Yesterday I went to the 10:30 morning yoga class. Class was good and I was feeling great until we got to inversions. I decided to do a headstand (which I rarely do at the yoga center, only when I’m feeling particularly strong and confident). I did my headstand, held for a few minutes, and came down, and then J came over to me. He explained that I had my elbows too wide in the headstand – the elbows shouldn’t be wider than the shoulders, so I should bring them in closer together. He also said I should bring my feet close together, as that would make it easier to balance. Then he told me to try it again.
I had some difficulty lifting back up into headstand – I’d already done it once and was a little tired. Also, the new arm position felt unnatural. J helped me lift my ankles. As soon as I was vertical in the pose, I knew it wasn’t right for me: I felt very uncomfortable and my neck really hurt, which is a major problem in a headstand. Thinking back now, I think that with the new arm position I wasn’t able to press strongly enough through my arms, putting all the pressure on my head and thus my neck. Either the new position made it physically difficult for me to press strongly, or I wasn’t confident enough with it to press strongly, but either way it was a problem. I wanted to come down out of the pose right away, but J was in front of me holding my ankles, so if I had dropped down I would have kicked him in the face. I panicked and didn’t say anything because I was afraid I’d (A) cry or (B) shout, so I just kept my mouth shut. I tried to press down through my arms to alleviate the pressure on my neck, but I don’t think it helped much, and I tried to follow J’s instructions about lifting my hips and keeping my feet together. I have no idea how I did with this. The base for my headstand was so uncertain and uncomfortable that I don’t know how well I held up at all. As soon as J moved aside, I dropped down. I tried to do a few neck stretches, but I was really shaken. Then it was time for sivasana.
I spent most of sivasana alternately being really angry and upset and trying to calm myself down. I felt angry foremost at J for making me do this modification that turned out to be so painful and so scary. But I knew I couldn’t be too angry with him – he’s a yoga teacher, not a mind reader. Also, he knows I’m an experienced student and should be able to trust me not to do something that hurts (while I on the other hand should be able to trust him not to hurt me, but this is a circular argument). I was angry most of all at myself for not being better able to respond to the situation. I know that I can have trouble with my neck in headstand and I could have been more careful; I could have told him I didn’t want to do the pose again; or I could have said something when it hurt, even if it resulted in me crying or shouting. Sticking it out through a tough pose is one thing, but when a pose actually causes pain, you’re supposed to come out of it or modify it right away. I felt angry that I let that situation happen, even though there didn’t seem to be anything else I could do at the time (short of kicking my teacher in the face).
I got myself mostly calmed down by the time we got to meditation. After class, I tried to wait to talk to J, but there was a new student in the class and he always likes to check in with new students after class. I used the rest room, and when I came back upstairs, everyone else was gone except J and the new student, who were talking in the back room, so I left too. I spent the afternoon with my parents and managed to put the bad feelings out of my mind.
I woke up this morning with a really, really sore neck. I still feel upset with J, and with myself. I think I do need to talk to him about this because I don’t want this to affect our working relationship (considering we’re stuck with each other until December) and plus he just deserves to know. Also, I want to talk about the pose itself and why he felt it necessary to modify my headstand in that way. Would keeping my elbows wide eventually lead to some other sort of injury? Right now I’m torn between wanting to practice playing with the new arm position in a safe way at home (after the current soreness heals, of course), wanting to ignore what he told me and keep doing it the old way, and wanting never to do a headstand again. Choosing the last option would mean giving in to the fear that I feel about the pose now, and that’s not a good idea. I also really, really don’t want to have to confront J. I could go to one of N’s classes instead this week but I feel like that would be avoiding the issue.
So, dear readers, what do you think? Tips on practicing headstand safely? Authoritative suggestions on correct arm positioning? Ideas on how to approach J?
Roxanne–I don’t know how wide your elbows were in your typical headstand practice but they really should be no wider than your shoulders. If they are wider you risk losing the triangular platform that your head and forearms/elbows form in the proper position–this triangle really gives you stability, keeping you from wobbling forward and backward. It’s also the position your shoulders are strongest in and should actually protect your neck. I’m betting that it felt unstable to you because it felt unfamiliar, new, different than the position you were used to practicing. Practice against the wall in the elbows-no-wider-than-shoulders position until you feel comfortable, relaxed, strong and stable in it. Then move away from the wall. And even though you probably feel more comfortable practicing this pose alone at home because it makes you feel so vulnerable, you probably should practice it more with your teacher to get guidance. But I would definitely talk to him about your feelings about this pose and the way he “helped” you with it. You don’t want to get hurt! And if he’s a good teacher–and trying to teach you how to be a good teacher–he should listen to you! If he doesn’t, maybe he’s not the right teacher to be training with?…
Also–I keep thinking of this situation because it really is such a scary feeling to be out of control in an already challenging pose like headstand. I’m really sorry it happened. It’s been years now since I’ve done headstand but it seems to me that the buildup to being able to do headstand was so important–developing the strength and balance, comfort in the position. We used to practice in headstand arms, feet on the ground in basically a downward dog position, walking the feet forward until your back is perpendicular to the floor and you’re more or less in headstand with your feet on the ground. (Must have good flexibility in the hamstrings for this of course.) Holding this position builds so much strength and balance and it seems to me it was more difficult in a way to hold this preliminary pose than it was to hold headstand. Once you’re good and comfortable in this preliminary pose you basically just release your feet from the floor, raise your legs up, and there you are, in headstand. Maybe this is already how you approach it–just thought I’d throw my headstand tips your way for whatever they’re worth… Hope you feel better soon. Take care!
It was really scary! I think that’s part of why the whole thing was so upsetting: not just that it hurt, but that I felt trapped and couldn’t get out of the pose. I definitely feel better today – still sore, but better than yesterday. Thank you for thinking of me!
I didn’t feel like I had my elbows super-wide for headstand. It was definitely triangular-shaped, with hands clasped behind my head. Maybe a little wider than shoulders, but I didn’t think significantly so (if I had thought about it before Saturday). I always felt like I was pretty stable this way and I actually had practiced headstand this way for several years. I always practice headstand at the wall, and always walk feet forward until they lift up naturally (rather than kicking). I know I have the core strength to do the pose properly but I’m not confident enough to do it in the middle of a room yet, so I always practice at the wall just to be careful. It felt like J had me bring my elbows well inside my shoulders, arms almost parallel, which just didn’t feel stable to me: maybe because it was unfamiliar, maybe because I don’t have a ton of upper body strength?
When I try to practice this at home, I’m planning to do it the way you described: walking feet forward in a down-dog way without lifting up, getting used to the way the positioning feels until I feel more comfortable with it. I think it’s something I need to fiddle around with on my own some before I try it again in the studio (in front of other people).
J is definitely a good teacher, which is partly why this incident feels so weird to me. I don’t know, I really like studying with him, but he also asks a lot of us. I have detailed arguments with him in my head (about various things, not just this) but then everything works out okay. I think I may want to take a break from him and go to N’s classes for a little while. She’s also a good teacher and has a very different style that might be refreshing.
Hey Roxanne–Sounds good to take a short break from that teacher, refresh your perspective with another one.
Also, yes, the arms (in my headstand experience) should be parallel with each other, coming straight out of the shoulder sockets, not wider, not narrower. Thinking of a triangle could be confusing–the forearms are not angling out in a triangular way (with the forearms making the legs of the triangle), instead the three points of the triangle are made by the elbows and head, with the elbows directly in line with the shoulders, if that makes sense (imaginary lines between the points would not correspond to your forearms). (On your knees, clasp your fingers and set up your arms–the shape formed is almost more of an upside down U. Your upper arms should be perpendicular to the floor, coming straight down from your shoulders.) Hard to write without showing or illustrating–does that make sense?
i’m so sorry to hear that this happened!
i think if you need a break from J’s teaching to regroup that you’re not necessarily avoiding the issue. it’s, of course, a fine line between avoidance and giving yourself some space, and only you will know the distinction. whatever happens, i think you’re right to discuss it at some point.
the assist that i was taught for headstand is to come from behind, exactly to avoid the problem that you encountered, which is the student not having control over when to come down. it seems to me like the student should always be ultimately in control of the practice, and to take that agency away is problematic at best, irresponsible and dangerous at worst.
there are headstands in the end of second series of ashtanga that have wider arm positions, so i don’t know that there would be any particular danger of injury from a wider stance, but the pose for headstand is elbows & shoulders aligned, and there may well be a good reason for that.
(hugs) and i hope you feel better quickly
I’ll be taking a little break from J anyway: the class that fits my schedule this week happens to be one of N’s classes. I think it will actually be good to do something different right now. Next week I’ll try to connect with J again. Lauren suggested that I wait to talk to him until my neck’s feeling better, which I think is a good idea – when I’m not getting constant physical reminders about the incident, I will hopefully be able to approach it more calmly.
I was doing headstand at the wall, so J only had one angle to come at me. I never do headstand in the middle of the room precisely because it scares me; I feel like I still need the security of the wall (especially after my handstand disasters where I kept kicking over my head, landing on my back and breaking things in the room – different pose but similar enough that the fear carried over).
I don’t feel like my elbows were super-wide. I definitely had a triangular thing going on, but I had never thought about elbow position relative to shoulders in the pose. Thinking back now, they might have been a little wide, but definitely still triangular. I felt like he moved my arms to be almost parallel, which was very weird. I definitely want to get clarification on this, for myself as well as for my future students!
Better today than yesterday and did some gentle stretching this morning. Going to keep taking it easy… Thanks.
i’m glad you’re feeling better! i have to say that i wouldn’t come hold up a student who was practicing headstand at the wall. if i had alignment cues, i’d have them come down and fix the alignment in the prep pose and then leave them to get up or not in the new alignment. not like i’m even a yoga teacher, but there’s a lot of fear that goes into headstand for people generally, and obviously someone who is working at the wall isn’t totally comfortable with the pose (which is fine, that’s what working at the wall is for, after all).
i think it’s really important to note, too, that you’re an experienced practitioner and a teacher in training, and you STILL didn’t feel comfortable telling a teacher that an assist didn’t feel right. teachers have a huge amount of authority and generally people don’t want to tell them that something isn’t working right. something to be aware of with your own students – they AREN’T usually going to verbally tell you what’s up.
That is a really excellent point! Way to take neck pain and make it educational!
I hope you will get well soon. And always remember to tell you teacher how you are feeling about any pose. TC