Neck Alignment

Neck Alignment

Techniques to Find More Ease in Headstand

sirsasana

NECK ALIGNMENT FOR INVERSIONS

Yoga postures typically start “from the feet up.” The same is true when it comes to inversions—it’s just flipped upside down. The positioning of the head and neck sets the foundation, so finding balance can be quite challenging.  

Inversions can be scary stuff, and there’s plenty of legitimate fear to go around. With inversions, the neck becomes “the feet” of the posture, and neck alignment will directly inform your experience. Proper alignment, along with the technique of “pressing your head back,” will strengthen your neck muscles and provide you with the stability required for this posture. In today’s video, Matt breaks down how this technique will provide you with confidence and help you overcome your fears in Headstand.

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MORE INFORMATION

PRESS YOUR HEAD BACK

The fear of going upside down and placing weight on your neck can be enough to put you off of the posture all together, but the technique of pressing your head back can restore your faith in your ability to execute Headstand with assurance. One of the best ways to practice this technique is upright. Before you consider the strength, consider the neck alignment. Pulling your skull up and back will bring your head more in line with your spinal column and pelvis. Matt explains that this will place your cervical spine into a more concave shape, rather than the common convex shape that occurs due to a frequently forward carriage of the head. At the beginning of the video, you’ll see that the next step is to press your head into your thumbs. These steps are important to explore before you place any weight on your head in inversions.  

WATCH THE VIDEO

NECK ALIGNMENT: TECHNIQUES TO FIND MORE EASE IN HEADSTAND

HEADSTAND PREPARATION

Once you feel more comfortable with the neck alignment cues, moving on to the next step in Headstand preparation means exploring those cues in Dolphin Pose. What also needs to be discussed here are the options you have in terms of the amount of weight you opt to place on your head.  

At the initial stages of the setup, creating protraction and elevation in the shoulders will help you find more length in the back of your neck and also assist in keeping your head off of the ground. This will make the shift towards taking the back of your head away from your elbows and closer to your hands much easier. The key step, however, is the plantar flexion of your feet in order to make this shift. Next, pressing your head into your hands (more specifically your thumbs) will assist in strengthening your neck muscles.

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HEADSTAND WITH BLOCKS

You now know that pointing your toes will assist in stacking the pelvis over the shoulders, but hamstring flexibility is also required. Gaining the appropriate amount of hamstring flexibility will not happen overnight. This is where elevating your feet on blocks is extremely helpful. Using blocks creates a shorter distance for you to create the stacking you need in order to lift your legs. If you’re not ready to take flight in this way, then practice the stacking by moving back and forth between plantar flexion and dorsiflexion at the ankle joint. This will help you gain a deeper understanding of where your body needs to be in space.  

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UP AGAINST THE WALL

Not knowing where your body is in space is a reason you might choose to practice up against a wall, and this is a great decision, especially when you want to send your legs up in the air.  

You may, however, feel like you are up against a figurative wall when trying to “crack the code” for Headstands. It is possible to start depending on the wall for security, which is why implementing the technique of pressing your head into your hands can completely transform your experience. Once you do that, you can feel everything else fall into place: The action encourages the bottom ribs to knit back, which can then send the pelvis over the shoulders. The beauty of using the wall is that you have time to more deeply understand the cues while it acts as your personal spotter.

Register for Matt’s Alignment Immersion to learn all of the cues that help you to safely practice Headstand.

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Article by Trish Curling

Video Extracted From: Alignment Immersion

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Rectus Abdominis Handstand Drill

Rectus Abdominis
Handstand Drill

The Key Component for Control

abdominals

RECTUS ABDOMINIS HANDSTAND DRILL

This rectus abdominis handstand drill takes the fear out of inversions. That may be a bold statement to make, but it’s true. If you don’t have prior experience and/or training in any inversions, fear can be one of the most common barriers. The drill that Matt presents in today’s video is about intention and focus. You may have done the drill before, but have you done it like this? Drills offer an opportunity to focus on an action in your body. However, this doesn’t mean that you no longer require focus, attention, and effort as regards the other areas of focus, and drills provide more than just the development of a certain skill. They offer the confidence to move forward and progress in other ways.

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WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE RECTUS ABDOMINIS?

The rectus abdominis is a flat muscle and is the most superficial of the abdominal layers. It runs from the bottom of the sternum all the way down to the pubic bone. Its central role is to create spinal flexion. In your yoga practice, the use of the rectus abdominis shows up in forward folds. The muscle also supports your ability to stay stable in balancing and plank postures, although the deeper muscle layers take on more of that responsibility. This doesn’t mean that it’s not essential, and we are centering our focus today on the rectus abdominis handstand drill. As previously mentioned, it’s about intention and awareness and about the specific actions you take that bring the rectus abdominis more to the forefront. For example, the amount of engagement, or activation, of the rectus abdominis depends on what’s required in a specific movement or drill.

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RECTUS ABDOMINIS HANDSTAND DRILL:  THE KEY COMPONENT FOR CONTROL

HANDSTANDS

You can think about what’s required in Handstand in a number of different ways. Handstands are referred to as both arm balances and inversions, and the list of what’s required may seem lengthier than for other arm balances. You can be sure, however, that Matt always has a phenomenal way of breaking things down into tiny bits so you can work through the process. Some of the areas of focus are your hands, which grip the ground; the wrist flexors; or “joint stacking.” In one of my previous articles, L Pose Handstand Training, I outline more details about the core and about how Matt shows you how to utilize your hip flexors. The conversation surrounding the rectus abdominis is another important one because it’s another opportunity to intelligently call upon a “simple” action in your body to get you closer to Handstand.

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UNDERSTANDING THE DRILL

The simple action in this rectus abdominis drill is to bring your ribs and pelvis closer to one another, but the action is more deliberate than simply leaning forward and allowing gravity to do the work. A level of activation is required to utilize the strength necessary for the inversion. You’ll see in the video that Matt encourages you to prioritize this action over stacking the hip and shoulder joints. This stacking can be quite intimidating at first, and the rectus abdominis drill removes this barrier. Executing this drill with a wall behind you offers even more encouragement and permission to explore kicking up into Handstand with more confidence and control. Keeping your front body shortened trains you to stay away from relying on the wall. The action may shorten your hops, but this simply means that you are successfully keeping your awareness on the rectus abdominis.

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WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

Yes, going upside down is more than front-body awareness and activation; it’s also about connecting the dots. Taking an approach like this one helps clarify what’s required in Handstand as a whole posture. You are not only training your physical body but also creating an indelible mark on your nervous system that you’ll be able to call upon naturally and intuitively. In other words, the approach goes beyond being just a rectus abdominis Handstand drill. It is something you can rely on in your approach to other inversions and to how you go about putting the pieces together when exploring postures that are challenging for you.

Matt’s current Breath of Fire Immersion goes further into how to intelligently utilize your core within your yoga practice.

See you on the mat!

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Article by Trish Curling

Video Extracted From: Breath Of Fire Immersion

Yoga for Core and Breathwork

BREATH OF FIRE

  • Moderate Vinyasa-style classes
  • Core strengthening & integration
  • Master your breath with pranayama practices
  • Access your core in arm balances, heart openers, twists, forward folds, inversions, and more
  • Learn where and how to breathe in challenging postures
  • Each class will include one pranayama (breathwork practice) and several core strengtheners
  • Access your core muscles: deep, superficial, anterior, posterior, and lateral 
  • 12 Classes: All levels appropriate
  • Lifetime unlimited access to all
  • Attend the livestream OR practice the replays any time that’s convenient for you

$148.00

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Headstand: Neck Relief

Headstand: Neck Relief

No More "Pain in the Neck"

 

Intentional Practice

For many years I split my yoga asana practice into two parts. On one side I dedicated my learning to the therapeutic qualities and on the other side advancing my practice. It was a while before I realized that they were one and the same and it took longer to realize that “advanced” transition could lead to greater ease and freedom. This video is born out of my understanding of what I used to consider to be just an advanced transition.

Let’s touch briefly on the neck in headstand. I think we all know that putting our entire weight on our neck could obviously have its dangers. There are also many claimed benefits from it, some of which I agree with from my own experience. Headstand can be extremely empowering and freeing on an emotional level, and beyond that, it is a platform to build more strength and stability for the neck. In addition, going upside down in general can increase our proprioception (knowing where our body is in space). To be sure we are gaining all the benefits and not dealing with the potential downfalls of having all our weight on our neck, I find it beneficial to learn how to do headstand with our head off the ground. Some would call this forearm stand, some would argue it’s still headstand arms so it’s headstand…what you call it is not important, but having the strength and awareness definitely is beneficial.

There are two main anatomical actions that I go over in this video:
Elevation of the Scapula: Shoulder blades raise up toward the ears
Extension at the Elbow Joint: The Elbow straightening.

Elevation of the scapula is the main action in relieving neck pressure because when executed with enough strength, the head will lift off of the ground. Once you have the strength and control over the muscles that create elevation (mainly the upper fibers of the trapezius muscles) you will then have the choice of how much weight you place on your head. Trying to extend at the elbow joint can help maintain stability and balance as you elevate your scapula and can assist in rising away from the ground.

The Actions

In the video you will be provided with a visual demonstration of elevating the scapula with headstand arms. While you are reading this you can try elevating your scapula by shrugging your shoulders up by your ears. This action is remarkably easier when the arms are by your side in a resting position than when they are over head and bearing the weight of your body, but awareness of the action makes it a lot easier to attempt once you enter the position. Many yoga teachers will shun the idea of your shoulders rising up by the ears simply because it tends to be an unconscious pattern. Remember this pattern is not necessarily bad or good, it’s the unconscious part that is the problem. Another way to look at it is if we hold an equal and opposite pattern of elevated scapula then our shoulders would be balanced and relaxed. If you are someone whose shoulders rise toward your ears on a daily basis here are some things to consider.
Your stress levels: If your shoulders are tensed up it could be an indication that your emotional body/nervous system is more often in the state of panic and your nervous system is sending signals to your muscles to hold tension because “something bad is going to happen.” There is no short answer for what to do but one-on-one coaching could help. I am happy to connect for a free Skype session to discuss some options with you.
Strengthen the opposite muscles: In this case, do pull-ups and work on strengthening the muscles of depression.
Strengthen to Release: It may sound strange but usually a muscle holding tension is not tense because it is strong, more likely because it is weak. Strengthening it can actually relax it. In this case, elevating your scapula will help strengthen the upper fibers of the trapezius muscles, and therefore could lead to releasing your neck tension!

How to Strengthen

There are multiple ways to strengthen the muscles that elevate the scapula and extend the elbow. In the video I offer a way to do so while approaching the pose. Dolphin pose (Down Dog on Forearms) is a great start for the more beginner practitioner. Check out the video and try the actions to feel it in your body. If you find it helpful and you are looking for more ways to strengthen your inversion practice Click Here to check out my top exercises for the arms, shoulders, wrists, and core!

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1. Elevate Your Scapula

Before going upside down and bearing weight, ensure that you have the range of motion in your shoulders to elevate your scapula with headstand arms – clasped fingers, bent elbows, arms overhead. Lift and lower your shoulders toward and away from your ears several times with your breath to awaken your trapezius and serratus anterior muscles. If this proves to be challenging it could be due to weakness in these muscles or tightness in the opposing muscles.  You could do some down dogs, or do the classic swimmers warm-up of windmilling one arm and then the other, backstroke is my preference. Also, check out the Handstand Training video for strength and mobility exercises for the shoulders.  

3. Dolphin

Take the next step by getting down into dolphin pose and working on elevating your scapula and depressing them a few times. It’s helpful to record yourself to see if you are accurately performing the action. This posture is great to work on tricep engagement. Press the outer wrists down into the ground until your feel the back of your arms tone up.

2. Elbow Extension

Extension of the elbow is seemingly easy when you look at it, and even when you do it without weight-bearing. However it’s not strength that usually stands in the way, but rather the ability to use the muscles for balance. This requires rapid reactivity, and the ability to feel when the body has fallen backward. The triceps in this type of headstand (less weight bearing on the neck) and forearm stand are equivalent to the fingers in a handstand, they are “the breaks” that stop you from falling. Try putting your forearm on a wall like a forearm plank, then push into the wall with the outer edge of your hand and wrist to activate the triceps. Increase the weight by walking your feet back and leaning your body more toward the wall.

4. Tuck Headstand or Prep

If you are confident in balancing a headstand you could then try these actions in a tuck headstand which keeps your center of gravity lower making it easier to maintain balance as you explore new techniques. Please use a wall or teacher for safety – elevating the scapula typically sends people overboard. If you aren’t yet balancing headstand, try the prep with feet on the ground shown above.

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Neck Relief.

There are two main reasons why elevating the scapula can help relieve the neck in a headstand. It can provide less compression on the cervical (neck) vertebrae, and it can allow for some of the stabilizer neck muscles to relax. That being said there can be benefits to strengthening the stabilizers of the neck, so doing a headstand with less elevation of the scapula isn’t inherently wrong or bad unless you are experience pain or discomfort when doing so.

The approach to headstand relies heavily on the strength of the upper fibers of your trapezius muscles which tend to be tense but also weak in many people. The common question that arises is, “my shoulders are always up by my ears, shouldn’t I relax them?” Of course the answer is yes but there is a time and place for everything. Spend the majority of your day learning to let go of unconscious tension, and a small amount of time you spend in headstand, handstand, or forearm stand focusing on the intentional engagement of these muscles. A healthy trapezius is actually less likely to hold tension. More often than not we hold tension in muscles that we don’t have much awareness of. Tension in the way I am using the word right now is more likely the result of emotional stress than it is of too much strength or activity.

Thank you for stopping by, I hope these tips help. If you have questions, requests, or something you would like to share about your headstand journey please submit a comment.

-Matt

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read more
What Are The Tilts Of The Scapula?

What Are The Tilts Of The Scapula?

What Are the Tilts of the Scapulae? 4 Postures to Help You Lock Into These Shoulder ActionsSHOULDER ROTATIONWHAT ARE THE TILTS OF THE SCAPULAE? When we first dive into studying anatomy, it’s all about the basics. Once the foundation is laid, it becomes easier to...

read more

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Headstand: 3 Ways In

Three Ways In

Headstand is a powerful pose, typically referred to as the King of the Yoga Asanas (poses). While the gurus and masters have long been preaching the importance of headstand, modern-day anatomists often caution against it. Physically speaking my personal relationship with headstand has been mostly positive, while emotionally there were a couple of years of fear around the potential risks. The warnings of many of my teachers, in addition to neck and shoulder pain eventually turned me away from practicing the pose. In recent years I finally discovered the root cause of my neck pain had very little to do with my neck itself and everything to do with an imbalance in one of my rotator cuff muscles causing referral pain. The reason I feel this is important to mention is that when we are in pain we can be so quick to blame that we might miss what is really going on. We see it all the time in modern medicine. Instead of searching for the root cause of our problem, we focus on the symptom. Let me be clear here, I am not saying if you have neck pain you should do Headstand, I am simply stressing the importance of searching for the root of the pain. Dig deep, keep an open mind, and explore.

So when is it appropriate to do headstand? This question is not easily answered as it depends on many factors but here are some basic guidelines to consider.
1. The state of health in your body: Headstand is most appropriate for Yogis with a healthy spine and disks, consult a chiropractor (preferably one that practices yoga) to see if it’s right for you. Same goes for blood pressure irregularities, and of course pregnancy – check with a doctor. If you have other concerns seek professional guidance. If you feel good and know you are in good health, this pose might be your next best friend.
2. Your Level of Practice, strength, and body awareness: In the video, I mention that there are three levels of entering into headstand; beginner-advanced. Personally, as a teacher I feel headstand is for the intermediate level student, so while I talk about the three levels consider that these are meant for the intermediate student. For the advanced Yoga Asana practitioner, there are multiple ways in and out of headstand, and for the beginner I feel it is most important to build the following prior to attempting the pose:

Beginners: Preparatory Strength and Technique

  1. Shoulder Strength: From the moment you begin your yoga practice you are likely building shoulder strength. If your desire is to move toward headstand, I suggest building strength specific to having your arms overhead and in front of you. Downward Dog, Arm Balances, Handstand preparations, Dolphin Pose are all great poses to start off with.
  2. Back Body, Spine Strength: Developing the muscles along the back body and spine will help to stabilize your head, torso, and legs when you are ready to work toward headstand.
  3. Neck Strength: Neck strength can be built in preparation. I recommend doing standing yoga postures with hands behind the head and pressing the head back into the hands. This will also help set the head back which can lead to a more optimal alignment of the spine when in headstand, as well as in daily life.

For my top inversion strength training exercises, check out my Handstand Video at www.TheYogiMatt.com/Handstand

Benefits of The 3 Approaches

While scrolling through Instagram and Facebook over the past year or so there is obviously a strong desire to invert amongst yogis. It is beautiful to see the determination amongst practitioners to conquer their fears and prove to themselves that they can do more than they ever could imagine. That dedication toward results typically comes with hazardous experimentation, and maybe a little bit of (dare I say) impatience? I am not innocent when it comes to this topic, which is why I wanted to offer what I have learned along the way to help speed up your overall journey, and potentially save you from some of what I have gone through. I know everyone has to go through their own journey, and I know some of you out there are indeed looking for guidance, and are excited to learn. So if you are interested in the techniques and tools that will develop and empower your practice, I have created a video highlighting three challenging yet highly effective approaches toward headstand. Each one builds strength for the next, so my suggestion is beginners really master the first one without lifting the feet off the ground, and advanced practitioners use all three as drills to build body awareness and strength.

The 3 Approaches

 

  1. Half Tuck: The Half tuck teaches the shifting of weight from the feet to the head and arms while not demanding as much body awareness and hamstring flexibility. The first step is simply learning how to point the foot that is on the ground in order to shift your weight. In the video I use a block as a method to get around tight hamstrings. You may stack more than one block so long as you feel stable. The second part of this is to tuck your second leg into your body and balance in a “tuck” position. This may be highly challenging, but keeping your legs in a tuck has the benefit of being low to the ground. Lower center of gravity is easier to balance and therefore can be a safer place to learn balance. I would say that while there is always a risk when balancing upside down, the risk is less than in a full headstand.
  2. Full Tuck: Once you find repeated success with the tuck position and feel comfortable holding it for more than a minute you might try coming straight into a tuck position rather than one leg at a time. This is more challenging on many levels but mostly it requires greater flexibility in the hamstrings, and a stronger sense of proprioception (knowing where your body is in space). If this entrance is feeling great, the second aspect of it is to start extending at the hip joint, bringing your knees upward. How high up to bring the knees will depend on your level of comfort and balance.
  3. Straight Leg Press: Going Straight into a headstand through what is called a pike position in gymnastic and acrobatic language, is definitely the most challenging. It requires tremendous body awareness, low back, and buttock strength. It requires that the hamstrings are both flexible and strong. I highly recommend getting comfortable tucking all the way up and being able to hold a straight headstand for over a minute prior to attempting this.

Note: For all three approaches be sure to have a teacher around to support you and be your eyes for what you cannot see.

Beyond the Entry

Getting into headstand is just the start of the journey. Holding the balance while breathing steady and keeping your mind focused is the real exciting and beneficial part. I love to focus on my spinal curves while upside down, finding the most enjoyable balance. I also love to play with taking pressure off my neck which I will go over in my next blog and video!

To get started with your strength training and development of body awareness visit TheYogiMatt.com/Handstand. If you know someone that would benefit from this information please share the blog on social media or email. For questions please feel free to reach out to me directly: Matt@TheYogiMatt.com

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