How do you feel about headstand and shoulderstand?

Snowman in headstand

Image CC on Flickr by Out.Of.Focus

How do you feel about headstand and shoulderstand? Do you enjoy practising them? Do they make you feel good? Do you feel comfortable with how to enter, hold and exit the poses? If you’re a yoga teacher, do you feel confident in assessing how students are coping with entering, holding and exiting these poses?

Lots of questions because recently I read two related articles about headstands and shoulderstands which raised fundamental questions about these two asana – namely, are they safe, sensible and desirable? The first article (King and Queen no more) was prompted by a news story about a yoga studio owner in America prohibiting either asana being performed in her studio, or, by her students at home, and listed her five reasons for implementing this decision.

Now, banning asana may sound radical or even ridiculous, in which case I thoroughly recommend reading not only the very balanced and detailed article which analyses these asana and their inherent problems, but also the follow up article (Top five ways of derailing a conversation about yoga safety) where the author outlines how the first article prompted a number of expected responses, including those which sought to “minimize, deflect, and derail the focus of the conversation”. Check the list and see if you had any of the same responses! (Quite apart from the yoga angle, the five ways of derailing are interesting in themselves in terms of approaches in arguments.)

And my opinion? Well, over time, I find that I enjoy shoulderstand less and less. If I practise it in the morning it makes my head pound ferociously and feel like it’s going to explode. I currently prefer the ‘sacrum on a brick block’ variation, with the legs raised up. During other times in the day it seems fine.

What are your views?

Updated 22nd April ’15

I came across a really useful quote and viewpoint (by Leslie Kaminoff, co-author of Yoga Anatomy) which I think makes a lot of sense:

“When you say this asana is dangerous, or this asana helps with this problem, or this pose is contraindicated for that problem—the problem with those kinds of statements is that they are completely lacking context,” explains Kaminoff. “You cannot ascribe intrinsic properties to postures apart from the people that are doing them.”

Kaminoff wants yoga teachers to stop talking about asana in an abstract sense. “They only exist in the concrete,” he says. “And the concrete consists of a person putting their body into a shape. If you take that as a starting point, then you can have a conversation about asana—about Wild Thing or anything else—as long as you are talking about the person doing the asana.” (Text from Yoga Journal blog post on wild thing pose.)

10 thoughts on “How do you feel about headstand and shoulderstand?

  1. Hooray for truth and honesty. I agree that headstand and shoulderstand are fraught with danger and are not necessary for a full yoga practice.

  2. I think as Yoga teachers we should all be a little careful when talking about ‘medical evidence’ and quoting ‘science’. There’s little ‘medical evidence’ for a lot of yoga poses. If we see yoga as a holistic practice we should not condemn any of them but give our yogis a choice and help them along as best as we can. Yoga should be about empowerment and being independent. If we condemn certain poses, we take away options and growth.

    • True, true. I guess my current feelings are that students should be aware that it’s not 100% essential to do everything to still be practicing yoga, and that there may some inherent problems in some postures, which may be overcome and may then be fine for most people, but that for other people they may want to modify. Legs up wall for example, is a nicer option for some people than shoulder stand.

    • I think the point about forward head position from using screens is very valid. In a class situation it is rare to have all students with good posture awareness, strength and flexibility which are necessary for safe headstand and shoulderstand.

  3. As an Iyengar instructors, we only teach these two poses when the student has fully developed straight legs and ability to open the chest properly. Salamba Sarvangasana is taught first only after the student has demonstrated proficiency in standing poses.

    Are you using blankets as a lift for your shoulders? See my blog post “Shoulderstand done right.”

    Thanks for posting this as this issue is coming up a lot in the Yoga world 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, in my classes I advise people about the folded blanket or over 4 thin blocks for shoulderstand. Both the articles had commentary on the Iyengar yoga teaching approach. Although the story and articles are US based, the issues cover the yoga world as a whole.

  4. I had read the first article but not seen the second, so thanks for the link.
    After 25 years doing yoga with teachers from different traditions, I’ve come to the conclusion shoulderstand and headstand are not for me. I will do half shoulderstand and clown pose occasionally in my own practice. I will, very occasionally, teach shoulderstand in a small class setting. I don’t teach headstand, for reasons mentioned in the first article. I’ve seen so many people I headstand who look like they’re jeopardising their neck. I’ve done headstand under the supervision of very experienced teachers and been told I look well aligned and balanced….but my neck feels slightly dodgy and crunchy afterwards. I have a tendency to ‘forward head’ posture, an extra cervical vertebra and mild scoliosis so I just think they are not appropriate poses for me and I’m not comfy teaching them. I absolutely love the viparita karani variation of legs up the wall, blocks under sacrum, though!

    • Thank you for your comment. I think personal body awareness is key, and recognising that our bodies change daily, monthly, yearly etc. For example, I did a headstand on Monday and really enjoyed it – I hadn’t done one for a while but it felt good, unlike sometimes. I think people do become more body aware the more they do yoga.

  5. Pingback: Asana – are you sitting comfortably? | Holistic yoga with Alyson

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