Wandering around the classroom as a teacher, there are a few very common misalignments that teachers see a lot of in headstands. Sometimes these misalignments are based on an individual's personal anatomy, sometimes it’s just not knowing what you’re doing with your body parts (it’s hard to know exactly what you’re doing when you are upside down!).
Whatever the cause, most of these mistakes can be resolved easily with a little guidance and with an extra warm up maneuver to prepare your body more adequately.
Here are a few common mistakes in headstand that teachers see a lot of, how they feel, what’s going on and how to fix them.
1. Hands Too Wide
Tripod headstand is the version that puts the most pressure on the neck, head, and upper spine. As such, it can be scary and needs a little extra love and care. If your hands are too wide, it will be very challenging to come up at all and then to stay up with confidence. This is because you have made your foundation a lot smaller then it needs to be.
How to Fix It: Your foundation in any headstand should be a nice fat triangle. In the case of Tripod, we are thinking: hand, hand, head. If you find this set up challenging, it may be that you have tight shoulders and should prep with some shoulder stretches as well as the warm ups that fire up your shoulders and core.
Try using Eagle arms a bunch before you practice the Tripod. Also a great stretch is bringing the palms of your hands together then pressing your elbows together. Practice lifting that shape up to the sky and backwards over your head while keeping the elbows together.
2. Elbows Too Wide
Likewise, in the forearm version, if your forearms are too wide, you run the chance of actually flipping backwards because again, your base isn’t a fat huge triangle.
How to Fix It: A good rule of thumb to fix this misalignment is to put your hands on your opposite elbows as you are setting up. Then take your hands and interlace them to form a two-sided triangle with your forearms. Pop your head lightly down on the ground as if you are holding the hair tie part of your perfect yoga bun.
Now squeeze your elbows towards each other AND down into the ground to maintain this shape. If your elbows still slide out, it’s time to wrap a strap around your upper arms (near the elbow) in this shape.
Prep: If this “elbow-slide” keeps happening, it’s because you have tight shoulders. Fix that by prepping with shoulder openers before the headstand. Again, Eagle arms work great here. You can also practice going from Dolphin Pose into Forearm Plank without moving your elbows—this will prep your core and pelvis for the headstand at the same time.
3. Dumping Into Head
I know it's called headstand, but actually, most of the weight should be in your arms and shoulders until your neck is strong enough to play with other arm variations. In the forearm and Tripod versions of headstand, it is really common to see people dumping into their heads instead of pressing into their arms.
You can tell because there will feel like a lot of weight in your head. If you are doing it without dumping into your head and neck, you will be able to come up against a wall and even slightly lift your head up off the ground.
How to Fix It: Simply pressing into your hands or forearms more will mend this over time. Grow a giraffe-like neck, long and tall. In Tripod, you can actually dig your fingertips into the ground and squeeze your elbow inwards to make this action even stronger.
4. Collapsed Shoulders
When we first learn to come up in headstand, it's easy to forget to stay strong through your shoulders. You may hear the cue “move your shoulders away from your ears” a lot in yoga. This encourages that giraffe-like neck mentioned above and moves some of the weight out of your cervical vertebrae. In headstand, it's a protection mechanism for your neck muscles, so take it seriously.
How to Fix It: Come into a headstand against a wall with a very stable cork block under each shoulder. Lean on the wall completely and just experience being in your headstand with no weight in your head and with your shoulders far away from your ears.
Let your body memorize this floating sensation and try to mimic it in your headstand, but lifting your shoulders up while you rest on your hands or forearms.
5. The “Sway Back”
Some of us have deep spinal curves than others, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. It’s natural and that is not what we call “sway back”, “banana back” or whatever else. This phenomenon refers not to the look of the spine, but to the placement of the pelvis and the engagement of the core muscles.
When we are upside down, we are often so focused on not falling that we let our legs or spine compensate just to stay up straight. However, not pulling your core muscles in deeply will endanger your spine and lead to an unstable inversion.
How to Fix It: In headstand, your pelvis should be tucked under (like it is in your standing postures as opposed to your back bending postures). This depends on the anatomy of an individual's specific spine and pelvis, BUT if you are pulling your abdominal muscles all the way in, then your spine will be supported regardless, and your tailbone will have a tuck that is natural to your anatomy, keeping you up in a stronger headstand.
The only way to know if you are doing this is to play with tucking your pelvis and just see what happens. Try doing this up against a wall to start so you can see how it feels to do it without the threat of falling.
You can also try standing upright in Mountain Pose and activating your legs and feet just like you would in headstand. Then, practice bringing your hip points towards your ribs (curving your spine just like in Cat pose).
Keeping those abdominal muscles pulled in, try to move the ribs up and away from the hips to straighten out the spine. As soon as you lose the core engagement, start again. THIS is how you should be engaged when you are upside down in any headstand or handstand posture.
Important: Headstands aren't recommended for people with neck ailments or scoliosis.
Everyone is different, and different cues and prep will speak more loudly to some than to others. Don’t lose heart if a posture doesn’t come easily to you. Talk to many practitioners and teachers about what works for them and eventually you will find a cue or piece of prep that utilizes your strengths and brings you up with confidence.
Image credit: AlissaYoga