Headstand / Sirsasana|Mark Whitwell|Heart of Yoga

Mark Whitwell
Mark Whitwell
Mark Whitwell was born in 1949 in Auckland, Aotearoa/ New Zealand. In 1973, he traveled to India and began a life-long study of yoga with Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) and his son, T.K.V. Desikachar (1938–2016). Mark Whitwell’s simple mission is to give people the principles of practice that came through Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to make their Yoga authentic, powerful, and effective. Mark Whitwell is the founder of the Heart of Yoga foundation and the Heart of Yoga Peace Project, an organization dedicated to developing yoga communities in conflict zones around the world. Mark Whitwell lives between New Zealand and Fiji.

Mark Whitwell is interested in developing an authentic yoga practice for the individual, based on the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). He is the author of four books including ‘Yoga of Heart’ and ‘The Promise’ and was the editor and contributor to TKV Desikachar’s classic yoga text ‘The Heart of Yoga.’ Mark Whitwell continues to facilitate teacher trainings and workshops in the heart of yoga all over the globe.

Mark Whitwell|| Sirasana/Headstand

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Don’t do this at home unless you have a good teacher. Only one in five people can do a headstand safely. There is no requirement for any asana in particular. It does not matter at all if you never do headstand. There’s no enlightenment in headstand! Some postures we never will do. And finally, they will all go.

Inversions, however, are the most vital part of your vinyasa krama (practice or sequence of appropriate asana designed for you). Inversions are at the midpoint of your vinyasa, the peak of your practice. You prepare for them and come down from them. This the way to think about your whole sequence.

You measure the time that you stay in each asana, including your inversions, by the number of breaths and the breath ratio you can do without struggle.

If headstand is part of your practice, you must do shoulderstand as the counterpose following, usually with the same number of breaths and leg movement variations. The “King and Queen” of asana. If the number of breaths and the breath ratio is maximized, then rest for a significant time after each… say one or two minutes.

If headstand is not right for you, then a shoulder stand. Or if neither are appropriate, then lying on your back with your legs on a chair and breathing with the arms is a beautiful and most restorative practice.

Inversions are there for many Yoga reasons including the physical and emotional health reasons. Include some kind of inversion every day. The cardiovascular system and all the organs get a profound rest from the constant downward pressure of gravity. All the organs are rearranged and function better with each other, including the reproductive organs.

Headstand (sirsasana) and shoulder stand (sarvangasana) were described by T. Krishnamacharya as mudra (sacred gesture). He described them as devotional practice. Of course, all asana is considered devotional practice, whole-body prayer to life. It’s just that headstand and shoulderstand are the peak of this devotional practice. They are gestures ‘in the company of’ your ishta (your god, your guru, your deity… your life). It’s reversing the habituation of the head being in control of the whole body. Instead it becomes the support of the whole body.

You will be surprised at how quickly practice of all other asana prepares the body for these. To know that someone can practice headstand safely the following asana must be achievable and held comfortably over at least twelve breaths:

  1. Trikonasana (one of the vital preparations for inversions. On any one day it prepares the neck. However it also prepares you over time to practice inversions stably.)

  2. Sarvangasana (shoulderstand — to be practiced after headstand as the counterpose, as the vertebrae have been compressed and need stretching out)

  3. Ardomuksavasana (downwards-facing dog)

  4. Urdhva dhanurasana (wheel backbend).

With these indicators you could be ready. For your first attempt at headstand, go up very gently for only one or two breaths and come down again. Extend the number of breaths and the breath ratio day by day, week by week. Never kick up. This will injure the neck. There must be sufficient upper body strength to move the legs gently skyward. Never use a wall or props or adjustments from someone else. It builds insecurity into the pose and indicates the body is not ready. If asana can not be supported by breath alone it is dangerous. So make the breath the gauge and purpose of asana. Krishnamacharya, “you can cheat the body with will of mind, but you cannot cheat the breath. So make the breath the guru to the asana. Obey your guru!”

Asana creates bandha (intelligent cooperation of muscle groups) in the polarity of strength that is receptive. Bandha is practiced in the pauses after inhalation and exhalation (kumbhaka). Headstand in particular, but also shoulderstand, uses gravity to serve the exhale, emphasising muladhara bandha and uddiyana bandha. The perfect union of inhalation with exhalation, strength with receptivity, above to below reveals the hridaya heart, the source of life’s nurturing flow, and source and purpose of mind.

For a full consideration of personal practice, vinyasa krama, and the role of a good teacher you can explore the ‘Heart of Yoga: Immersion into Personal Practice’ available by donation.

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