According to many proponents of yoga, the benefits of doing shirshasana (also written as "sirsasana," or described as a supported headstand) include strengthening the body and calming the mind. However, like many inversions, sirsasana also comes with some risk.
The sirsasana, or headstand pose, is reputed to invigorate both body and mind and aid in harmonizing your circulation. However, it's also the pose that is most frequently reported to cause adverse affects, some of which have been very serious.
A List of Sirsasana Benefits
For some, a graceful headstand represents the epitome of mind-body balance and physical agility that you get from a yoga practice. In more general terms, sirsasana is an inversion — a yoga pose that is alternately defined as putting your head below your heart or your head below your hips.
Ultimately, the purpose of sirsasana is, as explained by George Mason University's Diary of a Happy Yogi, to relax strain on the heart, harmonize your circulation and rush oxygen-rich blood to your upper body and, in particular, your brain. Some also say it calms the mind.
For some, the sheer challenge — and sometimes, the intimidation factor — of conquering a difficult pose like headstand is another part of its appeal.
But how much of that is backed up by science? There's no disputing the satisfaction of meeting a challenge or conquering a fear, and there's no way for science to prove any perceived spiritual benefits of inversions and other challenging feats of yoga.
However, an ever-increasing body of research supports the mind-body benefits of yoga practice, and inversions are a natural (if advanced) part of the yoga progression in many styles. In particular, a small but rigorous MRI-based study of 28 participants, published in a 2015 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that regular yoga practice may indeed have neuroprotective effects against age-related decline.
Interestingly, findings from the same study also suggest that more yoga practice equates to larger brain volume in areas associated with bodily representation, self-relevant processing, visualization, stress regulation and general attention.
Even more fascinating, distinct components of yoga practice — which was subdivided into postures or poses, breathing exercises and meditation — had different effects on gray matter volume in these areas of the brain. Finally, longer-term yoga experience was associated with high brain volume in areas associated with autonomic integration, emotional processing and the like.
Are these benefits exclusive to headstands? There's nothing to suggest that they are, although the body of clinical research dedicated exclusively to headstands, and inversions in general, is woefully small. Perhaps in time, science will catch up to the wisdom of this millennia-old tradition.
But for now, one of the best studies that deals specifically with headstands is a small trial of 40 volunteers, published in the January 2003 issue of the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. The study confirmed that the headstand posture did in fact activate the sympathetic nervous system, which might be part of the reason for the pose's mind-calming reputation.
Despite sirsasana's reputed benefits, it is also one of the yoga poses most commonly cited for causing injury — and sometimes those injuries are very serious. Examples include stroke and partial or complete loss of sight. Bottom line: It's not for everybody, especially if you're in a situation where you haven't been properly educated about the risks and how to prevent them. Just because you can do a headstand doesn't mean you always should.
Steps for Sirsasana Safety
Although complaints about injuries caused by sirsasana aren't widely advertised and might not even be discussed in some yoga classes, they do exist. In a systematic review published in a 2013 issue of the journal PLOS One, researchers note that the headstand, aka sirsasana, was by far the most commonly cited yoga posture for having caused injury. The resulting injuries were sometimes quite serious, including types of stroke and loss of sight.
Some of the best practices you can adopt for maximal safety include doing yoga — especially inversions and advanced poses such as sirsasana — under the guidance of a certified yoga instructor who is experienced in that style.
Also, if you have any injuries that might contraindicate headstands or inversions — especially problems with your head, neck or back — talk with a medical professional to find out if you should avoid sirsasana altogether. If you're cleared to do headstands, discuss your situation with the instructor before class so she can suggest appropriate variations.
Beginners should avoid advanced yoga poses such as sirsasana. Even if you're fit from other pursuits, it takes time for your body to adapt to the different challenges posed by doing yoga. In a conscientiously taught yoga class, appropriate preparation is an important component of doing inversions. Some classes even focus exclusively on inversions to ensure appropriate preparation, understanding of technique and supervision.
Meanwhile, if you want to see for yourself whether inversions will benefit you, there's no need to go straight to the headstand, which is considered to be one of the most challenging inversions possible. The commonly practiced — and much gentler — downward dog is also considered an inversion.
About Sirsasana Variations
In its discussion of the Sirsasana pose, Yoga Journal points out some details of the practice that might not be immediately obvious if you're practicing on your own — all the more reason to tackle inversions under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
A few particular points to keep in mind include using a folded blanket or sticky yoga mat to pad your head and forearms, retracting and depressing your shoulder blades (bringing them close to your spine and sliding them toward your hips) for support and stability, and bringing both legs up into the pose together.
Although Yoga Journal recommends bending your knees if necessary to get into sirsasana with your legs together, a small study involving 45 yogis of varying ages, published in the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, contradicts that.
This study found that entering sirsasana with both legs straight may help reduce the load on your head and neck, as well as slowing the overall rate of loading, whereas entering a headstand with your knees bent, whether one leg at a time or both, has the opposite effect. Another side benefit of entering sirsasana with both legs is that it requires you to build up more core strength before you're able to manage it.
If you were wondering how much weight your head and neck end up supporting during a headstand, the same JBMT study has the answer: Subjects in that study ended up supporting between 40 and 48 percent of total body weight on the head and neck. Although many yogis describe the crown of your head as resting lightly on your mat, that's still quite a bit of weight — all the more reason to decline headstands, or pursue them very carefully, if you have any contraindications at all.
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies: "Sirsasana (Headstand) Technique Alters Head/Neck Loading: Considerations for Safety"
- PLOS One: "Adverse Events Associated With Yoga: A Systematic Review of Published Case Reports and Case Series"
- Yoga Journal: "Supported Headstand"
- Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology: "Effects of Sirsasana (Headstand) Practice on Autonomic and Respiratory Variables"
- George Mason University: "Diary of a Happy Yogi: Headstands"
- Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: "Neuroprotective Effects of Yoga Practice: Age-, Experience- and Frequency-Dependent Plasticity"