Saturday, April 27, 2013

Investigating the Benefits & Risks of Headstand: Part 1

Part I of a three part series on headstand.  

by Kathleen Summers, MD, PhD, RYT500

A new student arrives to class. After a brief exchange of names, a conversation begins:

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.

I found Yoga in India, and almost all of my training has been in the East. In an effort to understand more about my fellow yoga enthusiasts in the West, I’ve been taking several different types of yoga classes over the past few months. I’ve experimented with Anusara, Kundalini, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Iyengar, Jivamukti, and a few others.
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)

Viparita karani looks like a gentler version of Sarvagasana – one without the neck squishing. Some yoga styles call the “Legs-Up-the-Wall” pose Viparita karani, but as you can see from the written description, in the traditional version the bottom half of the body needs to be well above the head.

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.

References:

Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipka: An English Translation by Brian Dana Akers. Yogavidya.com, 2002. http://www.khecari.com/


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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. 

During her frequent travels to India, Dr. Summers researches Yoga and its therapies. She enjoys uniting her two passions, Yoga and medicine, and is continually exploring Yoga's healing concepts and integrating them with modern, evidence-based care. Her primary Yoga influences have been the tantric styles of Sivananda and Agama. She holds a 500-hr Yoga teacher training certification. You can follow Dr. Summers on Facebook and Twitter. This article originally appeared on Dr. Summers' blog and is re-posted here with her permission.


8 comments:

  1. This has been on my mind lately. I studied Iyengar yoga for years and had persistent problems with the shoulder stand and the headstand. None of my teachers - many of whom are now considered to be high ranking in the Iyengar lineage - could ever see what I might be doing incorrectly to cause my pain issues. I stopped doing yoga for decades and every time I tried it again, I was plagued by some of the old injuries, especially SI and lumbar issues from being too flexible. I never knew when to stop in a spinal twist, forward or back bend. Now that I am practicing again with an Iyengar teacher, I am committed to being more mindful and restrained but I still question whether there is actual research to support the claims that headstand and shoulder stand are the poses to end all poses. Can't I just hang upside down on a trapeze bar and get the same results, with much less risk to my cervical vertebrae?

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  2. At the heart of yoga is the teaching to be mindful of how your body reacts to each movement. This body awareness encourages students to be conscious of the different sensations happening in the body and mind during each move. As you become in tune with your body, you will learn how to make different adjustments to maintain your balance during each posture. This knowledge will transfer into keeping your body balanced in everyday life.

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  3. Headstand is dangerous. It leads to blindness gradually. Shoulderstand should be done with chin on the chest, eyes on toes, then you will not get injuries

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  4. I would like to know if one may be at risk of getting an anurism if he or she does headstands. Sorry if the spelling is incorrect.

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  5. Do NOT, repeat NOT do headstands. I started doing headstands as part of my yoga routine. On November 11, 2006, after doing a headstand the night before, I woke up the next day with an intense tension headache and a weird off-balance problem like walking on a floating dock. OVER 7 YEARS LATER I STILL HAVE IT 24/7. Headache docs, injections, acupuncture and supplements, even Mayo Clinic -- nobody can fix it. I wake with it; go to bed with it. DON'T DO HEADSTANDS.

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  6. i read your article Kathleen Summers .i notice you nowhere mention its benefits .i think because you find your self unable to master this pose so you want to prove it wrong.i am a born Indian and i am practicing headstand from 2007 till today.i was experimenting to know that how long can i remain in this position so once i remain in this position for 37 minutes .from beginning i am doing with the help of wall and placing a soft cushion on head.i can do it 30 minutes on any other day and believe me .i experience only positive effects .i will not advise anyone to do that because it can be dangers and should be done in supervision of a teacher.i felt numerous benefits like extraordinary immune system i never get cold.i feel very confident and happy.the problem is not in headstand problem is that you find your self unable to do that.sometime my relatives advise me to stop it because they don't know its benefits .i will continue it till death and i am sure i can increase its time to one hour..

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    1. So...you are not mentioning the benefits either... all you said is that you have a healthy immune system and are happy and confident. That's pretty vague..there are immeasurable numbers of factors in our lives that can influence our state of 'happiness' and immune health, I don't understand how you can attribute these broad characteristics to doing headstands. Even if you could, so many other things can provide people with those benefits without the danger of headstands. The fact that you felt the need to repeat twice that Kathleen hasn't mastered it and you have, tells me that your ego is clearly influencing your opinion on this subject. You know, ego...the thing we are trying to move past? ;)

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  7. What I would have liked to see addressed by a MD (as well as the outdated rationale)... That is your neck! The vertebrae and discs are smaller and intended to support your head (check out a pic of a spine) not your entire body. Oh, and another thing -your SPINAL CORD is in that tube of bones, ligaments, etc. Risk versus benefit should answer the question of whether or not you do headstands.

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