Turning the World Upside Down in Salamba Shirshasana
A tree grows in the earth and cannot move of its own volition from that place of origin. As human beings, we are born onto the Earth and also into a family. Everything that happens in the family—genetics, words spoken, actions taken—shapes our lives. This is the small view: born of the Earth, grow where we are.
What would happen if we could look at life from a different perspective?
The headstand can lead to a symbolic upheaval of perspective. Turning the world upside down can create a bigger vision. Instead of being rooted in the Earth, we can see ourselves as a mystical peepul tree, whose roots grow in Heaven. Rather than being attached to survival, status and concepts that have arisen through our family and conditioning, we can instead attach ourselves to the Divine and ask to be nourished by insights. Upside down, with our feet planted in the sky, we can let worries and attachments fall to the ground like emptying full pockets, and open ourselves to the big questions:
Why was I born?
What is my relationship to the Divine?
What is my spiritual heritage?
Being upside down is a radical movement against the flow of life. In this position we oppose the current, like salmon swimming upstream. We are born and we will die, but can we redirect the powerful forces of sex, birth and death toward a spiritual quest? Can we make a commitment to bring to life our ideals and potential?
I enter the headstand and reflect on the process of turning my life upside down. Being a swami in the West is not a normal position, but I grew up in an ordinary enough family. I was part of a living organism, learning through observing and listening. When I moved away from home, I did my first symbolic headstand by making my own decisions—dropping out of school and hitting the road. This phase was similar to how I learned to do the headstand—alone without instruction or support—falling and trying again until I eventually got it.
In retrospect, I see that the experimental times in my life were based on a longing for freedom. This underlying desire was like a call, and the response back eventually came through yoga, where I received instruction into thinking in depth through self-study and inquiry. Symbolically, I was challenged to uproot my own concepts by clarifying my words and thoughts and becoming my own worthy opponent. I had to break through pride and self-consciousness and be courageous enough to be different, to depend on the Divine to hold me up.
Practicing the headstand reminds me of my commitment to put the Divine first. Rooting my feet in heaven aligns me with my spiritual lineage, whose nourishment is available to me here and now. I place my head on the ground as a prostration in gratitude and with the intent to ground my thoughts in my own experience. Lifting up into the headstand, I am connected to the sky, to the light, to the invisible realm that is powerfully life-sustaining. In this position, supported by Heaven and Earth, I find balance. ॐ
If you are new to the headstand, I recommend learning the position from a teacher. Or, you can work with the preliminary steps until you feel confident and ready to try the full pose. This pose is not recommended if you have neck injuries, osteoporosis in the cervical vertebrae, or high blood pressure.
1. Before entering the headstand, warm up the neck with some movements up and down and side to side. Warm your spine with some cat stretches. Engage your arm strength with the Downward Dog.
2. Place your mat near a wall, with a folded blanket for your head and arms. Kneel and create a triangle with your forearms on the floor. Clasp your hands and tuck in one of the little fingers so your hands lie level on the ground. Place the top of your head on the blanket between your hands. Find the center of your head so the weight will be placed centrally.
3. Keeping your forearms and head on the ground, stretch into a variation of the Downward Dog, hips in the air. Observe the world upside down. This is a very good start. You can work with this position until you are ready for the next steps.
4. To continue, walk your feet toward your head until your legs naturally want to lift off. When you hold this position with the feet on the floor, you can reflect on the place before a transition.
5. If you are ready for the next step, push up with your feet until they lift off the ground. You can keep your knees curled in near your chest if you like, or bring both feet to rest on the wall behind you. Remember to work your forearms, upper arms and shoulders to take some of the weight off your head.
6. When you feel ready, lift first one, then eventually both legs to a vertical position, finding your balance.
7. To come down, bend the knees and curl down, or you can come down with both legs outstretched.
8. Relax in the Child’s Pose.
1. What is your view of family? Do the headstand or preparation for the headstand, exploring your reactions when you turn that idea upside down.
2 Define “freedom,” and do the headstand seeking freedom. How do you gain freedom by turning your usual views upside down?
3 Imagine a tree with its roots in Heaven. Go into the headstand with that image in mind, reflecting on what it would mean to be rooted in the Divine
Swami Lalitananda is a teacher and author of two books, including The Inner Life of Asanas. For five years, she was the Director of Radha Yoga & Eatery in Vancouver, a space that embraces art, culture, yoga and community. She lived and studied with Swami Radha for over 20 years. Swami Lalitananda took sanyas in 1996 and is dedicated to making yoga accessible and significant in everyday life.
Editor: Brianna Bemel