David Ben Gurion was a short and stocky Polish immigrant with long wiry white hair. Ben Gurion means son of a lion, and he became Israel’s first Prime Minister. Beyond the lion-hearted leadership he possessed to create the State of Israel, he needed a sharp mind, focus, unswerving steadiness, patience, and energy. So it shouldn’t be surprising that coached by Feldenkreis, Ben Gurion enjoyed standing on his head.
TIME magazine, in its millennial issue, published a photo of a 71-year-old Ben Gurion balancing his inversion on the beach.
Ben Gurion was a relative of mine, but I never saw that epic photo until I had practiced thousands of Dolphin Push-ups warding off my first Sirsasana (headstand). I was missing the lion inside. My self-confidence was as soft as my biceps.
Then, one of my teachers modeled her spider-like skinny arms as proof that you didn’t need Arnold Schwarzenegger’s strength to support your body. What gave me the internal strength to reach my legs to the ceiling was another yoga teacher with a drill sergeant-like stance and persona. In his thick German accent, he ordered, “Get up. I’m here.” Or maybe he said, “You can do it.” His word choice didn’t matter. It was a command with no fall-back option, and I knew his perfectly postured body would block my fall.
I never touched him. My legs went up, albeit trembling. While I may not have appreciated his emphatic command, I was thrilled with the result. I felt an extreme sense of pride. I had been practicing yoga for 20 years without having attempted the Headstand.
For the next few months, I practiced the Headstand in my daily personal practice. Without the spotting of my German bodyguard, I created a blanketed lawn leading up to a wall to cushion my fall. I never crashed, though I did roll over once or twice, bruising the fingers on both hands.
Shannon’s story is not unlike mine. She has enough balance and upper body stability. She has mastered Bakasana and the Side Crow. She has no fear of falling forward in those arm balances. But her fears arise when she tries to lift up into Sirsasana, even though she has perfect alignment and sufficient core strength.
Others have the opposite problem. They are fearless. As a yoga instructor with a specialization in yoga therapy, I give my students cues as to what they should do to PREPARE for a Headstand. I suggest they hold those sequences, building up to the “king of all poses.”
I love my Downward Facing Dogs and want my students to be able to relax and hold their Adho Mukhas for several minutes. In their Dogs, they practice necessary shoulder alignment for a solid headstand.* Shoulders away from the ears, the pelvic floor tilted, legs lengthening through to the toes and heels.
But overachievers don’t want to wait in a Dog or Dolphin pose. They don’t want to wait with their feet closer to their body, where the point of balance shifts to their forearms. They don’t want to hug their knees into their chest, engaging their abs. They simply want to shoot those toes to the sky as if they were a jack-in-the-box. More often than not, they end up on the floor.
Periodically, in my group classes, I have guided each and every student into a sirsasana headstand against the wall. Some are so amazed at how easy it is with the wall behind them. For others, it’s a great way to point out when their arms and shoulders are not in proper form. They immediately feel the difference when they lift up on a solid triangular support.
As a teacher, it’s clear to me when my students are ready for a headstand and I want them to feel the beauty of the king of poses.
According to Kellie Adkins of the Wisdom Methodtm School of Yoga, before there were hundreds of asanas demonstrated on streaming videos and DVDs set in Hawaii or other idyllic locations, a guru would tell his disciple when he was ready for a new pose. There was a logical sequence and preparation for each pose, that only the master’s wisdom could impart on his student. Back in the golden days, let’s not forget, there were no group exercise classes or steaming yoga shalas with hordes of people packed in under the guidance of just one instructor. Yoga, like all the best arts and sciences, was passed on from one master to another, creating a parampara, or succession or lineage that would maintain a sense of purity in the practice.
Donna Farhi, a noted Yogi educator, and author, says that the Sirsasana was originally considered a mudra, or sacred gesture. Mudras were secretive whereas asanas were replicated in art and writings. There may be many reasons why someone should not treat a Headstand like a cheerleading pose. The Headstand leads one to samadhi as the energy travels up the sushumna from the perineum to the pineal gland. One needs to be ready physically and emotionally.
“For the average city dweller whose greatest demand may be carrying a bag of groceries once or twice a week, these postures (arm balances) can at first be quite challenging,” says Farhi. “When our arms become strong and can support the body, we can lift, carry, reach for, refuse, and remodel objects around us, making it possible to interact with the natural world on our own terms.”
One of the most respected yoga gurus, B.K.S. Iyengar, said “regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind, and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.”
It is said that Sirsasana gives you the power and mental clarity. It should be relaxing and meditative while heating and stimulating the body. It boosts circulation, stimulates the nervous system, helps metabolism and the endocrine system, and increases gastric fire.
As with any inversion, the Headstand should not be practiced by those with uncontrolled blood pressure or detached retina, or glaucoma. For those with cervical spine issues, a variation of headstand that does not put pressure on the neck is essential. Whether you can get your feet up and hold a headstand should not be a milestone in your fitness routine. The king of all poses should be in your practice when you are ready for it physically, and emotionally.