Salamba Sirsasana: Step-by-step guide to headstand

Salamba sirsasana
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Me practicing Sirsasana B in Mysore, India.

For anyone who has ever been to a yoga class or practiced Ashtanga Yoga specifically, you may have come across headstand, also known as Salamba Sirsasana in Sanskrit.

Salamba Sirsasana or Headstand is a head-balancing posture, which is considered to be the king of all asanas. We stand upside down, without any weight on our heads. This posture is practiced near the end of an Ashtanga yoga class and we stay here for up to 25 deep breaths.

There are many variations and alternatives for beginners which I will discuss below.

As a side note, I’ve written a complete guide to the Ashtanga yoga poses of the Primary series, so be sure to check it out.

What is the Benefit of Headstand?

One of the key benefits of Sirsanana is that it helps to relieve stress. Because it is an inversion that requires concentration, it can help to bring your attention inwards. Additionally, on a physical level, Sirsanana can help strengthen the arms and shoulders and can increase blood flow to the head.

Additionally, according to John Scott in his book Ashtanga Yoga, “Through the correct practice of Shirsasana, the subtle nadis (energy channels) in the brain and sense organs are purified by the increased flow of blood”.

According to Lesley Kaminoff and Amy Mathews, in their book Yoga Anatomy, they argue that: “Inversions do offer a very beneficial opportunity for increased venous return from the lower body, as well as improved lymph drainage – not to mention the benefits derived from inverting the action from the diaphragm”.

Interestingly, headstands may come effortlessly to some people, while others may have to work on this for months or even years. It really does depend on our anatomy.

For example, if you have strong arms and shoulders, you may find lifting up into a headstand rather effortless. Indeed, I’ve had a few students be able to do an unassisted headstand in just a few classes!

On the flip side, I’ve also got students who have been working on this pose for a couple of years.

I think it’s important to point out that after a certain point and certain level of fitness, the ability to come up becomes mainly psychological.

How to do Salamba Sirsasana

As a general rule, there are 6 steps to doing wheel pose. In step 1 prepare our base. Step 2 asks us to place our head on the floor. In step 3 we step the feet closer. In step 4 we lift one foot up. In step 5 we lift both feet. If this is comfortable, in step 6 we straighten the legs.

Sirsasana step 1. Create Your Headstand Base

1. Create Your Headstand Base

  • Start on all fours.
  • Hold on to your elbows to measure how wide your headstand will be.

This helps to understand how far apart our elbows will be. There is a common tendency t come up into the headstand with the elbows further apart. However, that will make the base weaker and will give you less space for your neck once you are up.

Sirsasana step 2. Place the Head on the Floor

2. Place the Head on the Floor

  • Bring the crown of your head on the floor.
  • Make sure your hands are clasping the backside of your head.

Some teachers instruct students to close their hands like a fist and place their head in front of them. I prefer to have my palms open and hold on to my head.

Sirsasana step 3. Lift the Hips and Walk in

3. Lift the Hips and Walk in

  • Lift your hips and try to walk your feet closer to your head.
  • If hamstring flexibility is an issue, you can also bend your knees and walk in further.

This is the most challenging part of working on headstand. Just make sure you are always pushing the elbows into the floor so as not to add any pressure to your head.

Sirsasana step 4. Lift one foot

4. Lift one Foot

  • This is a nice place to start working on adding more weight to the arms and shoulders.
  • Come on to the toes of the bottom foot to help bring the weight over your shoulders.
  • Bring the bent leg in tightly and stay here for a few breaths.
  • Repeat on the other side.

This is a little exercise I like to teach my students when they are learning to do headstad. Repeat both sides, several times if you want. And with time you may find that you have the strength and body awareness to lift both feet off the floor.

Sirsasana step 5. Lift both feet

5. Lift both Feet

  • Come up into a modified headstand.
  • From the previous step, you may have noticed that as the pelvis comes over the shoulders, it becomes easy to lift the legs.
  • This takes some time but this is the foundational work to work on your headstand.

I advise my beginners to work on this headstand variation. The reason is that balance is easier here than with the legs straight. Additionally, it is a great place to start when working on coming up and down with control. The last thing we want is to jump up and have no control over our bodies. And so ideally we take everything in baby steps and work our way up.

Step 6. Come up into Salamba Sirsasana

6. Come up into Salamba Sirsasana

  • If the bent leg variation is becoming more comfortable, work on straightening the legs.
  • Interestingly, staying in Sirsasna is easier than all the preparatory work of building the strength and courage to come all the way up.

It is perfectly normal to find this pose hard, sometimes even impossible! When I first started learning it I wondered if I would ever be able to stay upright. And yet, with time and practice, and a very patient teacher, I was able to face my fears and stay up comfortably.

What should I do after Salamba Sirsasana?

As a general rule, it is important to rest the neck after Sirsasana. In Ashtanga yoga, we come into child’s pose and stay there for 10 breaths. You can release your hands and place them next to your hips so as to rest the arms and shoulders.

What should I do after Salamba Sirsasana?

Of course, if you feel like you want to stay longer in this pose, stay till you feel ready to continue with your practice.

Modifications and variations of Headstand

As a general rule, the main modification for headstands is for those who have trouble lifting up and straightening their legs. In this case, the most common solution is to practice in front of a wall. This way we can still work on strengthening the shoulders and arms, even if we’re afraid to fall over.

Headstand against the wall

1. Headstand at the wall

  • Come close to the wall.
  • Measure your elbows to find the correct width for your headstand foundation and interlace your fingers.
  • Place your head on the floor.
  • The wall is there to support you.
  • Come up (even if this takes several attempts).
  • Find your balance with your feet on the wall.
  • Slowly start removing one foot from the wall.
  • If that feels comfortable, try removing both feet from the wall.
  • Always remember to push your elbows into the floor, or even think about lifting the head. Even if you never actually lift it, this very action will help you activate the right muscles.

Something I have noticed over the years is that once a student finds headstand comfortable against the wall, they may prefer to only practice there. And that’s perfectly fine. My teacher wasn’t a fan of using the wall so I learned how to do a headstand in the middle of the room, with her help of course. If you don’t have a teacher, then it’s perfectly ok to start by practicing against the wall. However, with time, use your newfound strength and endurance and start practicing away from the wall.

2. Headstand at the wall with yoga blocks

Headstand at the wall with yoga blocks

This is my favorite headstand variation! I love teaching this to students who have never done an inversion.

We use blocks and place our shoulders on the blocks. Kist make sure your head barely touches the floor, as we don’t want any weight on the head.

And now come up. You may need a friend to help you come up, at least the first time which may seem a bit daunting.

This can also feel like a very nice neck stretch, and our weight on the blocks pushes our shoulders down.

If you have enough blocks and if you are still building up the courage to come up into a headstand, I strongly encourage you to try out this really fun variation.

Headstand with straight legs

3. Coming up into a headstand with straight legs

This is a more advanced variation. If you feel comfortable coming up with bent legs, and if you have enough hamstring flexibility, then consider working on this variation.

As always, it is important to not place weight on the head.

In Ashtanga yoga, after staying upright in Sirsasana for 10-15 breaths, we then lower the legs till they are parallel with the floor and stay here for another 5-10 breaths.

This is a very challenging variation. Though I will say that it took me less time to be able to do compared to learning to come up into headstand!

As you may notice, it is important to send the hips back when lowering the legs. The reason is that if we don’t send the pelvis back, there will be too much weight on the front side which will ultimately not let us stay up.

Think of it as a seesaw and balance out the weight.

Beginner’s tips

Beginners’ tips really do vary depending on each person’s body, flexibility, and their abilities. And so to be able to offer any beginner’s tips, I will point out what I commonly see:

Fear of falling over

This is perhaps the main hurdle for most people. If we don’t feel confident in coming up, then using the wall may be a good option for you.

The reason is that by having the wall there to support you, we help eliminate the fear of falling over.

Ideally, once we have learned to stay up against the wall, then it’s time to move away from the wall.

Tight hamstrings

When we have tight hamstrings, it can become challenging to walk the feet closer to the head.

In this case, consider bending the knees. This will allow you to walk in.

One tip is to walk in as far as you can, as that way you will be bringing your hips over your shoulders, which in turn will make it easier to come up.

Weak arms/shoulders

This is something very common, especially for yoga beginners. In this case, consider working on building up strength, with Ashtanga, Vinyasa, or a Power yoga class. And with time see if you are feeling strong enough to come up.

Common Mistakes

As with any posture, there are certain things to try to avoid.

  • Beginners tend to push the ribs forward and end up creating a banana shape. Keep the belly engaged and the ribs tucked in.
  • Push down in the elbows to avoid putting weight on the neck.
  • It is important to breathe slowly when upside down in a headstand. One teacher told me to count to 5 for each inhale and to 5 for each exhale. That is a nice way to slow down the breathing and also gives the mind something to focus on.

Which is the king of yoga?

Salamba Sirsasana or Headstand is considered to be the king of all asanas. It is a head-balancing posture where we stand upside down, without any weight on our head. This posture is practiced near the end of an Ashtanga yoga class and we stay here for up to 25 deep breaths.

Is it OK to do Salamba Sirsasana every day?

As a general rule, it is OK to do Salamba Sirsasana every day. Ashtanga yoga is generally practiced 6 days a week, and each practice ends in a headstand. If there are no injuries or discomfort in the neck, then you can practice headstands every day.

How many minutes we can do Sirsasana?

You can stay in Sirsasana for 3-5 minutes. It can take time for beginners to be able to stay up for that long. Once we build up endurance and strength, then if 5 minutes is comfortable, stay for that long. In Ashtanga yoga, we stay in a headstand for 10-20 breaths.

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