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Headstand isn’t for Everybody

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A NY Times article about safety and Yoga asanas briefly quotes, Timothy McCall (medical editor of the Yoga Journal), on the dangers posed by Sirsasana. It reminded me of an article he wrote on Sirsasana way back in 2003 (yep, 2003 was 8 years ago).

Headstand is one of those poses that many teachers introduce and include, without thinking twice. Most teachers are aware that it’s a pose not to be taken lightly, and safety precautions tend to be emphasized. Nevertheless, as McCall’s article below warns, even students who are comfortable executing the pose need to be aware that there are medical risks that come with Sirsasana. Unfortunately many teachers aren’t aware of those medical dangers!

From the Sep/Oct 2003 issue of the Yoga Journal, page 34:

Upside Downside?
by Timothy McCall

Last year, after developing a nerve blockage in the chest called thoracic outlet syndrome, I stopped doing Sirsasana (headstand). In the months prior, I’d worked up to holding the pose for 10 minutes, and I’m now convinced that the resulting compression of my chest led to the nerve problem. Shortly after stopping Headstand, the intermittent tingling in my arm went away.

Looking at the faces of people doing Headstand, I often see little of the ease, sukha, that Patanjali stresses should be part of every asana. Some people appear to be straining or breathing erratically; and many students look like they can’t wait for the teacher to tell them to come down and rest.

Even though the pose was never comfortable for me either, I had stayed with it because ofthe purported benefits. T. Krishnamacharya, the guru of K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, and T.K.V. Desikachar, called Headstand the king of the asanas, and practicing regularly is stressed in Iyengar Yoga, the main style I’ve studied. Headstand is believed to calm the nervous system and promote a yogic mind (that is, foster equanimity), and has numerous physiological effects, including reducing the breathing and heart rates, slowing brainwaves, and enhancing the drainage of lymph from areas below the heart. It also induces reductions in norepinephrine, aldosterone, and antidiuretic hormone levels, and so tends to lower blood pressure.

Interestingly, the pose is rarely taught by Desikachar and his followers, due to safety concerns, including neck problems such as herniated disks and arthritis in the cervical vertebrae (bones ofthe neck). Of greater significance is the potentially heightened risk of stroke in people with inadequately controlled high blood pressure and of retinal bleeding or detachment in those with some types of eye disease. For people with glaucoma, Headstand may further increase pressure in the eyes, contributing to loss of vision.

Should you dare to go up? I tend to view the question in light of my own medical training. Doctors are used to the risks and benefits of any intervention before deciding what to do, and I suggest you do the same when contemplating potentially risky poses. For a certain group of yoga students, I have little doubt that headstand can be safe and of great value. These students have enough openness and strength to be able to lift out of the shoulders and thoracic spine and skillfully use their legs to bring further elevation. They are also able to maintain good alignment of the arms, head, and neck and to keep their feet directly over their heads. When the feet drift, it can generate an unhealthy torque on the cervical vertebrae.

Given how tiny and fragile these vertebrae are, I wonder if it is advisable to teach this pose in open classes, in which students of varying levels may be participating. In a class setting, some people may end up doing what isn’t safe for them or what does not feel good. The desire to persevere with a pose that your body is indicating is not right (or not yet right) for you ought to elicit some serious self-study or svadhyaya. You might ask yourself why you are doing yoga and what you hope to gain from it. In this light, putting off or forgoing a pose you’d like to do can be an opportunity for growth and greater self-knowledge.

If you have no strong contraindications but alignment is a problem, using a mirror, wall, or comer to give proper support can help. If they are available, wall ropes and props, such as two chairs, can provide excellent alternatives for those with neck or thoracic spine problems (see ‘Everybody Upside Down’ in our September/ October 2000 issue). If maintaining alignment is an issue, come down as soon as you lose sukha, then slowly build up gradually. More time on preparatory poses is also advisable. For those with poorly controlled high blood pressure, glaucoma, or retinal problems, however, Headstand may simply be too risky in any form.

Luckily, there are many altenatives that can give you a wonderful yogic experience even if the pose isn’t right for you. Ask your teacher for recommendations.

Related posts:

  • How many variations of headstand are there?
  • Yoga Reading List: My always updated list of favorite Yoga related books.
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    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 6, 2012 at 10:47 pm

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    Meditation in Motion

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    Another classic ad from the Sep/Oct 1979 issue of the Yoga Journal:

    YOGA YO-ING: Meditation in Motion with Mandala Yo-yos!


    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 23, 2011 at 8:02 am

    Posted in Meditation

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    Pose Mate Yoga Mat from 1979

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    A year after the ad for the 4-pound New Age yoga mat appeared in the Yoga Journal, here’s an ad for a rubber mat that looks more like contemporary mats. The Pose Mate mat’s dimensions are comparable to current models (24″ x 72″), although it’s a bit on the thin side: at 3/32″ thick, unlike the New Age mat, it’s “not a cushion”.

    In comparison, the mat I like to use these days comes in at 4.0 lbs, and has the following dimensions: 71” x 24” x 3/16”.

    (From the Sep/Oct 1979 issue of the Yoga Journal. Adjusting for inflation, $9 in 1979 would be equivalent to $27 in 2009.)

    Pose Mate Yoga Mat from 1979

    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 9, 2011 at 7:54 am

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    Yoga Anatomy with a t-shirt

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    Long before beautifully illustrated Yoga Anatomy books became available, Yoga teachers had to come up with clever ways to relate asanas with anatomical regions. In the 1970’s specially designed t-shirts were popular among yoga instructors. It might not be a bad idea to bring those back, at least for yoga workshops!

    From the Jul/Aug 1979 issue of the Yoga Journal, “A Conversation with Lilias Folan“, pages 7-15:

    Lilias Folan, Yoga anatomy t-shirt

    … YJ: What qualities would you say are necessary in a good yoga teacher, whether it would be on television or in the classroom before 150 people or five people?

    Lilias: … I think another essential quality for a yoga teacher is the desire to share, to share ideas, and methods, and ways that you have learned to communicate something in a posture that is a little bit different — to share your knowledge. So often beginning Hatha teachers feel that they have to hold it to themselves and not give it away to other teachers, because they might be sort of stealing their thunder and as soon as they share it, you’ll know that. Actually, as soon as you share it, you really have it! But it’s that sort of holding your ground that can be verv choking.

    … YJ: What was your trip to India like?

    Lilias: I went to India, I think it‘s almost five years ago, with a Rama Krishna group led by my friend Swami Pranananda. We were there for three weeks and we visited traditional Rama Krishna maths in Calcutta. Delhi and Madras. In Rishikesh we visited Swami Chidananda at the Sivananda Ashram, and it was just a wonderful experience to be with him in his home. The trip wasn’t at all stressful. There wasn’t too much focus on Hatha Yoga. It was more for meditation and just to be in these places and absorb the atmosphere. It was delightful. I don’t think it’s necessary for students to go to India. India is coming to the United States. But I hope I can go one day to visit Mr. Iyengar in Poona. Yet, it is not necessary since so many of his teachers are here.

    YJ: Do you feel it is helpful though for students to go to the country or visit the culture where yoga originated or that it would help their understanding in any way?

    Lilia: Honestly?… I don’t think It helped me to understand particularly. I don’t think it deepened… No, I don’t think so. I’ll tell you why I loved India — it was a jewel. It is a country that is a jewel. And I never had those pictures in my mind. I thought it was just poverty, then I went there and saw its beauty … such beauty. The Ganges at sunset, Sivananda’s burial place, Swami Chidananda in his own ashram, things like that were beyond words. … To experience it… Wading in the Ganges… I mean, I will never forget that.

    … YJ: As we approach 1980, what do you think the future of yoga will be? For example. do you thlnk it win ever become part of the physical education programs in public schools lllte calisthenlcs and swimming are now?

    Lilias: Right now Hatha Yoga is starting to be used in the school system. Children are being taught Hatha Yoga in the Montessori schools. I know of a class for two-and-a-half to 5-year olds at our Cincinnatl Jewish Community Center. It’s also being taught for college credit in different parts of the country. And I hope that someday lt will be introduced into medical schools. Do you just mean Hatha Yoga in the school system?

    YJ: Well, that was part of the question. But also, what future do you see for Hatha Yoga in America? Do you think it will really become mainstream?

    Lilias: Well, lt’s certainly been a 3000 year fad. I think it’s going to last for a little bit longer. What is fascinating to me is that Hatha Yoga seems to be synthesizing. lt’s growing. It’s not always taught now in the traditional or purist or classicial way that was taught thousands of years ago. It’s synthesizing. We have this method and that method, and can take the best from each and put that into our own practice. What’s right for you may not be for me. I love taking what I can use, putting it through my inner filters and getting it back out in a way that is comfortable for me. It is like we are all weaving a giant colorful mandala of dance, music, song, word, and touch … a mandala that will portray the balanced body, mind and spirit.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 4, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Posted in History, Yoga

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    Yoga Mat circa 1978

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    In an earlier post on headstands, I highlighted excerpts from A.G. Mohan’s recent biography of Krishnamacharya, where he recalls Krishnamacharya doing 32 variations of headstand — without a mat!

    How far have yoga mats changed over the last 30+ years? Compare the ad below to my current favorite mat. (From the Sep/Oct 1978 issue of the Yoga Journal. Adjusting for inflation, $25 in 1978 would be equivalent to $81 in 2009.)

    IT’S LIGHT! weighs only 4 pounds.

    new age yoga mat circa 1978

    This next ad appears in the Sep/Oct 1979 issue:

    new age yoga mat circa 1978

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 25, 2011 at 7:26 am

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    1977 State of Yoga Education in India

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    In a 1977 article for the Yoga Journal, B.K.S. Iyengar laments the lack of support for Yoga education in his native India (“Yoga and the Integrated Student”, pages 20-23, Yoga Journal, Sep/Oct 1977). Yet another essay affirming that the “Take Back Yoga Campaign” is 33 years late to the party!

    Our educational authorities are still debating the propriety and worthwhileness of introducing yoga in schools and colleges. In 1937 had the opportunity to pioneer the teaching of yolga in a few selected schools and colleges in Pune (India). I even taught yoga in the National Defense Academy, to the cadets as well as the Officers, with beneficial results. At that time I met with a strong opposition from several yogis and yoga teachers who maintained that yoga could be taught at the individual level only, and not to groups. Today I am happy to find that those who were opposing the introduction of yoga in schoos and colleges in 1937 agree with me and are themselves emphatic in their insistence that yoga should be taught at the group level in schools and colleges.

    It is difficult to understand why we neglect this rare heritage of ours instead of using it for our benefit. It is even more difficult to understand this sad neglect when we observe European countries taking an increasing interest in yoga.

    For example, technologically and scientifically advanced countries like England have introduced yoga as an approved subject. The Inner and Greater London Education authorities have under my supervision introduced yoga in their syllabus. And the demand is so great that they find it difficult to provide qualified teachers.

    When yoga is so popular abroad I fail to understand why there is delay in introducing it in our own country. Is it because it is traditionally associated in our minds with a recluse who renounces life, runs away from society and isolates himself on some remote mountain top? Yoga is life-abundant and not life-negating. It is the only system l know of which develops harmoniously both the body and the brain.

    One cannot emphasize enough the need for yoga for our students. India is rapidly coming industrialized and urbanized. We are thus heading for an era of speed, stress and strain. Such a life makes heavy demands on our nerves, which are but invisible branches of the brain. When the nerves collapse, anxiety and neurosis of one kind or another sets in. The individual becomes a nervous wreck. Prevention is better than cure, and yoga is the prevention. It ensures strong yet elastic nerves that can face a great deal of hectic activity with equanimity and poise.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 23, 2011 at 7:26 am

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    33 years ago, B.K.S. Iyengar predicted Western influence on Yoga in India

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    In a July/1977 article for the Yoga Journal, Iyengar asks “Why is the West Interested in Yoga?” Some passages reminded me of the “Take Yoga Back” campaign . As far as Iyengar’s prediction that the West would one day influence Yoga in South Asia, I’m reminded of a 2004 interview of Kausthub Desikachar, where he relates the following story:

    … I met an Indian lady on the plane from San Francisco to Madras, who has been living in America for about 40 years. She asked me what I was doing and I said, “I am a yoga teacher.” She said, “Oh, you came to study in California?” I replied, “Why do you ask that?” And she said, “Isn’t California the Mecca of yoga for the world?” That is the perception.

    Here are excerpts from Iyengar’s essay from the Jul/Aug 1977 issue of the Yoga Journal:

    … Now Westerners are realizing that yoga can keep their minds out of bondage. Though physically able to sustain the pace ot modern life, they are often not able to bear its mental pressures. The artificiality has hurt the core of their consciousness. A lopsided and pampered existence has not protected them from enormous mental tensions generated by so many hectic claims on their lives. Though Western society recognizes and permits divorce, remarriage, free sex, independent living even for adolescents, still the people have not been able to bring peace to their inner selves. On the contrary, this so-called liberty has produced innummerable mental and psychological worries and problems. Westemers are intellectua ly developed but emotionally starved, as they are cut off from the fountain of inner life. They talk a lot from the brain, but their hearts are empty and sterile. This has separated them from spirituality, and because of all this they are drawn to yoga, to regain some inner balance.

    While explaining why the West has taken to yoga, I cannot refrain from saying that we Indians have neglected yoga, this rich legacy which has come to us from our ancient sages. While the West wants to adopt the Indian way of life, which is known for its simplicity and straight-forwardness, we Indians are trying to imitate their way of life. Not only have we neglected our own art, yoga, but we are forgetting it. We talk a great deal about our philosophy, but we do not convert it into action. We are merely glorifying the past. We do not live according to what is morally important; we live on ideals. We are humble and simple; belief has a very strong hold on us. But we are very slow and even slovenly in action.

    … When I came in contact with Westerners, the first thing they told me was that they are tired of lectures on Indian philosotpihy and weary of so much endless eoretical knowledge; they wanted something practical and tangible, of which they were ignorant. We do not distinguish between body and the mind. There must be an integrated approach. I then had to teach the asanas and pranayama with this wholesome approach. At every step I had to insist and make them understand how the body and the mind work in coordination, how each asana and each breath is treated with a kindred spirit. Their bodies, being very supple and elastic, could perform movement, but I had to make them aware that the mind has also to be kept alert, living all the time in the present, and how the current of spiritual awareness has to flow in _each movement, each action.

    … Westemers are enthusiastic, courageous, sincere, and hard working. They are always awaiting with humility guidance from the East. I think that their scientific and technical knowledge, coupled with our spiritual understancing and maturity, could perhaps work hand in hand together to bring human beings once again to the religion meant for univeral peace which was founded by our ancient masters.

    Perhaps one day it will be they who bring yoga back to India. But the East was the original source of yoga, and I pray that it will always be the main source – that it will continue to be the preserver of this great art.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 16, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Posted in History, Yoga

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