Headstand is Like a Bad Relationship: Fun Until it’s Not.
You always remember your first, and headstand is no exception.My first time was in my forties; I was out of shape, weary and afraid. My teacher did not admit defeat and so neither could I. I thought it might be my last chance to do something crazy, so after many attempts, up I finally went.The “king” of all poses presents us with a conundrum. On the one hand it’s an opportunity to develop core, spine and neck strength. On the other, it’s a snake pit of potentially serious complications.Today I have Cervical Disc Degeneration, three blown discs and a bevy of bone spurs poking into my nerves. I was probably never a good candidate for doing this pose because of arthritis. Disc degeneration can cause a multitude of problems including pain, paralysis, stroke and most delightfully, a loss of bowel control.I was experiencing paralysis in my arms and pain in my back when I was diagnosed.Doc: "What have you been doing to create this kind of compression?"Me: "Um."I didn’t want to cast shade on a pose I loved. But I wouldn’t be the first. In 2012, William Broad became generally vilified after he published a book and a series of articles on the dangers of yoga. Broad was booed by yogis far and wide, however I refrained from the chorus in those days. I’d like to say it was because I was smarter than that, but no. I just usually hesitate when I see a crowd of people going on one direction. My inclination is to always look the other way.Broad made several good points in his book, The Science of Yoga, and it changed my teaching. (He also made some really incredulous claims, like the idea that several people a year will die in yoga. Well, several people a year will probably die in bed, so I’m not yet convinced that checking into a class is cause for alarm.)Broad came to a conclusion that I now wholeheartedly endorse. The problem isn’t with the pose. It’s with the people who practice it. For example, in India where folks hardly sit down at all, yogis may be practicing headstand and building spine strength from the time they can walk, and walk, and walk.In most U.S. cities, people are coming to the pose for the first time later in life, with a soft core, tight shoulders and having spent the entire day sitting at a desk. That’s a perfect storm.
The Pose is not the Problem
If we accept that there are no “bad poses,” but there are poses that are perhaps not good for us, it might make it easier to kiss headstand goodbye. I liken this to partners. Everyone, I’m sure, has had the experience of being with a person that was just plain not good for them even though they may have been fun. That’s how I think of headstand, my super fun pose until it wasn’t.Today I usually try to get to the back of room when I practice. If we are inverting, safety says I must go to a wall (after all, I have a freaking broken neck.)Often this provokes a lecture from the teacher that I need to go upside down in the middle of the room to “face my fears.” So I want to set the record straight in case anyone is still reading:
You do not have to go upside down to face your fears.
You just have to wake up every day
And be willing to try over and over again to choose trust over fear.
Life is scary enough. If you want to commit tiny acts of bravery, try looking in the mirror after 40. How about being vulnerable and honest? Just getting outside of any comfort zone is plenty scary to 99% of us. We don’t have to jump upside down to prove it.Given that we don’t have to prove anything to anyone, and that there are no bad poses, here are six reasons you might not have considered when you are deciding whether or not to give this pose a go.
Six Reasons the ‘King’ May need to Abdicate
The powerful drugs used for chemotherapy and radiation treatments destroy cancer, but they also weaken bones. Cancer survivors are prone to fractures, and the delicate bones of the cervical spine may not be strong enough to bear weight after treatment. According to the CDC, approximately 40% of people will develop cancer in their lifetime. That’s two out of five students in a yoga room who should not, ever, put weight on the cervical bones.
If a student tells their teacher they have arthritis in the knee, what are the odds that they have arthritis afflicting other bones in the body? Oh, about 100%. The cervical spine can become riddled with arthritis making it vulnerable to rupture if bearing weight. This affects about 350 million people worldwide.
More than 10 million women have osteoporosis, and another 18 million are at risk of developing this disease which manifests by weakening the upper thoracic spine. If you see a student with kyphosis in the upper back (rounding outward), under no circumstances should they attempt a headstand. The spine will be further forced in the wrong direction.
Mr. Iyengar did a daily headstand into his late 90s. But Mr. Iyengar also came to the yoga party at a very early age. He trained his core and conditioned his spine since he was seven years old. These days many students have never learned to engage their core. They have not conditioned their spine to load bear. They have probably been sitting for 20 years. They take a large class where they cannot get individual guidance. And then whomp, we ask their cervical spine to hold 170 pounds or more. It’s a perfect storm for a disc rupture.
Instagram makes headstand look so easy, but there’s quite a bit of alignment involved. A tiny misalignment can single out one little disc for too much weight. If you don’t know how to properly align, then don’t take this posture. Handstand and forearm stand are actually much safer than headstand.
The CrossFit generation, AKA Baby Boomers, are active and strong and as a result often have tight shoulders. Headstand requires the shoulders to be open and back in order for the cervical spine to be properly aligned and supported. Many students are athletic, but not flexible enough in the shoulders to align correctly. When these students go upside-down, their upper back goes kyphotic, the weight comes to the back of the head, and the cervical spine rounds which can cause the discs to rupture.Headstand, done properly, can build strength in the neck, back and core. But it may not be for everyone. If you have any of the above conditions you should reconsider whether this pose is for you.I get the upside: it’s fun and strengthening. On the downside there’s a chance you will lose bowel control, stroke out or be paralyzed. All I can say is if you still think it’s about facing your fears, then um. Just um, that is all.Michelle Marchildon is The Yogi Muse. She’s an award-winning journalist and the author of Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga and Theme Weaver: Connect the Power of Inspiration to Teaching Yoga. You can find her writing on Elephant Journal, Mantra Yoga and Health Magazine, and Sports Illustrated.