“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
“And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
“Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
Who can blame the inquisitive young man for asking? Anywhere outside yoga culture, headstand is an odd thing to do. Certainly Lewis Carroll, as he wrote this song for Alice in Wonderland, thought it was strange to wiggle your feet in the air while you take your body weight on the crown of your head.
For yogis, headstand is a given, so much so that we forget that a stable, aligned headstand is a huge accomplishment, at least for those of us who aren’t natural athletes.
I’ve been thinking about headstand a lot lately because, for the first time in at least 15 years, I stopped doing it for about three weeks.
At the time, my enforced headstand avoidance seemed like a loss. But I gained something too – a chance to come back to it with a fresh mind. And as luck would have it, I also have a new approach.
Over the weeks that I’ve been laying off headstand, Louie Ettling has been teaching a different hand position in the Wednesday morning class I take.
Instead of clasping your hands, you bring them together, maintain a grapefruit-sized space between the palms, and keep the fingers straight.
It’s a small detail, but it changes everything.
This week’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is to work with extended fingers in your headstand clasp, to extend instead of gripping.
And yes, you can do it, even if headstand is a distant glimmer on your yoga horizon.
First let’s check it out in the easiest way possible.
Sitting at a table, bring your elbows in line with your shoulders and interlace your fingers with the fingers stretched long.
Hold this position for 10 to 20 seconds, pressing your forearms down into the table, and actively extending your fingers. Notice what you feel in your neck and shoulders.
Now bend your fingers and let them grip the back of the opposite hand.
Hold the gripping for 10 to 20 seconds, and notice what happens in your neck and shoulders.
When I extend my fingers, my neck lengthens and so does my spine. My head feels lighter, as though it’s lifting to the ceiling.
When I clasp my fingers, the muscles at the sides of my neck, and in the middle of my upper back, grip.
You can’t, of course, relax completely in a headstand, or you would collapse. What we need to do is find the zone between collapse and rigidity, a way to balance without gripping. (Yes! Another valuable life lesson from yoga.)
Take away the ability to grip with your fingers and what you may find is a new way to work your shoulders. For anyone with a tendency to round in the upper back, that’s good news – an active pose to help you reverse the curve.
Here’s how to work with it:
If you’re not planning to take your feet off the floor any time soon, then work as above, in a chair with your elbows on a table.
Cultivate an awareness of how it feels to grip, how it feels to extend.
Then take that awareness into the rest of your practice and your life. Begin to notice what happens whenever you grip your hands unnecessarily. Release them, extend your fingers and relax your neck.
Ready to go a little further? Kneel on the floor, plant your forearms, and extend your fingers. You’ll have more weight in your forearms than when you’re sitting, which will intensify the work in your neck and shoulders.
For the next stage, bring the crown of your head to the floor, tuck your toes under and straighten your legs. Keep your shoulders lifting away from your ears. Keep your fingers extended.
Already working with headstand?
Work through both of the earlier stages with your arms on the floor. Then set yourself up as close as you can to the wall with your fingers extended. Go up into your headstand, keeping your fingers stretched. Practice at the wall until you’re sure of your balance.
Eventually you can let your fingers curve back towards your hands, but wait until you can do it without gripping.
My mother used to recite the first two verses of Father William, the headstand verses, with enormous glee. I love them too, so here’s the second one, for no better reason than it makes me smile:
“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”
Headstand photo courtesy of Alan James.
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