THE HEAD STAND. SHIRSASANA.
Shirsasana, the head stand, is beyond doubt the best-known of all yogic postures. so much so that the public tend to speak of yoga and of standing on one's head in the same breath. Does it owe its fame to its very oddness, or is it because yogis think of it as the queen of poses. No matter.
To those who are not adepts, it seems madness to perform headstands; ‘What on earth for, I might break my neck! Besides it's very bad to allow the blood to run to the head.’ Beginners in the West, especially the younger ones. are attracted by the spectacular character and beneficial effects of Shirsasana, while apprehensive of its acrobatic side, which they feel, has its dangers. We consider that if only one asana could be practised it would have to be Shirsasana. Why stand on the head when we have so much trouble in learning to balance on our feet, so that our first steps marked one of the greatest days in our lives. Man is the only being to hold himself upright an attribute unique to him because man became a human being when he acquired it. We rose up from the earth and our forelegs turned into hands, which are really extensions of the brain. Set free and able to grasp objects, the hand of man has become a creative tool, the only one by which he may crystallize his thoughts. This creative activity in its turn has forced man to use his brain in resolving his problems-and so it was that, gradually evolving, both hand and brain developed together in mutual sympathy. When we look at evolution in perspective, the upright position is seen as a relatively recent achievement an adaptation still imperfect, above all as it affects the spinal column and the circulation of the blood.
In the quadruped (the horse or dog for example), the bulk of the body remains parallel to the ground, and gravity acts evenly on it, so that the circulation, working, horizontally, is not much influenced by it. In man on the other hand, the circulation operates in the vertical plane, and gravity exerts an overwhelming influence upon it.
Below the heart, it is the venous circulation which is mainly affected. To reach the heart and lungs, the venous blood must overcome the force of gravity, relying on muscular contractions which compress the veins and force the blood up, the valves preventing any backward flow. This solution was satisfactory in natural man, who was forced to expend muscular energy in order to survive, but the muscular contractions in sedentary civilized man are insufficient to ensure the normal rate of venous circulation. As a result, the venous blood accumulates in the legs and still more in the stomach; it stagnates in the viscera, and impairs their proper function. Man in his natural state breathes deeply and fully, thanks to the piston-like movements of the diaphragm. The blood is stirred up and there is a powerful intake of venous blood into the lungs which (like sponges), soak it up as well as air with every inspiration. The deeper the inspiration, the greater the quantity of blood to enter the lungs. Breathing and circulation therefore work directly together. This part played by the lungs as a suction pump for venous blood, is quite insufficient in sedentary man, whose breathing is superficial. In those parts of the body which lie above the heart, the return of venous blood is helped by the force of gravity; but, on the other hand, the arterial circulation is slowed down, above all in the neighborhood of the brain: and this is even more disastrous to the civilized being, who is almost entirely a cerebral creature, and whose brain, greedily consuming oxygen, is bound to require an extra allowance of blood.
It is not only the circulation which suffers from the erect position. -In animals, the abdominal organs remain in place and do not prolapse. In man the vertical position is responsible for floating kidney, prolapses of the stomach, dropped intestines, and so on: All are sources of grave functional disorders.
This is the logical reason why yogis recommend the head-stand, to eliminate, instantly and infallibly, the disadvantages which stem from standing upright.
EFFECTS OF THE HEAD-STAND
So numerous and varied are the effects of the queen of asanas, that we cannot describe them all. Let us look at the main ones, without getting lost in a maze of detail, for the essential thing is to know where and how the results are procured.
EFFECTS ON THE SKELETON.
We shall first look at its effect on the carriage of the spinal column. In countries where women carry water in heavy pitchers on their heads, it is noticeable that the vertebral column is perfect. the bearing, graceful and supple. The ability to carry a load balanced on the head indicates that the skull and the neck are held in a position which must affect the whole spinal column.
In training to be models, girls acquire a graceful carriage by, carrying first one book on their heads, and then increasing the number gradually. Shirsasana produces these results automatically, and in accentuated form, because in this exercise the whole weight of the body rests on the skull.
The action extends also into the base of the spine, particularly into the articulation of the fifth lumbar vertebra and the sacrum, which supports the whole weight of the human body, except for the legs. The disc is especially liable to damage, because it is subjected to the maximum amount of' pressure. Just think what strain it is forced at times to stand when riding a horse for example. In quadrupeds the sacrum is scarcely more than the junction between the pelvis and the spinal column, it has no weight to carry.
In Shirsasana the lumbar vertebrae have to support only the weight of . the legs and pelvic girdle. When a perfectly balanced head-stand is achieved, the lumbar vertebrae are automatically placed in their normal and, incidentally, their most favorable, position. This is why Shirsasana banishes, in a matter of seconds. that 'backache' which is caused by prolonged hours of standing.
It is true that the cervical region receives the whole weight of the body, but this does not endanger the nape of the neck in any way, providing it is normal; more especially, because the nape has been settled into a defensive position, that is to say it has subsided onto the shoulders. A child at play will sometimes, grasp the nape of your neck from behind, whereupon the head is instinctively placed in a position to render it least vulnerable.
EFFECTS ON THE CIRCULATION
But it is the circulation which derives the greatest benefit from the head-stand. We know that standing upright increases stasis in the veins which lie below the level of the heart, owing to the gravitational pull, while above the heart it is the arterial blood supply which is retarded.
Shirsasana reverses the situation; the venous blood, now helped by gravity, is at once evacuated from the legs, while blood stases are eliminated from the abdominal organs. The massed venous blood in the legs is re-circulated and its return to the heart is speeded up. The volume of arterial blood in circulation, then, depends on that of the venous blood, because the heart is a force-pump nourished with the blood which has been purified and oxygenated by the lungs since the return of venous blood is stepped up, the lungs receive an extra supply to be purged of toxins. The head-stand, therefore, when combined with deep breathing, cleanses the organism without tiring the heart, which beats purposefully and calmly.
The arterial blood pours in quantity, and under gentle pressure, into the brain, whereas if the subject is standing upright it is forced to fight against gravity to get there.
The veins of the legs are more rested than they can be in the recumbent position. prevents varicose veins and hemorrhoids, if you are predisposed to them, this posture will help to prevent them becoming more acute, and will gradually rid you of them altogether.In this case it is a good idea to complement the action by spraying the affected parts with cold water, in addition to any treatment which mav have been recommended by your doctor.
EFFECTS ON THE ABDOMINAL REGION.
The stomach is the factory, the workshop. of the body, and the region between the diaphragm and pelvic girdle is of vital importance.
Apart from reactivating the circulation of stagnating blood in the abdomen, Shirs5sana also decongests the viscera in the lower stomach region where a condition of more or less permanent congestion is created by prolonged sitting'
In passing-, we should note that the prostate troubles which beset so many men after the age of fifty ,are aggravated if not caused by this congestion. In the head-stand the prostate gland is cleared, and an immediate improvement is felt.
The genital organs are likewise freed of congestion. And prolapsed organs (the kidneys, stomach, or intestines) resume their normal place and shape with progressive and systematic practice, which will enable you to hold the position long, enough to achieve curative results (some three to five minutes, say an average total of a quarter of an hour daily).
One of the principle organs to feel the benefit of Shirsasana is the digestive tract and its accessory glands, notably the liver, which in so many people who lead a sedentary life may suffer from congestion. If we remember that all the venous blood in the digestive system passes through the liver, we can at once understand the importance of avoiding any hepatic congestion. Here too, the venous circulation conditions the arterial circulation and not the reverse. The venous blood is drained from the digestive system, an influx of arterial blood will enter, and with it, an improvement in digestive function.
During the head-stand the liver enjoys a useful degree of massage. It is an organ which is very easily compressed, and will flatten against the diaphragm, that semi-cartilaginous, semi muscular wall. which separates the abdominal organs and the lungs within the thoracic cage. In Shirsasana, the subject is breathing deeply, the up and down movement of the diaphragm massages the liver together with the whole weight of the viscera resting on it. The spleen, which is often congested, benefits as well from this massage, although to a lesser extent than the liver.
The head-stand produces a fundamental difference in the method of breathing. Whether we are sitting or standing. the lungs are sited at a higher level, which, when the position is reversed, becomes the lower.
We have just made it clear that the abdominal organs exert pressure on the diaphragm when we hold the breath, the air in the lungs will be under slight pressure and this will cause the pulmonary alveoli to unfold harmoniously, favoring the passage of oxygen through the pulmonary membrane, without hindering to any degree the evacuation of carbon dioxide which, thanks to its physical properties. can very easily escape.
Shirsasana is particularly effective during exhalation, the fundamental stage in breathing. Incomplete exhalation implies the permanent stagnation of the vitiated and toxic residual air in the lungs, and this reduces the quantity of air breathed in, since no receptacle can take in more than has been emptied from it!
Shirsasana facilitates deep exhalation through the pressure of the organs on the diaphragm. That is why yogis affirm that this posture leads automatically to pranayama. providing you breath through the nose.
A final point which is basic for our health; in this posture the apex of the lungs is well aerated, and this prevents tuberculosis, for Koch's bacillus, the recognized cause of this disease, dies when brought into contact with the oxygen in air. If everyone breathed deeply, sanatoria would be wiped out, or turned into Yoga centers!
EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN
Before we speak of the effects of Shirsasana on the brain, we shall look at some figures. The brain, that gigantic ant-heap where billions of nerve cells live and work is the most highly vascularized organ in the whole body, because the amount of blood it requires in comparison with the needs of other organs and tissues is enormous. The brain is daily irrigated by an average 2,000 liters of blood: I repeat two thousand. As you know, the capillaries are minute blood vessels through which the red corpuscles circulate. But did you know that their total length adds up to 100,000 kilometers? Did you know, too, that one gram of muscular tissue contains about eight meters of capillaries; one gram of cerebral white matter, three hundred meters, the cerebral cortex, the well-known 'grey matter', one thousand meters! Just think: a kilometer of living blood-vessels to each gram. These capillaries are elastic, and very sensitive to variations in pressure. Distended and slack they allow the corpuscles to pass too easily. Clenched and in spasm they become obstructed. During Shirsasana, the blood, assisted by the force of gravity, increases in quantity, and under light pressure (harmless except in cases where the foregoing contra-indications exist) rinses the network of blood vessels in the brain.
Shirsasana conserves or restores the elasticity of the capillaries. The plentiful rinsing and opening up of the cerebral capillaries in their state of spasm, does away with most forms of headache and migraine often as though by magic, without recourse to drugs.
Shirsasana promotes and stimulates the intellectual functions. It improves both memory and concentration, and increases resistance to nervous fatigue. Many states of anxiety and neurosis disappear when the exercise is practiced daily. The improvement in the function of cerebral physiology gives everyone the chance to develop his intellectual resources to the full.
The skull also shelters the tiny hypophysis, or pituitary gland, measuring no more than a centimeter, weighing six grams, and buried in the warm depths of the head. There also lies the hypothalamus, which orchestrates the action of all the other endocrine glands, affecting the entire organism. Shirsasana regularizes their function, together with that of the thyroid, which above all controls the metabolism, and contributes greatly to keeping the organism young. Removing the thyroid from an animal leads to rapid ageing and premature death, while pathological changes in that organ cause cretinism.
Shirsasana also helps us to preserve or restore our normal weight. It will assist those who should reduce to lose weight, while those who are underweight will find themselves gaining.
TIIE SENSORY ORGANS
Shirsasana has surprising effects on the sensory organs. The eyesight can be seen to improve. The analogy is apt because the ocular system in general (including the cerebral centers of vision), and the retina in particular, great consumers of oxygen, benefit greatly from the strong, supplementary flow of arterial blood. To convince yourself of all this, before you start the exercise place one of those reading cards used by opticians, or a newspaper at a distance of six feet and then quietly look at its whole surface without straining your eyes. Now stand on your head, shut your eyes for a minute, and look again. You will find that you are already see it more distinctly.
Those who are threatened with detachment of the retina should not do this asana. The same applies to any eye defects which are really diseases, such as conjunctivitis, glaucoma, etc. On the other hand myopia, presbyopia, and astigmatism, which are all connected with slight deformation of the eyes, whether temporary or not, escape this proviso. What is more, Shirsasana can do them nothing but good.
The hearing can also be improved by the practice of Shirsasana.
Those suffering from otitis and other inflammatory infections of the ear should not do the head-stand until some time after they have been cured.
The cerebellum is an organ the size of a small tangerine, situated at the base of the brain. Linked with all the voluntary motor centers it is concerned with coordinating the body's movements. If an animal is deprived of its cerebellum it remains alive and conscious, but becomes awkward, its movements clumsy and ill coordinated: it can scarcely keep its balance. The cerebellum plays a special part in carrying out balanced movements of which Shirsasana is one.
In improving the deportment of the vertebral column, Shirsasana rewards us with a straight, natural posture, and a graceful. supple carriage. The skin of the face receives such a plentiful supply of arterial blood. that it is better nourished than by any anti-wrinkle creams. Lines show first on the forehead, and at the corners of the eyes near the temple (crows' feet), because these are the least well irrigated areas. But with the practice of Shirsasana the skin grows younger and is regenerated, incipient wrinkles are ironed out (except for the deep furrows which are engraved on the brow), the complexion freshens, and the whole face reflects well being. Yoga tradition has it that the hair will grow again if the scalp is well supplied with blood, so essential if baldness is to be treated. Graying hair will begin to regain its color after a year of this exercise. However if you are to achieve this regeneration you will have to practice Shirsasana daily for at least half an hour, which. if necessary may be divided into several sessions.
Shirsasana assists in overcoming insomnia and improves the circulation of blood to the feet. Indeed after you have held the posture for a few minutes, and then returned to your normal position, you will see how pink and warm your feet have become.
The contra indications to the headstand are less severe and numerous than might be feared, while experience has proved that cases to whom it must be strictly forbidden are rare. It can be mastered by ninety per cent of those that practice it progressively.
Although we ourselves have taught hundreds of people, some of them over sixty years of age we have not recorded a single instance of unfortunate consequences front this arsana. It is all a question of proportion and common sense.
Obviously if there is sclerosis of the arteries and arterioles of the brain, then it should not be undertaken. The same is true in cases of marked hypertension and aneurysm. Although even here the danger is minimal, since sufficiently clear warning signs are soon apparent.
Should the head-stand immediately bring on a violent attack of migraine which becomes more acute at each fresh attempt, then you should give it up, at least for the time being.
If there is buzzing in the ears, increasing with every practice, care must be exercised. To start with. there may well be singing or humming in the ears, but this will gradually decrease, is normal and should give no cause for anxiety. High blood pressure becomes a contra-indicator if the arterial tension falls below 9. Slight giddiness may sometimes be felt, but this is harmless, and often due to the sudden return to an upright position after the practice.
In every case you must lie on the ground after the posture, so that the circulation can revert to normal.
THE SHOULDER STAND. SARVANGASANA.
Sarva in Sanskrit means 'all'. and 'anga' means members or parts; the word therefore. is not difficult to translate. And yet some authors interpret it as ‘a posture for every, part of the body’. This seems reasonable since it is a posture which acts upon the whole body by stimulating the thyroid gland: but many other asanas, especially the headstand. have a similar action. Why did the yogis choose Sarvanagsana? Sarvangasana is the ellipse of 'sarva-anga ultana-asana' (which means literally, ‘the posture of all the raised members’, which differentiates it from all the others.
The essential part of this asana lies in the inverted body position and the stretching of the nape of the neck, with stimulus to the thyroid gland achieved through the pressure of the chin against the sternum. But it is worth calling brief attention to its esoteric aspect. Orientals, (yogis included) acknowledge the existence of positive and negative currents (the Yin and Yang of the Chinese) and state that a flow of cosmic energy descends from the sky to the earth which is why, when man is in the upright position, these currents run over him from top to toe. In inverted positions this current acts in the opposite way, and this tends to have a stabilizing effect on a human being, the only member of all creation to hold himself vertically, and the only one throughout whose body length these cosmic radiations pass in this way. This also explains the importance which yogis-ascribe to purposely maintaining the spinal column in a straight line and vertical during the pranayama and meditation.
There are few contra-indications in this asana, apart from severe ailments of the head and neck, otitis, dental abscess, angina, thyroid defects, sinusitis, sclerosis of the blood vessels of the brain. etc,
BENEFICIAL EFFECTSGenerally speaking, many of the benefits of Sarvangasana are similar to those of Shirsasana. For instance:
Improved circulation of the blood in the legs and stomach.
Decongestion of the organs in the lower part of the stomach with relief of hemorrhoids.
Relief in prolapse of' kidneys, stomach, intestines, uterus.
Improvement in the flow of blood to the bronchii.
These particular effects derive from its pronounced action on the thyroid gland, the thymus and breathing.
Sarvangasana is entirely different from Shirsasana in its effects upon the spinal column. While the posture is being practiced it rids the spinal column of the curvatures normally present, which cause it to resemble a very elongated S, while the cervical section of the column is stretched and flattened against the ground serving to correct faults in the general deportment of the spine.
Muscles.Sarvangasana strengthens the muscles of' the abdomen, especially when it is practiced with intermediary pauses when the legs are at 30 degrees and 60 degrees.
The Brain and Nervous System.Sarvangasana acts upon the cervical section of the spinal column where the network of nerves, especially prolific in this region, is freed, toned up and generally revived. The substantial increase in the supply of blood to the brain under gentle pressure irrigates it. ridding it of the vascular spasms so often responsible for headache.
The Endocrine Glands.
The inverted posture and special position of the neck which accentuates the bend in the carotid artery, acts together with the compression induced in the region of the thyroid gland to produce substantial irritation. By this means Sarvangasana balances the slight functional changes in the thyroid which are present in almost everyone. This slight hyper- or hypo- function, although not pathological, always has a definite effect on the metabolism. Since it acts upon the thyroid gland, Sarvangasana influences our behaviour as well as all the functions or the body: hypo-thyroid subjects tend to be slow, heavy and indolent hyper-thyroids, on the other hand breathe too rapidly and superficially, are subject to tachycardia and intestinal spasm and ‘their manner of speaking is often an incomprehensible chatter’. Normalization of the thyroid induces calm, self-assurance. and as long as you do not overeat eat. it stabilizes the weight. The hypophysis or pituitary body together with the hypothalamus are thought to govern the hormonal production of the other endocrine glands. and these are also stimulated, which completes the effects of this posture on the head. Sarvangasana likewise affects the thymus. on which the growth of the body depends, and whose psychical and physical importance is vital in the development of both children and adolescents.
The pressure of the sternum against the chin inhibits breathing from tire top of the lungs and limits thoracic movements, so that the breathing automatically becomes diaphragmatic. It is therefore not surprising, that Sarvangasana should produce beneficial effects in certain forms of asthma. and that the posture is taught to adolescents suffering from this defect in respiration The asthmatic breathes from the top of the lungs, raising his shoulders. In Sharvangasana this form of breathing is impossible and he is therefore automatically forced to breathe front the abdomen. Moreover the viscera press on the diaphragm and aiding expiration and restoring mobility to this organ. which, in the asthmatic, is immobilized.
The Abdominal Organs
Sarvangasana helps to remedy ptosis or prolapsus, and drains the abdomen, ridding it of blood stases in the viscera. and eliminating at least temporarily, congestion in the lower abdomen: it aids the Prostate gland as well.
Circulation of the Blood
The effects of Sarvangasana as a whole are similar to those of the head-stand. We should particularly notice the favorable reactions on the veins of the leg preventing varicose veins and piles. Those who suffer from these afflictions. should practice the posture several times a day, (perhaps twice or three times) even when fully dressed, in addition to the medical treatment they are receiving. Sarvangasana is specially recommended to those whose jobs require long hours of standing.
The posture brings a plentiful supply of blood to the face, especially to the forehead, where the skin at once becomes pink. It prevents, and even helps to dispel, wrinkles. Sarvangasana increases the blood supply to the scalp and nourishes the roots of the hair.