Is headstand actually good for you?

Today’s post is  a guest offering from Erin L Bourne. Erin is very well qualified in the field of anatomy -she has an Exercise Science degree, and qualifications in yoga, pilates, neuromuscular stabilisation and myofacial release. Headstand is a pose that exerts a lot of pressure on the head and down to the neck. So is it actually good for you? Over to Erin – 

Hail The King of Asana?

I’m a yoga teacher and still I’ve injured my neck in headstand. Sensational statement and true, there is context though. First, I have a Scoliosis, which means my spine curves like an S sideways as well as the normal curves. My body does not align well even standing so there is abnormal force distribution to begin with. The headstand I injured myself in was not the supported variety but the more intense standing on your head with hands out wide, there is no option but for the weight to be on your head and neck. This is what led to my injury so it is not an indictment on all headstands for all people. Here is the low down though for those who want to decide for themselves if headstand is a good idea for them or not.

Firstly, why would you do it? Well according to BKS Iyengar, headstand (Sirsasana) is the King of all poses. It makes healthy pure blood flow through the brain cells, pituitary and pineal glands. It helps people recover from loss of sleep, memory and vitality. They become ‘fountains of energy.’

Yes it is true being upside down does bring extra blood flow towards the head. However, the brain does not actually want to be flooded with blood. There is optimal volume through the vessels and we have Baroreceptors and checks and balances in the vessels leading into the brain to prevent overwhelm.

Being upside down may assist the circulatory and lymphatic systems. The veins and lymph vessels rely on the contraction of muscles around them to move the fluid in the direction of the heart. In the veins this is the deoxygenated blood going back to the heart and lungs to be re-oxygenated. The lymph fluid is sent to the Subclavian vein in the neck to re-join the blood, being filtered by the lymph nodes along the way helping our immune system. Inverting allows the flow from the lower body to move to the heart more easily and can take the pressure off the valves in the vessels that prevent backwards flow. This is a great thing for people who have been on their feet all day, and can feel very restful.

This sounds ok but is there a downside to the upside…..down?

Headstand can actually increase the heart rate and blood pressure, even in experienced practitioners, if there is poor alignment. If alignment is great then this is minimal. Alignment really is the biggest consideration of headstand. Anatomically the cervical (neck) vertebrae are much smaller than the thoracic (chest) and lumber (lower back). They are designed to carry the weight of the head only; the lower vertebrae are designed to carry the weight of the head and torso. Headstand flips this and can be a recipe for disaster. If the spine is in excellent alignment, the practitioner has a strong core, and enters and exits the pose with control, that’s one thing. For anyone carrying misalignments or lacking in core stability it’s asking for trouble and this is far too common among Western practitioners. I cringe every time I see someone setting up against the wall and literally flinging themselves into headstand. This means their core is not strong enough, the weight is all on the head and the momentum of the fling and consequent brake of the wall is jerking the neck, it’s horrifying.

Then we add one more factor, proportion. Do this exercise: lift your arms overhead and bend the elbows so that the hands move back behind the head. Check here if the elbows can clear the top of your head. If they do then you can take the weight off the head and into the arms in headstand, as long as the strength is there. What this means is that your headstand can be more of a forearm balance with the weight supported by the arms, the head resting as additional stability or barely touching giving you a little traction.

If the elbows don’t clear your head the weight will all be on your head and neck no matter how strong your arms and core are. You may get away with it if you have perfect alignment and control, but it is a really bad idea if you don’t. My elbows do easily clear my head but if my they go too wide apart, they offer minimal support and I’ll plant all my body weight on my awkwardly positioned neck, ouch.

My personal recommendation after 10 years teaching yoga, and tonnes of anatomy and physiology study, is play careful. If you have short arm to head and neck ratio use a headstand stand. You will still get the benefits of headstand plus bonus traction (lengthening) of the neck rather than compression. This is also a good option if you have some spinal alignment issues. If you lack core strength, work on that before approaching the headstand. If you can’t come into headstand with control, then you don’t have the strength to be in it yet. Take the majority of the weight into the arms, use the head as a little extra stability only. The neck is very important to our healthy functioning so it is better to be safe than out of action with a neck injury. I can tell you for a fact it’s not fun being on the negative side of the headstand, better respect the King of Asanas!