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Pain Free Headstand

Can a headstand be pain-free?

A headstand (also known as Shirshasana) is an inversion where the practitioner is balancing on their head. A common question to those new to the idea is: Is that supposed to hurt? No, a headstand can be pain-free!

Why would a pose practiced over a millennia, by people of different body types and biological age meant to hurt? Unless the technique is compromised of course! In this article, I will cover all the mistakes I’ve seen during a headstand practice that can cause pain and offer some advice on what to do to stay pain-free.

Disclaimer 1: While I consider the analysis below to be valid for everyone, reading the information doesn’t guarantee that you will be making the suggested corrections when practicing on your own. To that extent, it is highly advisable to get the feedback from an external eye, preferably someone that understands the biomechanics and ideally an instructor. Also, those with a neck injury may benefit from some prior strengthening work in their trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and deltoids.

 

5 areas a headstand can cause pain

Pain in the neck

Neck pain is by far the most common complaint among those starting out with headstanding. The root causes of the problem is the shoulder joint set up

The position of the shoulders determines how much pressure will be on the neck. If I was to elevate my scapula I would increase the pressure on my neck even while standing. In all versions of the headstand, the scapula should be depressed.

Scapula depression keeps the neck pain-free

Scapula elevation can cause neck painYou can find a brief review of all scapula movements here.

While headstands should be performed with scapula depressed the scapula should be elevated in forearmstands and handstands. If you are interested in learning how to forearmstand you can read this article on Triyoga’s Blog.

 

How to deal with neck pain in headstand?

If you are experiencing neck pain I suggest you pay close attention to your scapula (shoulder blades) maintaining them always depressed. You can think of it as the shoulders away from the ears.

 

You should always maintain scapula depression for neck pain-free headstandScapula elevation in headstand can cause neck pain

In your effort to keep your scapula depressed it will help to pay close attention to the position of the hands.  One of the easiest ways of learning to headstand in a tripod is by keeping your hands shoulder-distance. However, those with weak shoulders or tight traps may find that hand position, unstable or suffocating. If that’s the case for you I suggest you widen the distance between your hands while maintaining the elbows as close as possible towards each other. You can also use a yoga strap to help you achieve that.

 

In a headstand you should try to keep your elbows in.

When starting out with headstands you should avoid keeping the elbows out.

Initially for some practitioners maintaining continuous scapula depression is not possible partly due to weakness in the rotator cuff and latissimus dorsi and partly due to lack of adequate neuroconnections with this part of the body. For that reason, in the 5 step process I follow when teaching headstands, is initially to involve one or both legs on the floor. Also, I encourage students to come out as soon as they feel pain as it is a sign they have lost their shoulder joint set up.

 

Pain on top of the head

The shape of skull varies between individuals. Some have a flat top, while others have a peak at the top. It is quite common at the beginning for practitioners to feel some discomfort, especially if they belong to the latter category.

If you are feeling pain on top of your head in a tripod headstand it is probably due to how sensitive your skin is in this area and/or the shape of your head. In a supported headstand the pressure on the head is often minimized as the forearm can take a lot of the body’s weight, provided they are pushing down.

How to deal with pain on the top of the head?

You can limit the pain on your head in a headstand by folding the mat.Chances are that you will be accustomed to the pressure after 3-5 sessions but in the meantime, you can double the mat or put an extra blanket underneath the head.

 

Please keep in mind that in a headstand ideally all (or nearly all) of the weight should be on the top of the head. In an effort to avoid the minor initial discomfort, some practitioners may:

• transfer most of the body’s weight to their hands. This is often accompanied by a planching line.

• place their forehead on the floor (instead of the top of the head).

• position their hands underneath their head.

This alignment often becomes a habit and might be a limiting factor later on when working towards intermediate headstand lines or transitions in & out of headstand. Instead of making any of the above adjustments place some cushion underneath your head.

In a headstand the top of the head should be in contact with the floor, not the forehead. In a headstand the hands should not be underneath the head. In a headstand the hands should bear little weight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headache

Approximately 10% of those headstanding will experience headaches at some point during their practice. Usually, headaches occur in the learning phase and are due to either irregular breathing or excessive (and unnecessary) tension in the upper back muscles.

How to deal with headaches in a headstand?

It is very common to breathe irregularly during the first few attempts of headstanding, so don’t beat yourself up. The extra load in the upper back muscles and diaphragm is likely to challenge your breath. I suggest you try to establish a slow breathing pattern, either by taking sips of air or through ujjayi breath.

The ideal breathing in a headstand, as well as a forearm stand and handstand, is diaphragmatic lateral breathing but that comes by default usually to those with a long-lasting pilates practice or after a regular practice is established – but not in the initial stages of learning.

If the headaches are because of tension in the trapezius muscles, you can depress your scapula. This will allow for a temporary release of the trapezius.

Lower back pain

An arch in headstand can cause lower back pain.Lower back pain in a headstand is due to poor posture in the lower part of the spine or weak lower back muscles. The use of a wall sometimes promotes poor posture which is why I will briefly mention one thing practitioners should keep an eye on.

When we are upside down the pressure on the joints of the upper body increases, as they need to carry the weight of the lower body. Depending on your weight distribution, the increased pressure can be small (if your hips and legs are light) or significant (if your hips and legs are heavy). For this reason, those with a tendency to maintain an exaggerated lordosis in the lumbar spine and those with weak quadratus lumborum are more likely to experience lower back pain. 

How to deal with lower back pain in a headstand?

Correcting one’s posture upside down is not easy when starting out, as the proprioception is often limited. For this reason, when I’m teaching a headstand for the first time, I suggest that my students become familiar with the tuck. Three main reasons behind that are:

• in a tuck keeping the naval in is easier. The naval in is necessary for the inner unit of the abdominals to stay active.

• there is less weight in the lower back

• the center of mass is low and at least for that reason, the balance is easier.

Tuck headstand is one of the 3 key headstand lines.Those unable to hold a tuck can practice a stag leg version.

However, even practitioners with no excess lordosis may experience lower back pain. In both scenarios I suggest one performs:

• drills that improve awareness and

• conditioning sequences for quadratus lumborum, glutes, abdominals and obliques.

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Everyone’s patterns are different so I provide each of my students with a different sequence. If you would like one to start with, I suggest you give this one a go. 

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Disclaimer 2: While our body’s anatomy plays a role on how easily we will learn to headstand it is only one of many parameters. To no extent should it be a reason to give up on learning. One of the benefits of inversions is that they give us the opportunity to discover our body. Whatever patterns we have are amplified when upside down. Use that opportunity to develop your practice and relationship with your body.

When does practicing against the call cause lower back pain?

When one or both feet touch the wall, the base of support becomes bigger.

The base in a headstand is determined by the points in contact with the floor

The base in a headstand increases with one foot on the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The balance will be maintained (comfortably) as long as the centre of mass is above our base of support. When the headstand is performed against the wall, instead of being over the head, the centre of mass will end up behind, without us losing balance. This is likely to cause an excess arch (lordosis) in the lower back and sequentially develop a pattern even when the wall is no longer needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For this reason, I am only happy to advise the use of the wall in homeopathic dosages.

Pain in the wrists

If you are experiencing wrist pain, you should assess your wrist’s dorsiflexion ability

How to deal with wrist pain in a headstand?

If you currently don’t have a 90-degree wrist dorsiflexion pain-free, I suggest you perform daily stretches for the forearms. Ideally, you will be also strengthening the hand and forearms.

While in a tripod headstand make sure your hands are not too far from your head as this will increase the degrees of dorsiflexion & thus the pain. To reduce the pressure you can also turn your fingers out.

 

 

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What to do when experiencing pain in a headstand?

Stop and assess what is causing the problem. In the process of doing that, it’s worth recording yourself too. What we are doing and what we think we are doing while upside down is often two different realities. Once you identify the problem try to fix it by following the suggestions above. Working with an experienced teacher can save you time and the risk of injury and I am dedicated to help all my students interested in inversions develop their practice.

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breathing in yoga

How to breathe during yoga

The way you breathe during a yoga class is affected by many parameters including :

• our level of experience

• the style of yoga

• our familiarity with the sequence

• how tense you are on the day

• the phase of the menstrual cycle

 

If you have been practicing yoga for a while you may have noticed how your breathing changed with time. You may have also noticed that beginners and more advanced practitioners will be performing the same poses (even with the same technique/form) but following a completely different breathing pattern.

In this article, I will analyze how the level of experience, style of yoga and phase of the menstrual cycle affect how you breathe during yoga. Let’s start with those starting out.

 

Breathing based on experience

Novice

When one starts practicing yoga (especially in a group class), she/he has many challenges to face. I remember having to :

• perform poses on the limit of my flexibility, if not poses completely inaccessible to me

• hold poses for longer than my lactic acid tolerance allowed me

• learn the name of poses

• remember the alignment my teacher indicated

• breathe in and out based on my teacher’s queues

 

While the whole experience at the end can leave the novice student with a sense of relaxation, there is a lot to take in. For that reason I suggest the following 3 rules for those starting out:

✔️ Remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.

✔️ Observe your breath. Usually, the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.

✔️ Maintain nasal breathing at all times. The best way to achieve that is to refrain from mouth breathing at all costs. This may not be accessible to you in the beginning due to chronic poor respiratory habits, but it is the foundation of any breathwork, so do not give up.

 

Intermediate

By the time you consider yourself to be an intermediate practitioner, you should be switching to ujjayi breath throughout your yoga (asana) practice.

Ujjayi breath in my opinion is: SILENT • SLOW • INTENTIONAL

This description is in line with that of Timothy McCall (author of the book “Yoga as Medicine”) :

“When you first learn Ujjayi, you will breathe with an audible noise. But as you progress, the sound may become so subtle that someone sitting next to you would not hear it.” Ref 1

 

If you maintain ujjayi breath at all times you will be able to :

✔️ stay focused

✔️ maintain good energy levels throughout the practice

✔️ oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately

 

Advanced

As an advanced practitioner, you can work towards gaining control of your breathing, independent of the asana or vinyasa performed. Breathing can support your concentration and help perform the yoga poses but it can also challenge them. Advanced practitioners can challenge their asana practice through breathing.

 

✔️ The 2 pillars of breathwork are: hypoxia and hypercapnia and they can both be practiced during any yoga class. in the section

 

Breathing in different yoga styles

Ashtanga, Bikram, …

In sequences that are standardized such as Ashtanga and Bikram, practitioners are asked to follow a set breathing pattern. The breathing pattern usually requires:

• inhalation during spine extension (ie. upward dog)

• exhalation during spine flexion (ie. uttanasana)

• no breathing holding at the end of the inhalation or exhalation

Three things to keep in mind:

✔️ During a vigorous physical practice, CO2 levels will increase, challenging the respiratory system. If one maintains nasal soft breathing she/he can maintain good cellular oxygenation. if instead there is a shift to hyperventilation the muscle tissue will be deprived of oxygen (due to the Bohr effect) and thus promote fatigue.

✔️ Abdominal integrity may be challenged in poses (asanas) and transitions (vinyasas) that involve both spine extension & flexion. During exhalation abdominal tension is reduced as the diaphragm moves towards the stomach. Over time as abdominal strength increases, it will become easier for the breath and the movement to be synched.

✔️ In studios where yoga classes take place, the temperature is often elevated causing a shift of the Oxyhemoglobin Dissociation Curve (ODC) to the right promoting the release of oxygen to tissue. This should make breathing easier.

Iyengar inspired styles

In styles of yoga where postures are held for long the biomechanics & biochemistry differs from vinyasa style classes. The way we should breathe during poses depends on how comfortable we are with the pose. Breath becomes primarily important when we are learning a pose or when we are holding a pose for periods close to our limit.

✔️ When learning a pose that requires stability in the lower back (lumbar) we should brace our abdominals, as opposed to hollowing.

Bracing our abdominals is achieved by holding our breath aiming for an isometric co-contraction of all abdominal muscles (as if we were about to receive a punch in the stomach). Hollow belly, often cued as belly or naval in achieves the activation of the transverse abdominis (TVA). When the 2 techniques were compared: bracing was shown to achieve higher lumbar stability compared to hollowing [ref 2].

Once someone is comfortable with a pose, hollowing the abdomen and maintaining lateral breathing is good idea as this will maintain a calmer Nervous System and the ability to hold the pose longer.

Certain asanas (such as backbends & side flexions) will require specific breathing patterns to help us access the pose. The progression above is valid for the majority of introductory poses.

 

Inversions

When learning a new inversion, in most instances I suggest one tries to find balance while holding his/her breath (on the inhalation or exhalation depending on the transition/ pose). By holding your breath you will:
✔️ increase of abdominal pressure
✔️ maintaining of the chest & abdominal area unchanged
✔️ increase concentration
 
It also allows the practitioner to establish a pattern through which he approaches the pose. Too often every attempt is completely different which can slow down the learning process.
Once balance is established regular or even better ujjayi breath can be maintained.
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Breathing in different stages of the menstrual cycle

In the 2nd half of the menstrual cycle (luteal phase) the sensitivity to CO2 levels increases [ Ref 3 ] due to an increase in progesterone levels. Women during this phase are expected to breathe heavier or faster [ Ref 4 ]. However this will very much depends on their CO2 tolerance (in plain English their respiratory capacity). The better their respiratory capacity breathing can be maintained regular throughout the entire month.

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How good is your breathing?

Your ability to breathe right during a yoga class is determined not only by your experience in yoga but also by your respiratory capacity. If you want to find out what is your respiratory capacity at the moment do the following 2 tests:

Controlled Pause

Breathlessness Test

References

1. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.

2. Grenier, S. G., & McGill, S. M. (2007). Quantification of lumbar stability by using 2 different abdominal activation strategies. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation88(1), 54-62.

3. Dutton, K., Blanksby, B. A., & Morton, A. R. (1989). CO2 sensitivity changes during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Applied Physiology67(2), 517-522.

4. Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest122(6), 2165-2182.