If you know me you probably know that there are two poses that I refuse to teach in group Yoga. One of those is “sleeping butt pigeon,” which I’ve done a whole extensive series on how sleeping pigeon can injure your hip. (Here’s a quick link to Part I).
The the other pose is the most dangerous pose in yoga
There has already been a big study published on yoga injuries and they found that Headstand, above all other poses, can lead to the most serious of injuries in yoga. Certain practices of yoga make you wait up to 2 years until the teacher allows you to pop into it. Some studios don’t even allow it!
Now I’ll admit, in the few years that I’ve been teaching I’ve taught Headstand a whopping 1 time. I’ve also taught it in an Inversions workshop as a prelude to getting your body used to going upside down.
Benefits of Headstand:
- It’s a decent pose when it comes to Handstand prep because it gets your eyes and body used to being flipped
- It provides a larger base for getting your feet over your head than handstand
- Helps us move through the fear of going upside down
- It looks cool on Instagram
As it turns out though,
- It puts a lot of compression force on our neck
- It is posturally inaccessible to a vast majority of people
- New research has revealed it can also create or lead to exacerbations in thoracic and lumbar spinal conditions like disc herniations and sciolosis
- The “medical benefits” of headstand are not sufficiently supported by medical literature
Now let me be clear from the beginning:
The intention of this article is to dissuade you from teaching and taking Headstand in a group Yoga class. In private sessions of no more than around 4 people or partner sessions where you have support and supervision is when this pose should be taken.
You’ll see how I’ve reached this conclusion after I present all the fun anatomy and research to you in a moment.
For now, grab a glass of water, and Hydrate Your Brain, we’re going to want all cylinders firing in that bad boy for this blast of knowledge.
Blow you mind here, so you don’t physically blow up your spine later
Let’s start with the basics of why Headstand is a huge No-no. Gravity and your Spine.
This is an x-ray of your neck, it gives a pretty nice view into how everything lines up. Take a moment to note the soft C curve. The curve of the neck helps us distribute weight evenly along the vertebrae to support our bowling ball head against gravity.
When we flip this, and support our body on our head and hands, we smush all this together. These are called Compression Forces, which normally is the 8-12 lb mass you call a noggin, resting on your cervical spine partnered with the all-mighty force of gravity.
In Headstand these compression forces increase, due to there being a hell of a lot more than the normal 8-12 pounds and gravity. Now you have the legs and torso all being supported by your head and the poor cervical spine that gets smushed in between.
What happens when the compression gets too great on your spine? Well the jelly donut like discs that lie between the vertebra get pushed out to the sides until they eventually herniate. The spinal discs were made to withstand compression and act as a shock absorber for those normal compression forces of gravity. After too long, or if the pressure is not evenly distributed, the disc begins to bulge. Eventually it strikes a nerve and you get a nasty bout of nerve pain and numbness that shoots down into your shoulders and arms.
This is what your neck looks like on an MRI:
Cervical spinal cord compression is bad, really bad, like it can paralyze you level bad. Usually it can happen over the age of 50 from normal wear and tear, but the abnormality of balancing on your head can really speed up this process from undue stress influencing the herniation of the discs of your spine.
This all by the way is assuming you’re balancing from the appropriate spot on your head, so let’s talk about how to balance on your skull for a moment.
One of the most troubling things that I have learned while conducting this research is that in BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga he advises practitioners to place all the weight on their head, and only use the arms and hands to help with balance.
I don’t care how much to yoga you’ve contributed, how’s about nope Mr. Iyengar
Idealistically you’re supposed to very very lightly rest the top of your head on the mat, with close to zero amount of pressure on it. Most of the support comes from the hands or the forearms on the mat.
With that minimal pressure on the skull, and assuming your neck has a normal curve, pressure will be applied in an even fashion all the way down (technically up) the spine, thanks to curves in the spine that displace weight evenly (think Roman arches, and how strong they are). Now if this alters, even in the slightest way, from just where the head makes contact, things can change in terms of compression forces quite drastically:
Not Ideal but sadly common alignment:
The Flexion/Extension images show an exaggerated view of what happens when your head is misaligned and how the reaction forces of the ground respond to Gravity and the weight of your body. In a normal yoga classroom setting this common skull misalignment doesn’t result in as much bending of the Cervical spine as shown, but the message is still the same,
Even on a smaller scale, do you think that looks very nice for the neck?
The position of the head is immensely important, but you’ll see it in just about every class, people rarely have the correct spot no matter how much you talk about it and attempt point it out. The alignment of the vertebra in everyone’s neck is different, we may all have different “ideal balancing” spots. It’s not a top-of-the-head one size fits all, the curve (or lack there of) may influence where you need to specifically balance from. (More on this later)
After just that bit of knowledge:
Can you honestly say that you barely put any weight on your head and have the correct spot to balance from in your headstand?
Do you teach it well enough to ensure your yogis are only lightly on the correct spot on their head, with minimal force on their neck?
My neck hurts just thinking about it
That was just compression on why Headstand is bad, let’s further that concept of undue stress and look at posture next.
Troll Posture and Headstand:
The compression forces on the cervical spine in Headstand detailed above describe what happens to a normal spine. Unfortunately for us, this is becoming an increasing rarity because most of us have some degree of Troll Posture, or better known as Janda’s Upper Crossed Syndrome.
Since this about the neck, lets focus on the Forward Head Posture part today:
Don’t worry so much about the muscly details, worry more on how this looks:
- The head is forward (ears in front of and beyond the shoulders)
- The upper thoracic spinal curve has been accentuated (the upper back and ribs appears more rounded, like a hump).
- There is no Cervical Curve (Look at the image on the right, see how the curve in her neck is gone)
Forward Head posture can lead to a wealth of problems as well:
“FHP leads to long term muscle strain, disc herniation, arthritis, and pinched nerves.” (Mayo Clinic Health Letter, V.18, #3, March 2000)
It’s quite prominent too. Take a look up from this page for a second and see if you notice someone’s neck hinged forward (easy way: their ears will be in front of their shoulders). Didn’t take you long did it? It’s a product of our texting and typing culture. Holding heavy backpacks and purses doesn’t help either.
Now what do you think happens, if your cervical and thoracic spine are already misaligned, when you flip upside down and attempt to balance on it in Headstand?
Your neck is probably safer flipping down a flight of stairs.
This is a HUGE point. 9 out of 10 people that enter your yoga class have some degree of Forward Head Posture. They’ve entered your room already misaligned, and guess what? A 60-90 minute yoga class isn’t enough to reverse chronic bad posture. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years of remaining diligent on specific exercises to fix.
If you go with Forward Head Posture for too long it can completely straighten out the curve of your neck.
How do you think Headstand will go for the Cervical spine without a weight distributing curve for the person on the left?
If you lose the curve in your neck, there’s a strong chance it will never come back. It’s pretty common in people over the age of 50, from normal wear and tear. Technology and it’s resulting Troll posture, however, have changed that completely. A large number of High School kids are losing the curve in their Cervical spine from texting and typing.
Most teacher trainings, even 500 hours etc, don’t properly train their teachers to assess the spinal health of the their students. At least not up to the medical industry’s standards. Plus it’s borderline impossible to assess the spinal health of everyone that walks into your yoga classroom. Private sessions (where Headstand belongs) are a different story because you can take the time to assess the spine of your student/small group and help them find the specific alignment of their body to get into it safely.
Here’s a few more deep hitting questions:
When you take/teach Headstand do you make yourself or your yogis posturally aware enough to balance on your head with proper neck alignment?
Did you do the proper amount of strengthening and awareness to bring yourself or your class into that space of proper neck alignment?
Are you sure you or your class can uphold this awareness when you go upside down? (Things tend to go awry and people forget all that alignment the moment they flip)
Have you properly assessed the health of your neck, or the necks of each an every person in your classroom? Are you absolutely sure you/they should be balancing on it in the first place?
There’s a lot of responsibility associated with Headstand.
That was just the head and the neck by the way. Let’s finish with a look at what happens to the whole spine when you go upside down in Headstand.
Headstand and the Thoracic & Lumbar Spine:
I know what you’re thinking at this point,
How can Headstand possibly get more dangerous!? What are you about to show me now!?
If the facts above haven’t deterred you from teaching and taking Headstand without proper supervision and small group instruction, then this new study that was just published in the Journal of Sports Sciences ought to do it.
It’s got a lot of fancy words, so let me give you the key points from the abstract and save you some effort:
The study looked at how the spinal curves reacted to Headstand. In 6 males and 5 females they found that:
- The lumbar spinal curve decreased (when compared to their seated and walking position), which may favor disc herniations in the lumbar spine
- The thoracic spine had increased lateral deviation, which may affect postural control and lead to incorrect spinal loads (bad news for people with scoliosis)
It concluded that: “It could be useful for promoting positive spinal structural and functional chronic adaptations for healthy participants, if the yoga programme is carefully planned and the spinal alignment is carefully monitored during a headstand. However, it may aggravate some spinal diseases, especially scoliosis.”
There you have it, Headstand doesn’t just compromise your neck, it can affect and compromise YOUR WHOLE DAMN SPINE.
With all the facts given above, I ask you:
Can you honestly say you feel comfortable taking this pose without proper someone-is-standing-over-you-monitoring-your-spine supervision?
Can you honestly say you feel comfortable teaching this pose to a group of people?
I really hope at this point you’ve shouted a strong
when it comes to taking/teaching Headstand in group Yoga
Conclusion: Headstand? How’s About Nope-Stand
You now know how Headstand is legitimately dangerous when applied in a group yoga room. Let’s recap because I want this etched into your mind.
Headstand is Dangerous because:
- Incorrect Compression forces on the Cervical Spine
- From improper placement of the head
- From improper posture/postural awareness
- Posturally inaccessible to a vast majority of people
- Due to normal wear and tear
- Chronic Forward Head Posture
- Loss of Cervical Curvature
- Disc Herniations in the neck
- Other spinal conditions can be exacerbated
- Increase in disc bulging in the Lumbar Spine
- Lateral Deviations & Sciolosis in the Thoracic Spine
Given all that above, there’s just one question left to ask,
Why do we even do this pose?
1 word: Ego –It looks cool on our Instagrams and it provides an easy way to go upside down,
But if it has all these negative effects that affect just about everyone, why should we do this pose at all? My answer: Just say Nope to Headstand (aka Nope-stand)
The only time you should do Headstand:
- Is with someone right next to you that knows what their doing
- Someone has properly assessed your spinal health and deemed you healthy enough to do it
- You have someone to instruct and monitor you privately into the pose
- You have no prior spinal diseases like disc herniations in the cervical and lumbar spine or scoliosis
Going upside down is seriously not worth destroying your spine. You get one of those, and once it starts to lose movement and get damaged, things don’t end well for you.
This applies to all the variants of headstand too:
- Tripod Headstand is a huge Nope, because it’s really difficult to take pressure off the head.
- Supported with the forearms is not as bad because the forearms create more surface area and allow for greater control of head compression, but is still a Nope in a group yoga class.
- Unsupported Headstand by balancing on just your head or fingertips is the biggest Nope of them all. Don’t ever do this pose ever level of Nope.
There are safer ways to go upside down. While some say Shoulderstand is just as dangerous, with proper instruction and awareness it can be a pretty decent pose if your intention is to get your feet over your head. Just make sure you are doing it right, or are under the supervision of someone that actually cues you into it and doesn’t willy nilly say “take shoulderstand if you want!” (I’ve been guilty of this in the past and now I’m looking at you lazy teachers, Shoulderstand can be pretty dangerous for a few of the above reasons)
In the next class you take and the teacher brings you into Headstand, please just say Nope-stand and do Handstand, Crow, or some other inversion. Take the ego out, forget about looking cool with your feet in the sky on Instagram, and honor your spine. Then let the teacher know about this article, chances are they didn’t know how crazy dangerous this pose is or the extreme amount of responsibility required to teach it.
When it comes to balancing on your head, instead just shake it and say:
Nope I will not balance on my head, I only have 1 spine and I love and respect it too much to do that.
Please share this and save a yogi’s spine! #getwokenotbroke
With love, light, and awareness,