When I first started yoga, I had no idea that I would be finding myself upside down.
Headstand. Salamba Shirshasana. By its nature this asana offers endless ways for me to compete with my view of myself. I have tried to muscle my way, I can use preparations and props, I can read all about it, but when it comes down to it, I am standing the world on its head. And that world is my world, and that head is my head.
Headstand presents me with a very different way of interpreting the idea of carrying my weight. In fact, if I can actually relax in headstand it becomes breath in a state of weightlessness. And it changes my perspectives all day long: reminding me that illusion can seem quite serious, but things can easily be turned on their heads.
I work my way towards headstand in stages. First by strengthening my understanding of my shoulders and how they relate to my neck. I have learned how to release tension there when I discover it taking hold. This can be in a cross-legged Sukhasana (easy pose), or a simple sun breath as I start practice. I might play with eagle arms or focusing conscious attention in these muscles throughout my practice. It can’t hurt my explorations of bridge, or wheel either.
Core body awareness is another discrete area of development in preparation for headstand. This begins with drawing energy up through the core in every seated and standing posture. I especially enjoy moving from the first two chakras even in cat cow stretching.
Carefully exploring hand placements in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog), I use dolphin (hands interlaced, elbows bent, forearms on the floor while in Adho Mukha Svanasana) to strengthen my upper back and keep my shoulder relationship easy. Adho Mukha Svanasana is an inverted posture, and drawing attention to the alignment of my head, neck, shoulders and back and core in this asana will build strength and accessibility for the future… who knows, maybe handstand, Adho Mukha Vrksasana!!
Finding balance in Tadasana (mountain) brings awareness to the way my body aligns over the foundation. Like the old song, the knee bone is really connected to the hip bone, and so it goes, with the breath actually helping to draw energy up and down the line of the spine. Feeling this in Tadasana is a huge step towards feeling this in Headstand.
Understanding fear is an ongoing part of this practice. It can come while making too much effort in Ustrasana (camel), or when feeling that tightrope and imbalance in warrior (Virabhadraasna) or Trkonasana,(triangle). There is an exploration of the fear of failure in so many of the asanas, noticing the way the inner critic measures and impedes the exploration is an important part of being in the moment. Allowing myself to be playful in situations that call for the unknown or the “impossible” has led me to arm balances and extensions I could not have imagined. My laughter when falling out of a posture in class prompts a wave of release and rising energy.
It reduces my fear when I provide safety for myself. This might mean attempting to invert only so far as to extend my spine, (a bit like dolphin with my head down) and keep my legs out of it, or play with lifting one leg at a time feeling open to that moment of weightlessness, If I feel shaky or am worried about attempting to hold the asana for a longer time, I sometimes position myself a foot or two away from a wall, so even though I am inverting fully on my own balance, that wall is there for my psyche.
Oddly enough, the image of trees helps me with Headstand. The network of deep roots and the arch of the reaching branches give me a symmetry in both directions without any hierarchy of importance. My feet are no more important than my foundational arms and head. My head no less rooted than my feet are free. It seems to integrate my mind into my body as I take my stand in the sky.