Yoga

Headstands and why some should avoid them

If you’re a yoga enthusiast or a yoga practitioner like myself, chances are you’ve tried doing a headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) in a class, for fun with your friends… or alone at home. You’ve probably balanced alongside that same wall many times and felt more powerful each time you managed to hold that kickass pose. And you’ve probably heard of just how dangerous headstands can be and all the injuries that can come from it, such as disc herniation, arthritis, pinched nerves, partial or complete paralysis

…Or have you?

Supported Head Stand

Here’s the thing. My intention is not to scare you off doing headstands. In fact, with correct training, they should be performed as a part of a daily self-practice routine. I’d like to spread awareness to anyone out there that’s taking headstands too lightly as I did and save you from unnecessary pain and injuries.

Like most of you out there, I looove my Instagram feed. In order to keep a certain level of positive vibes coming my way, I only follow people that ‘made it’ in the world of yoga, spirituality and life itself. That’s my daily dosage of inspiration and motivation to get my body and mind on that yoga mat for most days. I’m constantly feeding my mind with breath-taking images of beautiful people performing the hardest asanas yoga has to offer in what appears to be an effortless manner. They’ve definitely shown us that with hard work and consistent practice anyone can achieve such results.

 

And while I completely admire the work these inspirational people do, there is one side of me that feels like it got fooled… tricked into yet another pitfall of the ego-driven Western world and the destructive power of comparison, without even realising it. I wasn’t completely aware of the danger of potentially severe injuries that yoga can bring, as it seemed like nobody stressed over it too much – not my teachers, not my peers and definitely not those inspirational yoga celebrities from my Instagram feed.

So I pushed myself and I pushed my body with only a month left before the start of my Yoga Teacher Training course. I’ve done unassisted headstands alone in my bedroom before, and held them for quite some time as well. But this time, I wanted people to see it. Quite frankly, I let my ego take over my mind. *Facepalm*. And there I was, balancing beautifully when my arms got tired, my legs swayed backwards, I bent my neck and let go.

To no one else’s fault but mine, here I am with an ice-pack stuck to my upper back, writing these words, feeling defeated. My chair is as low as it goes so my face levels with the laptop, as I can’t look down to the keyboard without excruciating pains, nor can I twist my head too far either way. A spinal cord injury called disc herniation had found its way into my life. MY life! I never thought anything like this could ever happen to me with my (decent) level of physical fitness and cautious disposition (and an overly proud ego!).

 

I won’t be able to do that in a while!

 

What are the real DANGERS of “The King of Asanas”?

I’m not going to go too sciency on you (as it’s not my forte), but here are some facts about what happens when a headstand goes from “Yipee!” to “F#$k me!!!”.

When performing a headstand your neck and spine experience increased decompression forces from having to support your ENTIRE body alongside gravity. If the body is in an incorrect alignment or if it’s exposed to such decompression for too long, injuries may happen.

 

Potential Headstand Injuries:


Herniated Disc

 

In most yoga studios around the world, a teacher will only let you attempt a headstand after some time of consistent practice (translating as daily practice) in a controlled environment where others can spot you. The perfect environment for attempting a headstand would be in private yoga classes or in classes with up to four participants.

I definitely WOULDN’T recommend trying it alone or without the support of a wall! Our necks are such delicate things, try practising handstands against the wall first if you want to get used of your body being flipped upside down. The surface on which you’re basing your body is smaller (hands) compared to a headstand (forearms, side of your hands, the tip of your head), but at least you’re not compromising the safety of your neck and your spine. Master that, and THEN move on. Learning the correct alignment is crucial when performing a headstand. Don’t wing it if you’re not certain!

Easy now! 🙂

Of course, being a little bundle of positivity, I found a silver lining. Yes, I probably can’t train for my Yoga Teacher Training course that starts in a few weeks, turn my head or sleep on my side, but I CAN say with certainty that a big part of my ego has been buried for good!

This painful experience stripped yoga down for me to its bare essentials, the very basic principles that so many of us seem to have forgotten about here in the West. Yoga is an inner self-practice that discourages comparison to others. Yoga is not about establishing time-specific goals and then ‘training’, pushing your body towards achieving them. Now I can’t help but view that as a mild version of self-harm, failure to respect your boundaries and a lack of self-love. Our yoga practice should be about attaining inner peace and wisdom, as well as becoming one with ourselves and the Universal forces that surround us, it should be about breathing deeply and EASING our astonishing bodies into poses.

Let’s be gentle with ourselves and honour our unique bodies by trying less to fit in the mould that those inspiring people have created for us. We’ll get there too, and if it takes a long time, so be it! Even if we never make it to where we want to be – that’s fine too!

“Life is not about reaching the final destination, it’s about enjoying the journey.”

I’ve heard this cliché sentence so many times, yet never truly paid much attention to it…

Until now.

 

If you’ll excuse me, I need to take more Ibuprofen!

 

Until next time,

Love, Light and Cuddles:)


MARCH 2019 UPDATE: After weeks of mostly stillness and gentle Hatha practice, my condition has healed successfully. I was able to finish my Yoga Teacher Training, despite my newly found fear of headstands. In fact, I finish my practice with it on most days, and my neck, back and core have become stronger as a result. Yay!


 

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Spela Elan Rei
<p>"Magic happens when we open up to the Universe and allow ourselves the freedom to flow with life." Following her intuition, Spela Elan Rei left for India in January 2019 to see where life would take her, adhering only to one rule - make no plans. She became a 200-hr certified Yoga Instructor, Marma Therapist and a Reiki Master and is currently taking a break from travelling in her homeland Slovenia, where she's integrating all the knowledge gained in India. Her current missions include setting up an eco-farm & healing retreat, teaching yoga to beginners, deepening her Ashtanga practice and cultivating her own Light with the help of Reiki & Elven symbols. Spela is hoping to emerge from her 'hermit' phase towards the end of 2019 and return to India for further training.</p>
http://www.pachamamawarrior.com

18 thoughts on “Headstands and why some should avoid them

  1. This is exactly what I needed to read. I used to do headstands all the time when I was a little kid. We even use to have competitions about he can hold the stand for the longest. (of course, I won every time lol). But what I did not know was that I was putting myself at risk for some serious injuries. I am super glad I came across this article because I have kids now and they are always doing headstands and other crazy stuff. I am definitely going to be more cautious with them and I’m going to share this on Facebook. Great article, very helpful. 

    1. Hey there, Garrett 🙂

      Thanks for your comment! We definitely feel invincible as children! Many of us still do when we grow up, which is perfectly fine, but we have to take our bodies’ boundaries into consideration. What annoys me the most is that I used to be really silly and did crazy things with/to my body without any injuries whatsoever! 

      And now… well, I’m definitely more cautious now hahah! 

      I’m so glad you’re taking this article into consideration and applying it to your daily life! Kids are pretty tough though, so hopefully they won’t be having any problems with headstands 🙂 Nevertheless, it’s good to inform people of potential risks. I wouldn’t wish spinal injuries on anyone!

      Thanks for the share! 

      Lots of love & many safe headstands,

      Spela Elan Rei xx

  2. Great post and good info. 

    These are dangers nobody tells you about, only the good sides about headstands and the ego behind of it. 

    But that you can have possible hernias or other problems, no they don’t tell you. 

    It is good that you wrote an article about it, to warn people about these dangers that can occur. 

    Thanks a lot for that, I will share this post. 

    1. Hi Emmanuel,

      thank you for the comment and for spreading the word! Judging by my own experience, quite a few people use asanas like headstands to show off basically. I remember a specific time in my yoga journey (just before the accident) when I realized I wanted to push my body to be able to do the headstand, handstand and splits – I didn’t care anymore about how yoga will make me feel on the inside. So I’m glad life intervened to teach me a lesson 🙂

      I want people to talk about their practices more and the struggles around the ego. Social media is full of ‘perfect’ yogis and everyone is trying to copy them…it makes me think that yoga is losing its essence in the Western world. I truly hope I’m wrong about that!

      Lots of love to you,

      Spela Elan Rei x

  3. Although this has a serious warning ( it sounds do painful what you went through!)I’m so sorry you were not able to continue the training but  I thankyou for the headsup as I didn’t know there was a problem with headstands.

    Your blog was positive and amusing in spite of it all and I am glad i read about it I agree with your advice here

    ” , try practising handstands against the wall first if you want to get used of your body being flipped upside down. The surface on which you’re basing your body is smaller (hands) compared to a headstand (forearms, side of your hands, the tip of your head), but at least you’re not compromising the safety of your neck and your spine. Master that, and THEN move on”.

    Very wise. Thank you.

    1. Hey Liz,

      thank you so much for your lovely comment! I’m glad I was able to inform you about the possible risks. Headstands definitely shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially when the aftermath involves potential paralysis. This is serious! I wish teachers would be putting more emphasis on safety when it comes to such asanas. 

      And as for my spine, I’ve given myself plenty of time to rest (it’s extremely challenging for me just to be still), and have just started getting back into GENTLE practice. I am definitely listening to my body from now on! I’ve got a little bit more than two weeks left before my YTT starts, so fingers crossed my disc will have sorted itself out by then!

      Lots of love,

      Spela Elan Rei xx

  4. Couldn’t agee more with you. Having said that, my daughter would disagree. She’s now a 14 year old cheer leader that has spent some time standing on her head. Although this is not a cheer leading pre requisite, I have cringed over the times my daughter did headstands as if it’s to show off. I told her she could break her neck, but at her age it went in one ear and out the other. I think I’ll point her in the direction of this post.

    1. Hi there, Nigel!

      Thank you for your comment! I can definitely understand your concerns! I’m sure your daughter is brilliant at any sort of risky poses, being a cheerleader and all, and hopefully knows how to fall out of them (if she ever falls) in a correct manner. I’ll definitely dedicate some time to teach that when I’m a certified yoga teacher. 

      But even when you’re falling out of the pose (correctly), many things could go wrong…after all, you’re placing all of your weight on specific points of your skull, changing the balancing point, which can result in straining your neck immensely and pulling some muscles as a minimum. 

      I’d suggest having a spotter when doing headstands, even if it feels lame. You just never know when things go wrong, and it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry in this case. 🙂

      Wishing you all the best,

      Spela Elan Rei xx

  5. Hey Spela,

    Thank you for this valuable article on why we should avoid headstands.

    I am practicing Yoga thrice a week for some months now and I admit that I have tried headstands despite being a newbie.

    I have to immediately stop them as I already have a disc bulge on my lower back from lifting weights and I don’t really need another one on my upper back as well. Disc bulges are not fun at all 😛

    I hope you get well soon 🙂

    Xaric

    1. Hey Xaric,

      I’m glad you read the post and have taken it into account. My intention was not to scare people off headstands at all but to respect the difficulty of this asana. They haven’t named it The King of Asanas for nothing! 🙂

      The wisest thing a person can do is listen to their body and make their yoga journey is slow but steady. Our bodies need time to adjust, not to mention releasing all the emotional blockages that they store. It’s a lengthy process (depending on the previous state of an individual). Having a disc bulge is probably a sign from your body to be extra gentle with it, and master the basics first. If you’re craving that upside down feeling, try doing headstands with your back facing the wall to come out of them easily. But the best thing to do is to consult your yoga teacher (if you haven’t yet) about your disc bulge, as they will be able to tell you if being upside down is a good idea or not and give you modifications for certain asanas. 

      Thank you for your kind wishes and I hope you have an amazing yoga journey!

      Lots of Love,

      Spela Elan Rei xx

  6. Hello Spela,

    First of all, I’m sorry to hear about your injury!

    I was having a conversation only yesterday about pinched nerves and disc herniation and how painful they can be. One of my students suffered disc herniation also (although non-headstand related) and was in pain for weeks, until she saw a physiotherapists.

    My girlfriend and I often do headstands when doing yoga so I will have to show her this post and we may have to rethink our routine. 

    Thank you for the information and get well soon.

    Simon

    1. Hi there Simon!

      Thank you for your comment:). I’m assuming you’re a yoga teacher? You never know when an injury might occur! I sympathise with your student, disc herniations are not fun, or something to be taken lightly. They hinder your ability to move freely, are so painful, but the one thing i’ve struggled with the most is not being able to do yoga, so my mental wellbeing has taken quite a beating too. I hope your student is better now!

      It’s great that both yourself and your girlfriend do yoga and headstands, that way you can be there for eachother in terms of safety. 🙂

      WIshing you both lots of love, light & yoga!

      Spela Elan Rei

  7. Hello, Spela! Thank you for sharing your story with us! I tried few yoga poses myself ( my wife likes to challenge me) and  I completely agree – you only should do headstands alone, when you have lots of experience. They are no walk in the park 🙂 Hope you get better soon!    

    1. Hey Ainars!

      Thanks for your wishes and for commenting, I’m happy we agree on this subject! Headstands are quite deceiving as they seem like the easier asana to do compared to unassisted handstand, but really, your entire body should have years of practice and know its balance limits well. 

      I’m wishing you long years of injury-free yoga! 🙂

      Lots of love,

      Spela Elan Rei x

  8. Very interesting post about headstands and why they should be avoided. The injuries that can be caused by headstands are very serious. Definitely, Yoga lovers should read this post. I used to do Yoga as well, and unfortunately, never heard anything about Headstand Injuries. You are right trying it all alone can be even more dangerous. Thank you for sharing this post. 

    1. Hi Snap Brisk,

      thanks for sharing! I find it extremely worrying that yoga teachers are not sharing such important information with their students, or if they are, not much emphasis is placed on it. I’m aware it’s easy to get injured by doing almost anything, but with headstands, we’re literally putting our neck on the line! Better communication definitely needs to be put in place:)

      All the best to you

      Spela Elan Rei x

  9. Hi Spela

    really good article.

    I personally have never been a fan of headstands…it just doesnt look safe – your head is connected to you body by the weakest of bone and muscle (the neck) and you want to put 95% of weight on that! thats just playing with fire.

    also the blood rushing to your head and forcing your heart to pump faster and harder cant be a good thing. if we were meant to see things with our head on the ground we have feet on our heads!

    1. Hi Tarun,

      straight after my injury, I started researching spinal injuries in detail, and to me, it seems that the benefits of a headstand (such as improving the upper body strength and stimulating the crown chakra) cannot measure up to the risk of paralysis. There are many other extremely beneficial and safer asanas in yoga, and I believe that as soon as ego is involved in the equation, nothing good can come out of it – simply because we’re doing yoga for all the wrong reasons!

      Thanks for supporting me on this occasion! I definitely won’t be attempting any more headstands until I’m 100% sure of myself and have decades of regular yoga practice under my belt.

      Lesson learned!

      Lots of love and light to you,

      Spela Elan Rei x

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