Happiness Does Not Come From Headstands is the title of the children’s book Tamara Levitt wrote about “failure and perfectionism and patience and self-compassion.” Failure, perfectionism and self-compassion are all things I could learn more about, how about you? Especially when it comes to that yoga class, and trying to one-up the yogi on the next mat over who makes headstands look easy.
I don’t know about you, but I am always sweating profusely, feeling a bit dizzy, and wondering if this is the class where I really do something serious to my neck. I awkwardly “kerplunk”(Tamara Levitt's description of her heroine's headstand landing) back to the earth and begin to settle into “corpse pose.” I have been trying to fight my own personal headstand battle- there is no self-compassion in my practice.
So, I am taking some of Tamara Levitt’s advice; she is the Head of Mindfulness and Meditation Instruction at “Calm” the top app for meditation and sleep after all! Maybe she knows something I have yet to realize: Maybe my happiness won’t come from headstands either.
I decided to do a bit more research and become better educated about why (or why not) Salamba Sirsasana (supported headstand in Sanskrit) should be part of my regular yoga practice. Dr. Timothy McCall, medical editor for Yoga Journal, has suggested that the headstand is “too dangerous for general classes.” I tend to agree with his opinion after some of the reading I did.
Headstands are commonly believed to offer these health benefits:
Upper body strength and stamina
Stronger Core (Abdominal) muscles
Better sense of balance
? ='s often reported by yogis but never proven in medical studies
Headstands might be bad for your health because they can cause:
Injury to your cervical spine (the top 7 vertebrae in your spinal column, directly below your skull)
Bodily injury if you fall over
Fainting if you experience low blood pressure
Excessive strain to muscles surrounding the spine (paraspinal muscles) trying to support the weight of your body
Nerve damage or injury which can result in numbness and loss of strength in your arms and hands
How To Know When You Can Safely (Maybe) Do a Headstand
You should be able to hold downward dog, wide-legged forward plank, dolphin and forearm headstand for several minutes at a time.
You are working one-on-one with a trained instructor who can observe your form to best protect your neck.
You have a headstand chair or bench which removes all weight from the cervical spine and top of the head.
You Should Not do a Headstand if:
You have high or low blood pressure
You have a heart condition
You have previously hurt your neck, spine, or back
You are pregnant
You are menstruating.*
*There is frequent debate about this prohibition. Doctors hypothesized that backwards menstrual a.k.a. retrograde menstruation (as could theoretically happen if you did a headstand when you had your period) might increase your risk for endometriosis (a painful gynecological condition where uterine tissue is found outside of your uterus), but no medical study has ever shown this to be true. In fact, researchers found that 90% of the women they studied had retrograde menstruation (backwards flow of menses), but only 10% had endometriosis. So, retrograde menstruation can not be the only factor causing endometriosis in the women studied.
This list of possible health risks, combined with the general state of frustration I feel every time I attempt a headstand is making me "lean" towards safer inversions.
One veteran yogi who used to teach inversion workshops around the world writes that headstands should be considered “the most advanced inversion, considering the strength and body awareness you need to execute one properly.” Instead, she believes yogis should try a forearm stand first because: If you don't have the arm strength, core strength, and balance to hold a forearm stand comfortably, just think about what's happening to your neck when you're doing a headstand!” Well, there’s the first reason for me to stay on the ground, right side up: I haven’t mastered the forearm stand either!
Here are four more reasons why I won’t be attempting a headstand in my next yoga class:
Most yoga teachers are not trained in bio-mechanics, physical therapy, spinal anatomy or how to assess each class participant’s posture, strength and risk of injury. So, how well can they really tell whether you are safely doing a headstand?
Most of us today suffer from “tech neck” or a head-forward-leaning posture as a result of long hours on our cell phones or at our computer. Medical and yoga professionals both agree that this habitual posture increases the risk of injury when doing headstands because: “device-induced forward head carriage heightens the risk of bearing weight on the cervical spine.”
Your cervical vertebrae were designed to be able to support the weight of your head (usually up to 15 lbs/6.8 kg) ONLY. There is a reason that they appear more delicate and thinner on X-ray's than the chunky, thick lumbar vertebrae (bones of your lower spine) which bear more of your body’s weight. When you do a headstand (even correctly), you are asking those fragile cervical vertebrae to perform a weight-bearing exercise they weren’t designed for.
Headstands aren’t making me happy!
I am going to try to practice some of that self-compassion and mindfulness Tamara Levitt writes about. I will try to listen to my body and my mind, both of which are telling me that I am still a good person, even if I choose not to do a headstand. Consciously choosing child’s pose while the rest of the class goes upside down may be harder than any headstand for me. I accept this challenge and will take comfort in knowing that I am taking care of myself (and my neck).