Why This Veteran Yoga Instructor Wants You to Stop Doing Headstands
Headstand: "the king of asanas" (according to ancient yoga texts) and the darling of aspiring Instagram yogis everywhere.
Also: terrible for most people's spines.
I love inversions. In fact, until I had babies, I traveled around the world teaching sold-out inversion workshops. That said, I never once taught an inversion where the head actually made contact with the ground.
When I first started practicing yoga, headstand was pretty much the only inversion offered in the classes I took. I practiced them every time they were offered (typically near the end of every class) because I didn't know any better. It wasn't long before I started noticing different achy muscles up and down my spine, with no real idea as to how they got there. It wasn't until the pain got really bad and I went to see a spinal surgeon that he connected the dots: I was in a car accident at age 18 that left me with massive spine damage, and doing headstands (most likely improperly) was compressing everything and exacerbating the old injuries, while creating new ones.
Of course, not everyone is in a bad car accident that leaves them with neck damage, but, according to Erich Anderer, M.D., chief of neurosurgery at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, doing headstands without "very strong paraspinal and core musculature can cause unsafe stress on a portion of the body that was already not meant to bear weight." Think about it: Your feet are made to carry around your entire body weight all day. Your head? Not so much. And who has strong paraspinal and core musculature? Not most people-and certainly not most newbies to yoga.
The average person spends their lives in a constant state of flexion (bent over computers and cell phones) which offloads and weakens the muscles of the posterior chain (a.k.a. the back of your body), says Dr. Anderer. "Furthermore, the shape of the cervical vertebrae and joints aren't adapted to carry significant loads," says Dr. Anderer. Translation: Your neck is not meant to bear the weight of your body. To make it worse, as we age, the neck begins to lose its natural curve, making balancing on your head even more dangerous. On top of that, it has the potential to "exacerbate things such cervical disc herniations, arthritic bone spurs, and other conditions that could cause pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves," he says.
Over the past decade of teaching, I have seen too many people injure their spine in headstands. Like I said: I love inversions (and teaching them), but I don't love the effect headstand has on anyone with a less-than-perfectly-healthy neck. If anyone dares launch into one in one of my classes, I tell them to come out slowly and do a forearm stand instead. If you don't have the arm strength, core strength, and balance to hold a forearm stand comfortably, just think about what's happening to your neck when you're doing a headstand! Yoga is meant to heal, not harm. (Related: The Biggest Yoga Mistakes You're Making In Class)
Somehow, headstand became the "beginner inversion" of modern yoga in the U.S. I would argue it should be deemed the most advanced, considering the strength and body awareness you need to execute one properly. Unfortunately, many newer (or not practiced) yoga teachers aren't capable of demonstrating a handstand or forearm stand to the level that they feel comfortable teaching them, so they continually offer the one inversion they can show a headstand. But demonstrating an inversion does not necessarily mean that a teacher is doing it properly. They, too, can easily be causing damage to their spine. Not to mention, the plethora of influencers who put "yoga teacher" in their bios-and show off with photos of them upside down in every configuration, including headstand-but don't actually have any formal training. (Related: What to Know Before Working with a Trainer or Fitness Coach from Instagram)
So, what do you do? Learn forearm stand and handstand and work on your arm balances. If you're a total beginner, start with high plank. And, in the process, strengthen your arms and core strengthen and build body awareness. (It won't hurt to incorporate these yoga poses that help with "tech neck.") That way, you get all the benefits of arm balances and inversions without harming your neck. If you work your way to holding a forearm stand comfortably in the middle of the room for several deep breaths, and you know you have no symptoms of pre-existing spinal issues, a headstand is likely safe, says Dr. Anderer. But, really, is it worth the risk?
Next time you're practicing yoga, rather than launching yourself into a headstand if one is called out, take a pause and ask yourself: is headstand the right option for your practice in this moment? (This goes for any far-reaching pose too-don't push yourself into anything that doesn't feel good int he moment.) Yoga is all about tuning into the present, so just because a specific pose was good yesterday, doesn't mean that it is today, or that it won't be tomorrow.
If your goal is to feel strong by supporting yourself, try any number of arm balances-like crow pose. If you're looking for inversion benefits, try forearm stand, handstand, or even legs up the wall. If you really don't feel strong enough for handstand or forearm stand, but really want that headstand feeling, use an inversion chair, or do a supported block headstand.
One of my favorite things about yoga is that there is a multitude of variations of every asana-including inversions. Try to remember that yoga is about a union of body and mind and calming mental chatter. Jumping into a headstand just to achieve a pose while ignoring your body (whether it's for an Instagram or not) is pretty much the opposite of yoga.
On your mat (and off) always ask yourself: "Is this right for me right now?" If the answer is "yes" and you have all the knowledge, strength, and tools, go for it! Just don't do a headstand in my class.