Among my New Year’s resolutions, mastering a headstand comes pretty high on the list. Not only is it a real physical achievement—a headstand takes strength, practice, and focus—but it looks seriously impressive, too. It’s known in yoga as an inversion pose (because it takes you upside down), and I’m tired of going to classes and not being able to partake in hanging out on my head.
But, am I really missing out on anything? Many yogis swear by inversions, because they purportedly strengthen the upper body and core, but because they also apparently increase circulation, drain fluid from the legs, and deliver fresh blood to the glands responsible for producing hormones. There is little evidence to back any of this up, unfortunately, but what we do know for sure is that being able to hold a headstand will impress your friends and give you bragging rights on Instagram. Plus, with all the proven benefits of yoga—from helping ease headaches to keeping you flexible and spry—I’m inclined to think there’s some power in every pose.
To find out how to do a headstand, we called on two yoga experts to share their knowledge. Keep scrolling to learn how to master an impressive inversion once and for all.
Meet the Expert
- Chris Magee is the head of yoga at Psycle London, the founder and lead teacher at Empowered Yoga School, and leads yoga classes, workshops, and retreats.
- Keisha Bolden has been teaching yoga for 13 years, and is the developer of The Yoga Mix. She also trains yoga teachers to teach yoga and meditation.
- Briana Bain, DPT, PT is a physical therapist based in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Which Muscles Are Used in a Headstand?
As with any type of workout, being aware of the muscles you’re working is important throughout this exercise. It’s especially key if you have any known injuries, so you can judge whether or not you should be attempting the move. Inversions work the entire core, shoulders, and upper back. During a headstand, you should protract your shoulders (imagine hugging a beach ball), which means the deltoids get some work, too. You also use your triceps and pecs (chest) when pushing off the ground and during the hold.
Which Yoga Moves Help You Prepare for a Headstand?
According to Magee, chaturanga (or low plank), where you are in a plank position and your arms are at 90 degrees with your shoulders forward (as if you’re about to do a triceps press), is a good training move, as it strengthens many of the same muscles that are used in a headstand (especially if you’re trying to master the tripod headstand).
High plank, with your arms straight (wrists below elbows, elbows below shoulders), your shoulders protracted (imagine that beach ball again) and your belly button pulled toward your spine, is also another good prep pose. Don’t get this confused with a “fitness plank” where the aim is to be in a straight line (no beach ball hug).
Bolden adds that in addition to planks, Dolphin pose is a great prep pose for any inversion. Then, depending on the headstand variation you hope to take on, there are other poses to work through as you get ready to enter an inversion. For example, Happy Baby and Seated Butterfly are helpful for Straddle, Butterfly, and Lotus headstands. For Hurdle headstands, full- or half-splits are useful, as are Runner’s lunges and pigeon. With Scorpion headstands, Bolden says to focus on the Cobra and Bridge poses.
What Are the Different Types of Headstands?
There are two types of headstands: traditional (supported) and tripod. The difference comes with the positioning of the arms. When doing a supported headstand, your forearms are on the ground, and you are pushing into your forearms and elbows. With a tripod headstand, your arms are in a push-up position to start, as opposed to your forearms being on the ground. “During a headstand, the aim is to hold your body in a straight line,” says Magee. “Although some yogis experiment with leg placement to add interest.” The following are some of the more common supported headstands variations. It is important to note that you should not attempt a more advanced variation until you’ve mastered the basic supported (Bound) headstand.
Bound headstands are the basic supported headstand where your forearms are on the ground and your legs are fully straightened towards the ceiling. Both are together and perpendicular to the ground. Bolden says the benefits of Bound headstands—and supported headstands in general—is that they strengthen the shoulders and core, energize the body, and increase focus.
“With Bound headstands, remember to continue engaging your abs for stability and keep energizing your lower body by either pointing or flexing your feet,” advises Bolden.
Bolden says this variation "has all the benefits of supported headstand, and it strengthens the abdominal muscles." Essentially, from a bound or supported headstand, use your core to lower your legs in a pike position until they are parallel to the ground.
Try to press your heels forward in this pose because it will activate your quads and gently stretch your calves and hamstrings.
While you'll get all the benefits of a supported headstand with the Butterfly headstand, you'll also increases hip flexor mobility. After you're in a supported headstand, Bolden says, "Externally rotate your hips and legs so that your knees are facing out (away from each other), slowly bend your knees until the soles of your feet touch each other, then press the soles of your feet together and breathe."
Like Butterfly headstands, Straddle headstands increase mobility in the hip flexors, but they also stretch the adductors and hamstrings. “From Butterfly, pull your navel in towards your spine and draw your ribs in towards each other. This will engage the interior abdominal muscles you activate during plank and provide stability," notes Bolden. "Then, slowly straighten your knees, stretching your legs away from each other."
This type of headstand will strengthen your core and give your hips a good stretch. "From a supported headstand, slowly move one leg back while releasing the opposite leg forward, as though you are doing an upside-down split," explains Bolden. "Hold for five breaths to one minute and then slowly scissor your legs, switching sides."
Try to keep your hips aligned over your shoulders because it will aid in stability, but it's okay to allow your knees to bend slightly for comfort.
Lotus headstands also increase hip mobility. Bolden says you can move into them from either a supported headstand or the Straddle headstand. The first step is to rotate your legs outward so your knees are facing opposite directions and your heels are turned in towards one another. "Bend your right knee in and place your right foot on your left thigh, and bend your left knee in and place your left foot on your right thigh," explains Bolden. She says you are aiming to have each foot near the hip crease. After you hold the pose for 20-30 seconds, Bolden recommends switching the order of the legs (so you'd do the left side first).
A Scorpion headstand is another one that's great for strengthening the core and stretching and opening the hips. "From a supported headstand, bend your knees and let your heels release towards your glutes. Then, point your knees towards the ceiling," says Bolden. Again, she recommends drawing your belly button into your spine to stabilize engage your core for stability. Then, slightly arch your back as you press your hips forward and press your forearms into the floor to stabilize your arms and shoulders. "Imagine you’re trying to press yourself up away from the ground," says Bolden.
Types of Entry and Exit
If you’ve ever tried an inversion, you know that getting into the headstand position is at least half the challenge. It requires a lot of upper body and core strength and control. Often overlooked, but equally important, is a proper exit from the pose.
In this entry and exit, your legs are brought in tight to your chest—in a tuck position—by fully bending your knees. Then, unfurl both legs simultaneously so that your fully straightened legs are extending up directly in line with your hips and shoulders below. To exit the headstand, follow the reverse procedure.
This entry and approach mirrors the curl-up process except that once your knees are drawn into your chest, you straighten and raise one leg at a time, rather than lift and raise them simultaneously. Again, to exit the headstand, the reverse procedure is followed.
In this challenging entry and exit, your legs are held together and kept completely straight. "As you build abdominal strength and confidence, you may begin to pike up into headstand by eliminating the bent knees," says Bolden. Bend at the hips and then lift the legs as a unit up to the fully extended position in the air, so that the ankles, knees, and hips are aligned and stacked vertically. To exit the headstand, the reverse procedure is followed, so bending only at your hips (keeping your knees straight), bring your fully straightened legs together, as a unit, back down until your feet land squarely on the ground.
While this entry and exit variation is typically the most difficult of the three because it requires greater core and glute strength as well as significantly more hamstring flexibility, it is considered to be safest because it loads the neck the most gradually. Also, the peak force imposed on the crown of your head as you enter the pose is less.
Your Step-by-Step Headstand Guides
Magee walked us through how to get into supported and tripod headstands.
- Starting on all fours, clasp one hand over the other, so your forearms are in a V-shape on the ground. (Don’t interlace your fingers—if you topple over, you could break one).
- Rest the back of your head against your hands, and place the crown of your head on the mat.
- Walk your feet in as close as you can so your hips are above your shoulders. Make sure your shoulders are protracted and your belly button is pulled in tight.
- Bring one knee to your chest, squeezing your heel in towards your butt (split-leg entry), or both together (curl-up).
- Once both knees are in a bent position, straighten both legs up vertically. As you get stronger and more confident, you will be able to get into a headstand using straight legs (pike-up entry).
- Position yourself on all fours on the mat, and get your arms into a 90º angle (just as if you’re in chaturanga). Bring the crown of your head onto the floor so you can see your fingertips. If you were to draw a line connecting your head and hands, it would form a triangle.
- Push hard into your arms—at least 70 percent pressure should be on your arms and the rest on your head.
- Walk your feet in towards your triceps, and place each knee onto your triceps. In yoga, this position is known as the Drunken Clown or Cosmic Egg.
- Draw your belly up and in—this changes your pelvic position to prepare you to lift your legs. Pull your thighs and knees in toward each other. The aim is to keep your legs in and close as they travel upward. If you lift your legs up when they are parted, it will feel more difficult, and this will affect your balance. You want to think “in and up.”
- As with the supported headstand, as you get stronger, you won’t need to get into the Cosmic Egg position before entering the headstand. Instead, you’ll be able to draw your legs straight up into the air (pike-up entry).
Headstand Do's and Don'ts
According to our experts, there are a few headstand tips and warnings to ensure your practice is safe and successful.
Do listen to your body.
It's important to move with caution while attempting to do a headstand to avoid injury. "If you are having pain when attempting these, seek assessment from a doctor or physical therapist to ensure no serious injuries," Bain says. "You can also consider asking your yoga instructor to watch you and ensure you are using proper form."
Do take your time.
“Take your time orienting yourself in each stage of the posture by taking three breaths before moving into the next position,” recommends Bolden. ”Give yourself time to notice how your body feels and to move mindfully into the next step.”
Don’t use momentum.
Yoga is largely about body awareness and control. Allow your muscles to reap the benefits of your practice by using your muscles, rather than momentum, to get you up into position. "Kicking up into the pose could cause you to lose your balance or end up in a misaligned posture putting you at risk for neck injury," warns Bolden. If you find yourself needing to use momentum to kick up into a headstand, you might not be strong enough yet to lift, control, stabilize, and maintain your body into a headstand position.
Do focus on stabilization, alignment, and proper muscle engagement.
Bolden says you should always prepare your body for a headstand with Dolphin pose and Plank pose to activate your core and the muscles surrounding your shoulder girdle. "Check that you’re stacking your shoulders over your elbows and then make sure you stack your hips over your shoulders," advises Bolden. "Once you're in your headstand, continue drawing your navel in towards your spine to engage you abdominal muscles.”
Don’t be tempted use a wall.
Magee says this removes the crucial balance component integral to the effectiveness and purpose of doing a headstand. “Using the wall allows you to disengage and use momentum,” says Magee. “Never have I seen anyone use the wall and come up flat; they always end up in a banana shape where the legs have traveled too far.”
Do use a good mat under your head.
You want to make sure there is a non-slip mat for padding under your head to provide ample cushioning and keep you safe.
Do trust that it’s a process.
Like all poses and physical challenges, our experts say you may need to work up to headstands. "It takes time to learn a new pose, and headstands can be especially challenging for some because our bodies aren’t acclimated to being upside down," notes Bolden. "Practice at times when you won’t be distracted. Try to practice a few times a week, building up to a 30 second headstand." Headstands are rather advanced moves, so give your body time to get stronger and cultivate and necessary balance and control. And, as Bolden says, "Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right away."
Videos provided by Liza Colpa of YogaToday
Woodyard C. Exploring the Therapeutic Effects of Yoga and Its Ability to Increase Quality of Life. Int J Yoga. 2011;4(2):49-54. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.85485