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Thoughts on Head/Shoulder Stand…. or not!

Last month I received the following in an email from a long-time student and yoga teacher trainee who assisted my YTT a couple of times and who has since moved away:

“Hi Ti,

…The person who I would say is the main teacher here (northern California) specializes in therapeutic yoga, and more and more she is moving away from teaching headstand and shoulder stand, even to students who don’t have any limitations. I came across this article recently, in thinking more about how to approach headstand in my own classes…

https://yogainternational.com/article/view/king-and-queen-no-more
(Ti’s comment: No need to read that article which is long and which I comment on below, but it’s kept in for full-disclosure and since that article was popularized on FB some weeks back and some of you may have already read.)

What do you think about all of this? I’m curious about what your wisdom would be to teachers who are relatively new about teaching advanced postures like this… If you have time to provide any insight, I would love that.”

Below is my response to her question. I am writing this as a blog for everyone, not just yoga teachers since I think there is some valuable things I think my students, or any yoga practitioner since some of you are not (currently) my students, should know or could learn from it.

Nikki had showed me that article when the hubbub started on FB, and I purposely avoided it, but since you sent it, I did read it. I have a number of issues with the article, mostly that the author seemed to have picked his side already and slanted the writing in that direction… AND he has books to sell, which always slants a person’s writing, as far as I can tell. He also presents a lot of people giving their opinions, no science anywhere to back-up or support it, just people’s experience, whether positive or negative, but then he makes the nay-sayers sound like the scientific-minded ones and the others are just “charismatic” or uneducated.

Are the poses beneficial? I don’t know. I like doing them. They feel good to me. I have kids and I know that kids like to be upside down. So do our dogs. Other primates get upside down. Why not human adults? Why WOULDN’T it be beneficial in some way? (if not done in a way that is hurtful) It’s also important to remember Grilley’s Bones DVD (Anatomy for Yoga-DVD). Some people simply don’t have a long enough upper arm bone to clear the head. I have at least 2 students like that, and they can’t do headstand safely but they can and do do forearm balance instead, with the head tipped back and the face pointing at the floor. “Excess weight”, as someone mentioned in the article, also makes inversions a challenge, but those people in my classes generally don’t even try or even think about getting upside down. It would just be too uncomfortable, though sometimes they do do the preparatory pose, setting up the arms and head and lifting the knees but keeping the feet on the floor.

And no, I don’t think it’s my job to hold others back because some others can’t do a pose, or might feel bad about themselves if they can’t do it. (This was part of the impetus for the above linked article and for the hubbub on FB, when a studio in Canada asked ALL students to not do inversions AT ALL, in class or outside of class.) In my classes, of course, I try to teach taking responsibility for oneself and one’s actions and decisions, and I am trying to teach some degree of freedom, and ultimately freedom of the mind from its passing likes and dislikes and from the pervasive and mistaken belief that “I am my body. I am my mind and my thoughts.” or that I am anything OTHER than the Infinite Silent Loving Presence Inside and Outside… but first things first 🙂

Honestly, I have seen people (and myself) injure themselves in a variety of poses, whether in class or at home. When it was in those inversions, for headstand, it was always from falling out of the pose, usually into a wall or worse or rolling over the fingers, and with shoulder stand it was always from trying to force the spine to be vertical, which is how Yoga Journal, etc. always pictures the pose (more on that below). However forward bends of all kinds and pigeon are probably the most frequent poses for injury with your occasional back bend (wheel especially) thrown in there. If we only led poses we only knew were safe, we would probably get down to ONLY doing tadasana (mountain pose)…which I would argue would probably be a great thing for yoga and for people in general, but would not allow the commodification of yoga that we have going on right now, meaning I and others would not be able to make our living teaching yoga, nor would I be able to use yoga to help folks heal their bodies in the way I currently do. Having experienced much injury, from yoga and otherwise, I am not averse to injury and do not see it as a failure, though I do see it revealing, without exception, a lapse (whether momentary or chronic) of awareness.

For headstand, I am of the opinion that in general there should not be more weight on the head than the (physical) weight of the head… at least at first. The problem, of course, is that most people’s heads weigh about a TON from the too-many and too-heavy thoughts they cling to! (partly joke, mostly serious!) My approach now when leading it with people who are new to my class, I ask them if they practice it. If they do, I let them do what they do and keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t have a lot of weight on their head and they have a good, stable base. If they don’t practice it, I show them the set-up and demo the basic prep pose, just lifting the knees (like down dog but on the forearms) and keeping most if not all the weight off the head. Then I suggest they try that, and when they’re in it, I ask if that’s challenging enough, which it generally is, and so I say, “OK, you stay there. When it’s enough, just come down and rest in the child pose.” The pose then can build from there… if they want.

For shoulder stand, I lead it with the body at an angle to the floor less than vertical, and I never encourage people to go for vertical unless it looks like they can do it easily. Some human bodies can get vertical but in my experience, it is the minority, probably less than 25%. Injuries happen in that pose mostly from trying to force the body to get vertical when it is (clearly) saying “No!” (and yes, it took me years of practice to realize that I was doing that too, though not so intensely as to cause injury!) Iyengar-influenced practitioners generally make use of blankets propped under the shoulders to allow the spine to get vertical without compromising the neck, but in my experience that set-up takes a lot of time to get right and in many cases is unstable and possibly injury-causing as a result.

Yoga can be a very healing practice, but if used in a competitive and forceful way and without mindfulness and loving compassion, it can easily become a practice leading to certain injury.. Over many years of teaching, I can often, though not always tell when a student is hurting her/himself, in some cases even if they have not acknowledged it to themselves yet, and fortunately at this point, almost all of my students are strong and grounded enough to be willing to back up if I suggest it, at least as an experiment, and in many cases of doing that they find more comfort, ease and joyful awareness. And yes, there are the occasional students who will barge head-first “forward” to injury no matter what I say. Sadly I let them. I was like that once, too (am probably still, too, in some ways). That’s its own different learning environment then.

May you and your students practice for many years in a healthy, healing and happy way, and may your practice continue to deepen and inspire your life and teaching.

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