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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 done with 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 not just because they strengthen the upper body and core, but because they apparently also increase circulation, drain fluid from the legs and deliver fresh blood to the glands responsible for our hormone production. 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.
To find out how to do a headstand, we called on Chris Magee, head of yoga at Another_Space, to share his knowledge. Keep scrolling to master that inversion once and for all.
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, but it’s especially key if you have any known injuries, so you can judge whether or not you should be attempting the move. The muscles worked here are the core and shoulders. 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 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 90º with your shoulders forward (as if you’re about to do a tricep press), is a good 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). Click here to see how to master chaturanga.
High plank, with arms straight (wrists below elbows, elbows below shoulders), 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).
What Are the Different Types of Headstands?
There are two types of headstands: traditional and tripod. The difference comes with the positioning of the arms. 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.
Your Step-by-Step Headstand Guides
When doing a traditional headstand, your forearms are on the ground, and you are pushing into your forearms and elbows. Here’s Magee’s step-by-step guide:
1) 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.)
2) The back of your head should rest gently against your hands, with the crown of your head on the ground. To find the crown, place the heel of your hand between your eyebrows and cup the top of your head with your fingers—where your fingertips end is your crown.
3) Walk in as close as you can so your hips are above your shoulders (a little like dolphin pose). Make sure your shoulders are protracted and your belly button is pulled in tight.
4) Bring one knee to your chest, squeezing your heel in toward your bum. The equivalent in yoga is when you’re in plank and the teacher tells you to bring your knee to your nose or your knee to your elbow.
5) Once both knees are in a bent position, you can send your legs up vertically (this is the easiest bit). As you get stronger and more confident, you will be able to get into a headstand using straight legs.
You can even make like yoga teacher Shona Vertue and turn the headstand into a core drill.
With a tripod headstand, your arms are in a push-up position to start, as opposed to your forearms being on the ground. Magee shares his five-step guide to nailing the tripod headstand.
1) 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.
2) Push hard into your arms—at least 70% pressure should be on your arms and the rest on your head.
3) Walk your feet in toward your triceps, and place each knee onto your triceps. This position is known in yoga as the drunken clown or cosmic egg.
4) Scoop your belly up and in—this changes your pelvis 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.”
5) As with the traditional 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.
Chris Magee's Headstand Dos and Don'ts:
“Don’t use momentum.
“Do trust that it’s a process; it takes time and practice.
“Don’t be tempted use a wall; it robs you of balance. Using the wall allows you to disengage and use momentum. Never have I seen anyone use the wall and come up flat; they always end up in a banana shape where the legs have travelled too far.
“Do use a good mat under your head for cushioning.”