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?
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!).
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:
- Disc Herniation – Intervertebral discs that lie between the spine bulge and get pushed to the side because of increased decompression forces until they eventually herniate. Herniated discs can push into the spinal canal and put pressure on spinal cord or nerve roots.
- Spinal Cord Compression – Also known as Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy occurs when the spinal cord has been compressed, affecting the nerve impulses throughout the body.
- Pinched nerves
- Long-term muscle strain
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!
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…
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!