The headstand is considered the king of yoga poses because of its many benefits, which range from improved brain function and mood to increased upper-body strength. When done in correct alignment, many muscles are engaged, including those of the arms, upper back and core. A headstand requires moderate shoulder strength and can be dangerous if the practitioner is not ready to support their own weight in an upside-down orientation.
Tones the Upper Body
When a headstand is done properly, the body is supported primarily by the muscles of the shoulders and upper back, says chiropractor Eden Goldman in a FAQ article about contraindicated yoga poses from the American Council on Exercise. Contraction of the trapezius and deltoid muscles protect the head and neck in this posture. When shoulders are too weak, headstands can be dangerous because they compress the vertebrae of the cervical spine, which can lead to permanent damage and pain.
Strengthens the Core
In order to hold a straight headstand, a practitioner must engage the abdominal muscles -- including the obliques, the rectus abdomini and the transverse abdominus. Poor form - -with bent legs or flexed hips, for instance - -could indicate weakness of the core. A strong core can position hips directly over the chin and extend the hip flexors such that the legs are vertical. The core is strengthened particularly if the practitioner lifts or lowers both legs at once to come into and out of the headstand.
When the body is upside down, the pituitary gland, which plays a role in healthy digestion, is stimulated. The pituitary gland is a pea-shaped endocrine gland in the brain responsible for metabolism, turning food into usable energy. It also regulates hormone production and the process of water reabsorption in the kidneys. Headstands are recommended for irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive ailments, as they reorient the colon and intestines, encouraging bowel movement.
Stimulates Brain Function
An upside-down orientation sends blood to the head, improving brain function. According to the editors at Yoga Journal, one of the benefits of a headstand is that it "calms the brain." It also stimulates the pineal gland, which is located deep in the brain and is responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles and plays an important role in the body's maturation process.
Nourishes the Face
Many yoga teachers like to say that a headstand is the equivalent of a facial because it stimulates blood flow to the face. Increased circulation to the skin of the cheeks and forehead means oxygenation and sustained youth of the facial cells. Practitioners should take care not to remain in a headstand for too long; some people report a "bursting" feeling or broken blood vessels in the face. Ten breaths, or one to three minutes, is enough to reap a headstand's benefits.
According to a Yoga Journal article entitled "Supported Headstand," the posture "helps relieve stress and mild depression." Because headstands stimulate the pituitary gland -- which is responsible for releasing endorphins, the body's "happy" hormones -- they can be prescribed to alleviate the sadness and lethargy associated with depression. Headstands also reduce production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increases blood flow to the brain, stimulating production of melatonin, dopamine and serotonin, all hormones that help regulate mood.