• Gillian McGhee

Journey to Headstand

Ok, I get it standing on your head looks kinda cool and it can definitely be pretty fun! But, for me at least, sirsasana is more than just a funny posture where you stand on your head, it can take you on a much deeper journey inwards.


Headstand pose has by far been my greatest teacher. Not in how to be strong, but in how to be patient and kind. Headstand and I have been on a long and wild journey together. From being absolutely terrified of being upside down to hysterically laughing whilst my teacher held my legs up, for me it’s definitely been a journey!


At the start this was not a fun posture for me. It was very much a "OK so now you want me to do WHAT with my legs?!" kinda feeling. On a deeper level though, it made me confront my need to be in control, which if we want to get into the nitty gritty, came from a somewhat traumatic childhood. When I was younger I always had a need to be in control of my body, from what it ate or didn’t, to how it moved, to how it looked. I put ENORMOUS pressure on the idea of being in control of my body.


But, when I was learning to headstand, that whole concept got well and truly debunked! When I first started practicing it, I wanted to be able to control myself up and down and of course, I wanted to be able to control not falling out of the posture. Essentially, I wanted perfection. First time. And every time afterwards. Which was completely and utterly unrealistic! Here’s how my journey went…


Upside Down – The Beginning

The first time I was ever upside down was in my first ever aerial yoga class (if you haven’t tried it I 100% recommend!). I remember being in the hammock and easily being able to follow the instructions to roll around until I was upside down fully supported by the hammock. In this new upside down world my heart started racing, my palms were sweaty and my breathing got fairly rapid.


“You can let go of the hammock, don’t worry you’re fully supported,” my amazing yoga instructor gently coaxed.


And she was right, my body was fully supported by the hammock, if I let go with my hands I’d be safe to float a little while upside down with the silk fabric keeping me up. But, I just couldn’t let go I gripped the hammock tightly like my life depended on it. Eventually, I managed a quick little wave with one hand before hastily retreating and attempting to do the same with the other hand. And that was it. I had to keep my hands on the fabric because I knew my arms could hold me, or save me from the impending doom of being 4 inches off the floor.


That was my first ever experience of being upside down – but it certainly wasn’t the last.





Learning to Stand on My Head – You Want Me to Put My Legs Where?!

I avoided headstand for years because it wasn’t a posture I felt I could control. I was scared of being upside down and toppling over the other side. In class I often avoided it for fear of being a danger to myself and whoever was in a 5ft 3inch radius.


Eventually though, after I had been practicing yoga for several years, I felt it was time to revisit. I’d always had the strength to hold myself up so that wasn’t the issue, the issue was the fear of not being in control.


However, as a stubborn Scottish lass I persevered and my first few thousand attempts at sirsasana went something a little like this:

· Measure my elbow distance (taking a lot longer than necessary, rearranging, coming back out and remeasuring)

· Interlace my fingers together as if my life depended on it (generally keeping a lighter grip is easier should one fall out of the posture meaning you won’t get tangled up with your hands)

· Quickly run my feet in towards my torso to get it over and done with as quick as possible (at this point I was a lot tighter in my hip flexors and hamstrings so had to bend my knees a lot to get there)

· Bunny hop – throw – my legs into my chest

· Pray that balance would somehow miraculously appear

· If by balance miraculously happened become completely overcome with shock and throw myself back to the safety of my mat in panic


Practice, practice, practice!

After many, many – many many many – moons of attempting, losing heart, giving up, and returning to headstand. I eventually experienced my full sirsasana with the assistance of my absolutely brilliant and patient teacher Mo. I remember her feedback and I still recall it every single time I do a headstand “relax, don’t try so hard.” At this point I was straining to keep my legs straight, clenching my jaw, pushing into the floor, and, quite literally shaking with the effort of it all.


After working diligently with Mo on headstand I began to hold it for little snippets of time. During one of those times something strange happened, I burst out into hysterical laughter. I’m still not really sure why, maybe it was because my legs kept wobbling around like a jellyfish or maybe it was just the thought of my being upside down was so random and crazy. But, whatever the cause was, I think it that whatever weird emotional control things that were bottled up were being released in the best way possible – through joy.


It was a firm and wonderful reminder not to take things so damn seriously. I mean, come on, you’ve literally made decision to attempt to stack up all your bones, muscles and limbs upside down – what could be less serious than that!


Finding Headstand

It took me thousands of tries to manage to get headstand on my own. It took even more tries to be able to stay there for a few breaths. And sometimes, if my mind is a little erratic, I’ll lose the posture and roll out but with patience and letting go of expectations I always manage to find it again.


Now whenever I practice sirsasana, I can usually hold for a few breaths before coming down in a more controlled way. When this happens, I always experience so much gratitude for my body when I come back down again (sometimes gracefully, a lot of times not so much!). After headstand I’m always in awe of how strong and amazing my body is to be able to carry out – let’s face it – a somewhat odd and crazy request! Thank you for teaching me headstand, I look forward to each and every adventure we have together.



Tips to help you nail headstand:

There’s no denying headstand is a challenging posture for many of us. Here’s a few tips and tricks I learned along my journey:

· Tip-toe your feet in towards you until your hips are in line with your shoulders – this is a game-changer trust me! When your hips are in the right position your feet can just float up off the floor.

· Push your forearms into the mat – think ‘forearm stand’ rather than ‘headstand’ there actually should be little to no weight at all on the head so really push into those forearms.

· Before you lift your feet, lift your head – lifting your head before you float up into this inversion really engages all the muscles in your arms. Place the crown of the head back down gently before coming up whilst keeping those arm muscles switched on.

· Make sure you’re warmed up – this is an absolute must before you attempt any pose that is a little more demanding on your body. Without being warmed up you’re more likely to cause yourself an injury and your muscles will be less switched on making the pose even harder.

· Don’t be afraid to fall down – if you expect to get this posture right every single time, well, let’s just say you won’t. And that’s ok. Don’t be afraid to fall down – grab some cushions to give yourself a squishy landing! Don’t let a few falls be the defining moment of this pose, pick yourself up and try again next time. Tip: rather than straining to stay up, sometimes it’s better to roll out and revisit your foundation again.

· Use the wall – if you’re like me and being upside down is a big ask, start by using a wall. Using a wall lets you focus on working a strong foundation whilst you don’t have to worry about the balance so much. While this is a good starting point, remember to practice away from the wall as much as you’re comfortable with to get a feel for the balance.

· Be patient – all things come with practice! Be patient and be sure to ask your teacher for guidance and support on your headstand journey.

· The rule of 3 – headstand did not come naturally to me so trust me when I say that I know how many tries and fall downs headstand can take. Instead of getting too hung up on “I didn’t get it this time” or “I fell over again”, opt for the rule of three. Give it three good attempts and then let it all go. Don’t get too attached to the goal, enjoy the long, winding journey and come back to it again next practice.



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