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.
You 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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.