by Kathleen Summers, MD, PhD, RYT500
Teacher: Do you have any injuries or issues?
Student: No injuries, but, just to let you know, I don’t do the headstand.
Teacher: Why not?
Student: I’m not comfortable with it, and I don’t think it’s important.
Teacher: Well, it IS important. You’re just not there yet.
My teacher in the above conversation meant well. I knew that. In class, I brushed off the bit of condescension, and I thought my ego wasn’t the least bit bruised by the implication that I was somehow remedial or inferior to her or the other students who do sirsasana regularly.
But as has happened many times in my years of yoga practice, just as I think I’m getting somewhere, I realize that I still have so very far to go. My ahamkara, my ego, was more bruised than I had let myself believe. I came to realize that even though the voice of wisdom, speaking from the vijnanamaya kosha, had controlled the monkey mind and not let me consider anything other than good intentions from the teacher, underneath, in the hidden fields of my subconscious, I had been affected.
I knew because, at the next class (where the teacher never asked if I had any injuries or issues), when it came time to do sirsasana, I promptly complied with the instruction. Although it had been awhile, up I went, gracefully, and, teacher, without even a wall. I was there. But while I was up there all smug, rather than focusing inward, I was questioning why the heck I was standing on my head – again.
I’d spent plenty of time there, but had never felt particularly helped by it. In fact, I often felt hurt. It was a part of my daily morning practice for a long while, and sometimes it would give me a mild headache that would linger subtly throughout the day. I know how to perform sirsasana safely, and I’d asked a variety of teachers to watch me and point out where I must be going wrong. No one could find any issues with my technique.
So, I stopped doing it. I wasn’t comfortable with it. And yet, I was frequently challenged by others who thought I should be doing it. It’s the sign of a real yogi, after all. How can you advance in yoga if you don’t stand on your head?
Everyone knows it’s the King of the Asanas.
Yes, but why is it the king?
The “second best” pose, the Queen of the Asanas, sarvangasana (shoulder stand), is another inverted posture. This gives us a big clue that their importance stems from what they have in common – inversion.
The first recorded descriptions of inverted postures in India date to before the Common Era. In the Mahabharata and the Pali Cannon, we hear of ascetics who remained inverted for as long as possible to preserve bindu, the ambrosial nectar that drips slowly down from the head through the body because of gravity. It comes out as semen, depleting the body of vital energy that, if preserved within, can maintain life and health. Hence, this practice was tightly bound historically to the preservation of ejaculatory fluid. That was the purpose of inversion, to keep bindu from dropping down to the genitals, the first step in its emission from the body. This preservation of bindu, and thus life force as semen, was also the purpose of inverted postures for the earliest Hatha yogis of the Medieval Period.
I doubt that most yogis today are concerned with sexual continence and abstention from ejaculation, making the reasoning behind the original designation of inverted postures as “the best” ones irrelevant for just about everybody. (For women, the preservation of menstrual fluid was the analogy.)
Also, we know the ascetics were upside down, but there’s no indication they were actually in the position we call the headstand today. According to Sanskritologist and ethnographer, Dr. Jim Mallinson, the inverted postures of the ascetics were the forerunners of yoga mudras.
Viparita karani is one of the oldest mudras on record. If you read the classic work, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, from circa 1450 CE, you’ll see that the original description was simply:
“Navel above, palate below, sun above, moon below – this is called Viparita karani.” (3:23)
Neither Sirsasana nor Sarvangasana are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Prakipika – the very foundation of modern yoga. Later “improvements” to Viparita karani were the shoulder stand and the head stand. While they acquired the names of King and Queen somewhere along the line, the whole royal purpose of inversion to preserve bindu (and thus ejaculatory fluid) got lost.
Today, some tantric schools suggest that sirsasana stimulates sahasrara chakra in (or above) the crown, and that’s why it’s the king. But there are other asanas that reportedly do that, too. And advanced tantrics believe energy movement is about the mind. In other words, you can sit in sukhasana and mentally visualize and energize sahasrara – maybe even more effectively than when standing on your head, since a part of your mind doesn’t have to concentrate on not falling over.
Sivananda’s website says sirsasana is the king because it’s a “panacea for countless human ills.” More explicitly, this site, and this one too, give a pretty far reaching scope to the health benefits of sirsasana.
So it seems that inversion, and later the specific asana of the headstand, was originally designated as royalty because it helped to preserve semen (and menstrual fluid for the rare practicing yogini 2000 years ago). Then, as yoga progressed through its heavily tantric phase, it became about activating Sahasrara lotus. Now, with yoga’s increasing popularity as a healing modality, it’s called the King of the Asanas because it has a multitude of health effects making it a remedy for every ill.
Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipka: An English Translation by Brian Dana Akers. Yogavidya.com, 2002. http://www.khecari.com/
Kathleen Summers, MD, PhD, is a contributor to Prevent Yoga Injury. She is a board-certified internist specializing in natural, Yoga-based care. Dr. Summers is a graduate of Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and holds a second doctorate in neuro-pharmacology from Southern Illinois University. Currently, she is an Adjunct Clinical Instructor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, and she is a member of the American College of Physicians, the American Society of Nutrition, and the International Association of Yoga Therapists.