Head(ache)stand: Reflections on Sirsasana
Sirsasana, or headstand, is referred to by BKS Iyengar as “the father” of all postures for the myriad benefits it ostensibly bestows on the practitioner. Paired with Salamba Sarvangasana, colloquially known as shoulderstand and the “mother” of all asanas, a daily practice of these inversions is believed to promote physiological, mental, and emotional balance. According to James Mallinson, one of the foremost contemporary scholars on the origins of hatha yoga, ancient yogis practiced Sirsasana as part of a regimen to manage the body’s vital energy. They believed that turning themselves upside down would keep bindu (semen) in the head and prevent it from leaking out of the other end of the body.
Today, in the Iyengar lineage to which I belong, these two poses represent the cornerstone of our asana practice and are meant to be done daily unless extenuating circumstances intervene. For example, inversions should be avoided during the menstrual cycle, if one is experiencing certain eye conditions, or has a neck or shoulder injury. Under these circumstances, alternate postures are available,
and/or the classic version of the inverted poses can be modified to mitigate the potential for injury and to maximize benefits.
My personal relationship with inversions is marked by bouts of raga (attachment to that which is pleasant) and dvesa (aversion to that which is unpleasant). Although my alignment left much to be desired, from the early years of my asana career I could hold Sirsasana and variations for long periods of time. I enjoyed the fiery sense of accomplishment it generated but resisted the hard work required to clearly identify and manage the structural imbalances in my body that contributed to poor alignment in the poses. I had a harder time learning to get comfortable in Sarvangasana but finally figured it out. I feel compelled to admit, however, that I never really felt the balancing effects that the texts espouse and so many of my yoga colleagues claimed to experience.
And now I think I’ve reached a turning point. Last month, I ended up in the ER because of unbearable migraine pain, which finally motivated me to address the source of increasingly frequent and severe migraine episodes rather than medicating them into submission. An x-ray confirmed my suspicion that osteoarthritis in my neck might be putting pressure on the occipital nerves and contributing to the frequency and intensity of my headaches. While I don’t think practicing inversions caused the arthritis or the headaches, the writing seems to be on the wall that I need to avoid them for the time being and possibly for the long run. Instead, I’ll practice some highly supported versions of Sarvangasana and substitute other poses for Sirsasana, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog) and Uttanasana (standing forward bend) on the milder end of the alternative scale, and Pincha Mayurasana (forearm balance) and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (full arm balance) on the more strenuous end.
I feel good about the decision to modify my personal practice but am still considering how this change will affect my teaching. After all, we tend to teach what we practice. Apart from the personal experience I describe in this post, I’ve been wondering for a long time if and how inversions fit into modern practice. Are they relics of the past that should evolve to meet the needs of contemporary society, or do they represent a time-honored tradition that should be preserved? What do you think? Please comment below to share your thoughts.