There are two poses in yoga, considered the father and mother, or king and queen of all postures, due to their incredible benefits for our health. It isn’t as if these two postures make all the thousands of other yoga poses irrelevant, but ancient yogis thought that headstand (sirsasana) and shoulderstand (sarvangasana) were so important, especially when practiced together, that they were considered to be the foundation upon which all other yogic practices should be built.
The King of Yoga Poses
Headstand is one of the most cherished asana or postures in all of hatha yoga, due to its incredible benefits to the body and mind. Here are ten of the most common reasons why people are inspired to practice sirsasana:
1. When we reverse the flow of blood by being inverted, not only does our heart get a break from having to pump blood all the way to our extremities, but all the organs of the face (the eyes, ears, brain, etc.) get a rush of oxygenated blood. This oxygenated blood helps to flush out toxins, and even gives the complexion a healthy glow. It’s like getting a mini-facial for free. This action is also said to prolong the aging process, which normally happens to our ears and eyes, ensuring that we can see clearly and hear well, even as we get older.
2. By performing headstands, as mentioned, we reverse impact on the heart, but also the entire circulatory system. This also includes the lungs and the entire network of vessels that provide oxygen and expel carbon dioxide and other waste products from our cells.
3. Some yogis say that by practicing headstand frequently enough, it can even restore grey hair. This again, is due to the oxygenated blood flow, and rich nutrients that are more easily carried to the head when we are upside down. Headstand is also known to reduce stress levels, which is a big contributor to the greying of our hair.
4. For women, the menstrual and reproductive cycle is regulated. Because the master gland of the endocrine system is the hypothalamus in the brain, followed by the pituitary and ovaries, hormonal secretions can be balanced by practicing headstand. For both men and women, sexual performance and pleasure can be improved from practicing sirsasana.
5.The immune system is given an extra boost when we practice sirsasana. The lymph system only moves through the body when we move, unless we reverse the flow by being inverted. As we stand on our heads, the lymph flows through the body, allowing lymphocytes to do their job of removing waste, foreign invaders and toxins from the body.
6. When the adrenal glands are flushed and detoxified with sirsasana, we feel more uplifted emotionally. This is because the adrenals are responsible for mitigating the fight-or-flight response when we feel stressed, and thereby produce cortisol, adrenaline and other ‘stress’ hormones. Depression will decrease, as going upside down actually helps to put a smile on your face.
7. In headstand, de-oxygenated blood can flow more easily away from the extremities (the arms and legs) and to the brain, giving you an instant intellectual and energy boost.
8. Varicose veins are reduced by relieving the pressure in our legs and feet that is created from standing and sitting for long periods of time.
9. Headstands work three different sets of deep core muscles. In order for someone to maintain a straight headstand for any extended period of time, (even a few minutes) they must engage the obliques, the rectus abdominus and the transverse abdominus. To further strengthen the core, you can move the legs, lifting and/or lowering both at the same time when coming in and out of the pose. If you practice headstand often, not only do you get all the other listed benefits, but you may be able to ditch sit-ups forever!
10. Greatly reduce your chance of having an ischemic stroke. Scientific evidence suggests that this type of stroke rarely occurs in individuals that consistently do headstands.
Now, on to the queen of yoga postures, the shoulder stand.
The Queen of Yoga Poses
The shoulderstand or sarvangasana, as described by B.K.S. Iyengar, is the mother of all yoga poses. In the Sanskrit language, sarva means "all" or "entire" and angameans "organ" or "body part." Translated into English sarvangasana means "full body pose" because of its benefits to the whole body. Though this asana (posture) also has enough benefits to fill a book, here are just a few of the most common:
1. By practicing sarvangasana, we work with gravity, instead of against it, which helps the bowels move freely and aids digestion significantly.
2. The heart gets a break, but the good kind. As you are lying in an inverted position, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood to the furthest parts of the body. Since this is one of the hardest working muscles in the body, it deserves a break!
3. The lymphatic system is responsible for how well our immune system works. The lymph is similar to blood in that it depends on gravity for movement. So, by staying inverted, the lymphatic system gets stimulated and boosts our immune response.
4. Since we create a firm chin lock (jalandhara bhanda) when practicing sarvangasana and, the blood supply to the head gets regulated, this helps relieve nasal congestions and headaches. This physical lock also activates the Vishuddhi Chakra.
5. Sarvangasana is said to improve your confidence. When you do it consistently, you feel alive and confident. This likely has to do with the subtle life energy it influences in the body.
6. B.K.S. Iyengar, a famous yogi has said, “Due to the soothing effect of the pose on the nerves, those suffering from irritation, shortness of temper, nervous breakdown and insomnia are relieved” by practicing shoulderstand.
7. Sarvangasana strengthens the neck, upper back and shoulders.
To practice either of these postures, you need to be very careful, and if possible, seek the expertise of a certified yoga instructor who can guide you through the proper ways to do them, while pointing out any contraindication. Those who have glaucoma or head injuries shouldn’t practice either pose. This is also true for pregnant women. For more experienced yogis, you can watch the videos below as a reminder of how to practice safely: