“Who am I?” is a fundamental question of yoga. When you attempt to answer it, you may discover yourself identifying with your job, your sensations, your mind and your body, your attractions and aversions, your hopes and dreams. But these things are just aspects of your personality, or temporary identities. If everything is constantly changing, including your physical being, then you can’t actually “be” these things. It’s easy to tick them off a list, but doing so can blur the more subtle and indescribable attributes that make up who you truly are.
One method for answering this question is to ask, “What or who am I not?” When you’re able to discard all of your impermanent attributes, you will come to your immutable essence. This essence is often defined in yoga as your “true Self”, which can also be described as your soul, the part of you that does not change.
To get a glimpse of your essence, you can practise asanas that peel away the characteristics that you usually identify yourself with. Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana (Revolved Split-Legged Headstand) is a pose that may help you find the core of your being. By going upside down, separating your legs as far from centre as possible and twisting the torso all at the same time, you will be forced to let go of your “normal” orientation. In a pose such as this, you will need to reach deep inside yourself and down into the earth for a compass in order to keep from toppling over. As you reach inward, you will feel yourself getting closer and closer to an elusive centre. This energetic centre in yoga is called the sushumna nadi, or central channel of prana (life force).
It is thought that, with years of practice, drawing your mental and physical energy toward the central channel will bring you into balance and free you from your habitual patterns and perceptions. When this happens, you see reality as it is, unaffected by your personal multicoloured lens. This momentary awakening can be a window into another world filled with infinite possibilities. You may also feel fully alive in the present moment and filled with wonder, awe and joy. Even if you get only a glimpse of this state, you’ll begin to understand how you are more than just your job or your emotions or your desires—you’re an intangible yet divine essence. As you practise this challenging variation of Headstand, we encourage you to be brave enough to demolish your old perspective of “who you are” and ride on the wave of not knowing.
At the same time, when you go into the unknown, it is useful to have a way to get back to your “normal” perceptions. So, when you do this pose, you will need to lay down breadcrumbs, so to speak, to comfort your nervous system and keep it from overreacting or even going into fight-or-flight mode. One of your tethers in Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana is your connection to the earth. You develop this by bringing your attention to the point of contact between the crown of your head and the ground. Your second tether is the back leg. Even when you are upside down, much of your orientation comes from knowing where your feet and legs are in space. In this Headstand variation, feeling and knowing where the back leg is positioned is crucial to balancing and centring. It will act as your rooting reference, just as it does in all standing poses. Step by step, you will root into the earth as you spiral upward into the sky.
The sequence here illuminates the positions, actions and patterns that compose the rhythm and coordination of Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana. Digest each of these poses and its effect on your body. While in each posture, direct the effort of your arms, legs and head into the central energetic channel, which is approximately located in front of your tailbone, up through the front of your spine and to the crown of your head. As you focus, continuously find a rooting into the earth.
Before You Begin
This sequence is recommended only if you already have a regular practice of Headstand and you can easily balance without the aid of a wall.
To prepare for this sequence, do a series of standing poses. As you do them, orient yourself by feeling your legs connect to the earth. Begin with Tadasana (Mountain Pose), followed by Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) and Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). These four standing poses will wake up your body and will extend and mildly twist your spine. From there, you can move into Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch) and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) to open up the hamstrings and continue to lay the foundation for twisting.
1 Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), variation
In Supta Padangusthasana, you use the ground to orient your body as you develop some of the essential actions for Headstand. Lie on your back and, if your hamstrings are tight, have a strap nearby. As you take your right leg up into the air, extend the left leg strongly all the way through the inner left heel—the extension of the bottom leg acts as a foundation for the twist. Drive your tailbone and your pubis toward the inner left heel as well. Hold on to your right big toe with your left hand (or hold both ends of the strap in your left hand), and cross your right leg over toward the left. As your right foot comes to the floor, your right shoulder may pop up off the ground. That is OK, as long as you broaden your chest by firming both shoulder blades into your rib cage, and then opening and floating your collarbones. Extend your arms to help support your expansive, fluid rib cage.
Deepen your spine into your torso as your back muscles spread away from your spine. Move your inhalation toward your inner left heel and your exhalation out the crown of your head. Draw your arms and legs into your core as you twist from the rooting of your left leg. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths. Inhale into the right side of your torso and down through your tailbone to come back to centre. Change sides.
2 Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
In Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana, you want the back leg to drop as far back as the front leg drops forward. Anatomically, this is challenging. In Anjaneyasana you address this challenge by opening the psoas and the hip flexors of the back leg.
Place your right foot forward and your left leg back, with your left knee on the ground. With your fingertips touching the ground, drop your tailbone toward the centre of the earth as you bend your front leg deeper. Keep your hips square toward your front knee. As your tailbone becomes heavy and moves downward, raise your arms overhead. Widen your lowest back ribs, and imagine that your arms spiral up from that point. Next, interlace your fingers and cup your hands on the back of your head, in a Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand) position. Place your elbows shoulder-width apart. Gazing down over your nose, lift your entire spine up and over your back leg into a backbend. Press your left toenails into the ground as you contract your left hamstrings toward the left sitting bone.
Take your lunge deeper as your tailbone drops straight down. Deepen your sacrum and your spine forward into your body as your back muscles broaden. Feel as though your back leg is like the powerful tail of a kangaroo, and as though your chest is lifted and open like the soft chest of a bird. Your whole spine is supple and evenly contributing to the arc. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths. Move into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) for a couple of cycles of breath to find symmetry, and then switch sides.
3 Straight-Leg Warrior I with a Twist
This pose is the standing version of Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana. It creates the same deep twisting relationship of the legs to the torso. By grounding the back leg and extending up through the torso, you will create a kinesthetic memory that will be invaluable to you as you invert for your final pose.
Place the right side of your body against a wall and take a wide stride with your right foot forward. Set up your feet as you would for Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I). Let your back heel come off the ground so your hip can turn more easily. Even though your back heel is off the floor, anchor your back leg by reaching through your back heel and fully extending your back-leg knee. Press your left thighbone into the hamstring muscles.
From that anchor, turn your chest toward the wall and press your fingertips into it at shoulder height. As you inhale, keep pulling your tailbone, pubis and sitting bones down as you broaden your back body. On your exhalations, lengthen the sides of your torso and twist. Keep adjusting the four corners of your front foot evenly on the ground by slightly shifting the placement of your pelvis. Imagine you are upside down, with the top of your head aligned right under your pelvic floor.
Once again, let your extremities gather their force into your central axis. Let the power of your arms and legs support the extension of the spine. Energetically, your limbs are like tributaries feeding into a main river. Relax your neck. Finding the power of your twist, radiate energy from your legs and your pelvis. Let the ebb and flow of your breath ease you in and out of the twist. Keep your eyes receptive, gazing inward. Play inside the pose for 5 to 10 cycles of breath, inhaling down through the reach of your tailbone and into the spreading muscles of your back. Return to centre, and then change sides.
4 Parsva Sirsasana (Revolved Headstand)
In this pose you will draw your legs together to help you identify and feel the midline of your body. It is paramount to establish this action before you twist. Come into Headstand and spread your legs so that your feet are about a foot apart. Create length from your groin all the way through your inner legs to the reach of your inner heels, and then slowly draw your legs back together, not losing any of the length that you have created. Without holding your breath or tightening your neck muscles, balance this central line between your legs, right over the crown of your head. Press your wrists into the ground as you firm your shoulder blades into your rib cage and slide them up toward your pelvis.
As you balance and elongate from your crown to your tailbone to your inner heels, twist your legs so that your frontal hip bones and your toes turn toward the left. Keep your foundation on the earth firm, and turn around the midline of your body like ribbons wrapping around a pole. Initially, this might be disorienting and fear-producing. Stay focused on your contact with the ground and the firm reach of your legs. Lengthen out of your lower back to turn more. Spread your back muscles away from your spine while keeping your lower ribs centred. As your head, forearms and hands stay steady and rooted, the rest of your body lengthens and spirals vigorously.
After a few breaths, come back to centre. Stay in Headstand for a couple of cycles of breath, and then change sides. If this is too extreme all at once, practise the pose in the corner of a room, with your outer hands touching the two walls. Use the walls to guide your twist, providing support and orientation.
When you begin practising this pose, hold for only 5 to 10 seconds. Then, as your confidence, technique and strength build, extend your hold to about a minute on each side.
5 Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana (Revolved Split-Legged Headstand)
OK, off with the training wheels. It’s time to fly! After a 30-second Headstand and a brief visit to Parsva Sirsasana, split your legs, right leg forward and left leg back. There is a tendency to drop the front leg much lower, so focus on the opening of your back leg. Twist so that your front leg crosses your midline. Keep your eyes soft but focused, your arms strong and your neck elongated and easy. Strongly extend your legs as your feet remain alert and spread. Orient your pose from your point of contact with the ground and your back leg. Feel the even arc of your body between the point of contact with the ground and your back leg.
To remove pressure from your lower back, press your tailbone against the movement of your back leg. Contract the hamstring of your back leg toward its own sitting bone. Then engage the quadriceps more in your front leg as it lowers closer to the ground. Even though your legs split and reach, you also isometrically draw them back into your pelvis. Throughout this pose, broaden the muscles of the back from the spine as the spine and the sacrum deepen into the body.
As you begin to master this asana, bend your back leg when you are fully twisted; then, as you straighten your back leg again, twist further.
When you are twisting to your maximum, there will be a strong tendency to hold your breath. Instead, monitor your breath, and turn with your exhalations. Be willing to let go of your determination and back up from your maximum position in order to ride the ebb and flow of your breath. The breath may be more rapid or shallow than it usually is, but try to find a place where the breath has the quality of being absorbed into the lungs to help you release any strain.
Initially practise this pose for 5 to 10 seconds on each side, moving over time to 30 seconds on each side. Between sides, come back to Sirsasana for 5 to 10 seconds to regain your centre.
Have fun and play in the mystery of the unknown and unfamiliar. Venture out with your feet awake and your eyes receptive. Settle in the lap of Mother Earth and spiral up into the wild blue yonder.
Colleen Saidman is the director of Yoga Shanti in New York (www.yogashanti.com). Together with Rodney Yee (www.yeeyoga.com) they teach yoga around the world.
Benefits: Mobilises the spine; Massages the vital organs; Strengthens the neck, arms and back. Improves balance. Contraindications: Inexperience maintaining Headstand in the middle of a room; Pregnancy; Glaucoma; High blood pressure; Nausea