Many of my students approach me after class asking "when will I be able to a headstand?!" I immediately follow their question with a question of my own, "how long have you been practicing yoga?" The answer is often shy of 3 months, although I am pleased to say I see these guys in my classes at least 2-3 times a week! But headstand is not a beginner's asana, it takes time to build a foundation of strength and an understanding of the breath.
When I attended my first yoga class almost 14 years ago to the day, yoga wasn't quite so prolific as it is now. For starters, there was no social media, which I think really changed the nature and intention of practice. Don't get me wrong, I think it is an incredibly positive thing that platforms such as Instagram and Youtube have disseminated the teachings of the yoga practice to many more than it would have reached before, but I fear that the element of the practice element itself is lost.
Headstands require full body strength married with breath control. When we see a post on social media of a yogi in a picture-perfect inversion, what we don't see, and technically can't is the intricate framework below the surface that contributes to the 'finished' product. Below are some lessons from my amazing teachers over the years that have been invaluable to me, and I hope they are useful to you too.
#1 NO inversion
Now this may sound odd, given the nature of the pose, but when preparing for this 'King of Asanas', you don't actually have to take the legs up. By setting up the traditional foundation:
From table top, lower forearms and hug elbows in
Make a cradle with the hands by interlacing the fingers (all but the bottom pinkie, for more stability) and place the crown of the head inside
Lift the knees and start to walk the feet closer in
And that's it! This way not only allows you to get used to the idea of having weight on the crown of the head, but also helps to massage and therefore stimulate the Pituitary gland, the 'master' gland in your body's hormonal system, most notably regulating Cortisol, the stress hormone.
#2 'Cosmic' Egg
A teacher of mine gave this pose this name some years ago and I've always found it to be so hilariously fitting. From the foundation built on #1, the temptation for the practitioner is to then kick or try to 'fly' the legs up. Whilst this can work for other inversions such as handstand or Pincha, in this pose there is just simply too much pressure on the neck for this to be safe. Instead, try this for building vital core strength:
When you have walked the feet in close enough to achieve a straight spine, tuck one knee in to the chest as close as is possible
Bring the other knee in and remain there in the tuck
Build your time here up to 1 min
#3 Legs up
Remember, there is no rush to get to this point. I think that the main fun in inversions is the journey getting there, not to mention the incredible strength, mastery of the breath and mental focus you cultivate along the way.
Once you have spent at least 1min in the 'cosmic egg' start to send both legs up as if the inner seams were glued together
Squeeze the thighs together when your legs are straight and activate the feet as if you were trying to make an imprint on the sky
Draw the lower ribcage in to avoid 'banana back'
#4 Pike up
Once you have built stability lifting the legs from a tucked position, you can start to move into the traditional pike entry:
From the foundation in #1, you are going to lift the legs in a straight line all the way from the floor
Come onto the tips of the toes and roll the inner thighs up toward the ceiling
Pull in the lower belly, engage pelvic floor and begin to lift
I hope these help you in your journey to headstand! And more importantly, to deepen your yoga practice on, and off the mat overall.