Image: The writer practicing a headstand. Photograph by Pat Reynolds.
Breakthroughs. They’re so important, but for most people, all too rare. Without them, it’s easy to forget that big change is possible, that progress is attainable.
Breakthroughs are one of the many benefits of yoga. This is a guarantee: If you devote yourself to this ancient practice, you will achieve breakthroughs and they will empower you and change you in ways you’ll never expect. This happened to me this past year, when I learned how to do yoga headstands.
Sure, headstands are specific physical accomplishments that are easy to feel good about. But done with the right intention, they’re far more than that.
A headstand, known in yoga by its Sanskrit name, sirsasana, is an inversion, meaning a pose in which the heart is above the head. The benefits of inversions—like improved blood and lymph circulation, among others—have long been lauded in the yoga community. But inversions also carry the risk of injury. It’s never advisable to be cavalier with the neck or spine, and it’s decidedly unwise to attempt a headstand without working up to it gradually, first strengthening the relevant muscles and always being compassionate toward your body.
Once you’ve laid the necessary groundwork—and assuming you have no pre-existing conditions that contraindicate headstands, such as neck injuries, high blood pressure or glaucoma—then you can begin to reap both the physical and the more intangible benefits of this “king of poses.”
For me, the first benefit of headstands is the challenge. Initially, they are both mentally and physically difficult, which means they present a wonderful opportunity to build strength and to grow. In the beginning, it’s hard to set up properly, to find your balance, to use your core to lift up into position. It’s hard to trust your own ability and to learn to relax in the pose. All of these steps take patience and practice. You will want to fly right up like it’s nothing, but that’s not the way.
Headstands makes me think of the words of Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” When you do find the way and lift up into a headstand for the first time, you will feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment—the kind that only comes from overcoming a challenge through hard work. And with enough practice, headstands will even become easy.
Another benefit of headstands is that they cultivate courage. To learn to do headstands, you must face a primal fear: the fear of falling. As an adult, the act of falling can be very traumatic. Children fall all the time. We expect them to fall and we accept that they will, because we allow them to make mistakes. How else will they learn? As adults, however, we’re supposed to keep it together. To fall is to be vulnerable and imperfect, and we’re not meant to reveal such cracks in our armor. Our world is unkind to the weak, because we forget that at some point we are all weak. We must grant ourselves—and each other—license to confront our fears, to be brave enough to risk making mistakes. As the late B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the world’s foremost yogis, wrote in his seminal work “Light on Yoga”: “The best way to overcome fear is to face with equanimity the situation of which one is afraid. Then one gets the correct perspective, and one is not frightened anymore. To topple over while learning the headstand is not as terrible as we imagine.”
Next, headstands teach humility—because you will fall. It’s inevitable, and that’s good. We are all better off for looking a little silly now and then. But more importantly, after you fall, you must ask yourself why you fell. Was it because you were practicing from a place of ego?
In yoga, you strive to vanquish the ego and liberate the true Self, and I find that headstands are a natural way to work toward this all-important goal.
In his commentary on the “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” Sri Swami Satchidananda likens “the blemish of ego” to the dot on an “i”: “The capital ‘I’ is just one pure stroke, just as the highest truth is always simple and pure. What limits us and makes us little? Just the dot. Without the dot, we are always great, always the capital ‘I.’”
He continues: “All the practices of yoga are just to remove that dot. How simple it is. All the difficulties and turmoils can be removed from our lives in no time just by taking away that dot. But preparation for that is what takes time. Many times we climb up only to slip down. Sometimes we get all the way up only to find we have forgotten to take along an eraser to wipe off the dot. So we have to come down again.”
Indeed, if you practice headstands from a place of ego, you will come down and it won’t be pretty. Practice without ego and—perhaps not coincidentally—you’ll find yourself resting in the shape of a capital “I.”
Then there’s focus. Focus is integral to yoga, but even for the most dedicated yogis, distraction is always scratching at the door of the mind. When doing a headstand, however, you have no choice but to focus. The moment you stop concentrating is the moment you fall out of the pose. Focus is such a lost art. Headstands are a great way to recapture it—and ideally to carry it forward into the rest of your practice and your life.
Finally, headstands literally change your perspective on the world. Things simply look different when you’re upside-down. As Iyengar wrote, “It takes time for the beginner to become oriented to his surroundings while he is balancing on his head. Everything will seem at first to be completely unfamiliar.”
That might be due to increased oxygen levels in the brain, but on a more philosophical level, I think it has to do with the symbolism of placing the heart above the head. Our minds are so busy that oftentimes we think and think until we do…nothing. We overthink ourselves into a state of paralysis, where nothing seems possible: We lose our perspective. I find that by turning myself upside-down, I physically upend this paradigm. I recover my perspective and things seem possible again.
I can’t say it better than Iyengar: “Regular and precise practice of sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, lose and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.”
That sounds like a breakthrough to me.
Headstands with LA-Based Yoga Teacher Ursula Vari
Here are some of Ursula’s thoughts on being upside-down:
Q. Why do you love inversions?
A. From time to time it’s nice to get a different perspective.
Q. Does being upside-down make you feel happy or euphoric?
A. Inversions make me feel accomplished and energized.
Q. What are some of the benefits of inversions?
A. Inversions improve circulation, enhance the function of the lymphatic system and send more blood to the brain, thus we feel energized.
Q. Who should not do headstands?
A. People with high blood pressure, neck/cervical spine injury and instability and people with eye problems should refrain from doing headstands.
Q. What else should people be mindful of when practicing headstands?
A. Don’t practice a headstand while drinking. I was severely mortified when one of my clients bragged about how he showed off to his 3-year-old son with his new headstand practice—only to fall. Luckily no one was injured!
*Ursula also offers private yoga sessions, and she’s an awesome DJ/music curator. Contact Ursula here.