your chin to roll onto your back). Don’t push yourself before you have the balance right or you can hurt yourself or your neighbor. Remember, yoga does NOT have to be dangerous. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Practice wisely, my friends.

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