Align: Salamba Sirsasana II

Salamba sirsana II, or supported headstand II (often referred to as tripod headstand), is a pose for the more advanced yoga practitioner as it demands the ability to maintain the balanced posture of tadasana (mountain pose) while completely inverted.  

Functions of the Pose

Assess and balance postural alignment

It is impossible to safely and comfortably hold sirsana II without impeccable posture.  Patterns of postural compensation, such as asymmetries, rotations or pronounced spinal curvatures will become more apparent to the student and teacher when practicing headstand.

Improved circulation from lower body

Inverting the body helps promote lymph and venous blood flow from the lower to the upper body, improving heart health and immune system function.

Finding the Pose

  1. Sitting on the heels in vajrasana (diamond or rock) pose, bring your hands to floor in front of you.  Place the hands shoulder-width apart and spread fingers wide.
  2. Place the crown of your head on the floor far enough in front of your hands that the elbows bend to 90 degrees.
  3. Curl your toes under and lift your hips as in dolphin pose.
  4. Begin to walk your toes forward to lift your hips over your shoulders.  You can remain in the preparatory position, or you might bring your knees to rest on your elbows if you feel the spine is long with hips over shoulders.
  5. If you feel steady, with no sense of pain or compression on the neck, and if you are breathing easily here, begin to bring your knees toward your chest, then gradually extend your feet toward the ceiling.
  6. Come out with the same care you took entering the pose, slowly lowering your feet to the floor or your knees to elbows.

Tips & Modifications

Salamba sirsana II is a relatively simple pose to maintain, but getting into the pose can be a challenge for students with tight hamstrings.  Students with cervical spine injury or instability will need to practice head-free handstand (below).

For tight hamstrings, students can begin headstand kneeling in a chair.  For added safety, the chair can face the wall (about two feet away) and be placed on a yoga mat to keep it from slipping.  The student leans forward to place hands shoulder-width apart on floor, places head on floor as described above, then brings arms to 90 degrees and draws shoulders over hips with knees or feet still on the chair.  The student can remain here, or draw one or both legs up for full headstand.

To do head-free headstand, students can place two stacks of 3-4 blocks each a few inches apart on the floor facing a wall.  The student places hands in front of the blocks and shoulders on the block stacks with the head hanging between them.  The head should not touch the floor.  From there, the student can practice headstand as described above.

Opinions are divided on whether it is best to balance on the crown of the head, or on the bregma, a spot where the skull bones meet closer to the forehead.  Students who favor the bregma position often have more extension in the upper back, but they must take care not to hyper-extend the neck.  Balancing on the crown of the head results in a more neutral, balanced position for the spine.

Once in headstand, focus on an upward lifting motion to keep the body light: draw the scapula down the spine, lift the pelvis upward and press the balls of the feet toward the ceiling.  With the practice, as the body becomes more balanced and weight evenly distributed, it should be difficult to pinpoint where the weight of the body is resting, and the pose should be comfortable and easy to maintain.

Muscle Actions

  • The postural muscles maintain alignment of the spine (these include the deep neck muscles, spinal extensors and flexors, abdominal muscles and psoas major) and legs (hamstrings, adductor magnus, gluteus maximus).
  • The serratus anterior upwardly rotates the scapula, and the deltoid and rotator cuff muscles stabilize the shoulder joint.

Benefits

  • The challenge of supporting the weight of the body over the head not only strengthens deep postural muscles of the core, but it reveals postural compensation patterns, and provides an opportunity to bring more balance to the body.
  • A properly aligned headstand can be strengthening for the cervical spine as bone cells respond to site-specific pressure by increasing bone density.
  • The positional shift of abdominal organs when practicing inversions can improve digestion and breathing.
  • All full inversions increase venous return of blood from the lower body and promote lymphatic flow through the lower body.
  • Many students find advanced postures to be particularly centering, as they are required to focus to maintain the position.

Precautions

  • Salamba sirsasana II is not a beginner's yoga pose.  Students should have an understanding of general principles of alignment before attempting the pose so that they can enter, maintain and exit the posture safely.
  • The effect of inversions on circulatory, nervous system and eye disorders has not been adequately studied, and it is recommended that students with high blood pressure, seizures/epilepsy and glaucoma or detached retina avoid full inversions until further research is done.
  • Students with cervical spine injury should avoid bringing the weight of the body onto the head.  See Tips & Modifications above for propping with blocks.
  • For the intermediate/advanced student, inversions are generally safe during menstruation or low-risk pregnancy.  Students must be able to enter the pose gradually enough that they can be aware of any unusual discomfort, pain, nausea or dizzyness.
  • It is not recommended that young children practice headstand, as their cervical spine may be less stable, and they rarely enter a pose with the care and thoughtfulness that headstand requires.

Sequencing Tips

Because getting into headstand requires so much flexibility in the hamstrings, core strength and focus, it is usually practiced near the end of a class, after many standing postures and backward-bending and forward-bending poses.  Dandasana (staff pose), chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose) and dolphin pose are all good postures to explore the work of the upper body and core in maintaining the optimal posture.  

Many students will enjoy entering and exiting salama sirsana II from prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend).  Other counterposes for headstand include balasana (child's pose), setu bandhasana (supported bridge pose) and halasana (plow pose)

Additional Resources:

Yoga Anatomy-2nd Edition
By Leslie Kaminoff, Amy Matthews
Yoga: The Iyengar Way
By Silva Mehta, Mira Mehta, Shyam Mehta

Great quick practice from yoga teacher Kathryn Budig for the intermediate/advanced yoga student.