The roots of Ashtanga Yoga lie in the ancient Hindu texts, but it reached it present day fame under the wings of the well renowned master, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. The key features of Ashtanga include the flow between postures and the inversions practiced in a session that promotes blood circulation and sweating for purification purposes. The inverted poses or headstands are practiced based on the level of command the yogi possesses. There are seven headstands or Shirshasanas and are performed at the end of an Ashtanga session.
The Headstands are broken down into two sections, one with the hands bound and supporting the head, and the second with the hands free and not supporting the head. These headstands are most commonly done after the downward facing dog pose. The Salamba or Supported Shirshasanas include:
Baddha Hasta Shirshasana A: The words Baddha Hasta are literally translated into Bound Hands. In this headstand, the hands are clasped behind the head in order to create a hand base where the head can be supported.
Baddha Hasta Shirshasana B: This version has the yogi with the arms out front with both hands clasping the opposite elbow.
Baddha Hasta Shirshasana C: The posture is further altered to attain the pose that is very close to the Peacock pose. The difference between them is that the head remains on the floor instead of raising it above your shoulders as is done in the Peacock pose. The forearms are placed parallel to each other with the hands palms down flat on the floor.
Baddha Hasta Shirshasana D: This variation of the baddha hasta only has the head and elbows on the floor, whereas the hands are placed on the shoulders.
The supported headstands provide the yogi support to achieve balance while focusing the weight on the head. The Niralamba or Unsupported Shirshasanas are even more advanced than the Baddha Hasta Shirshasanas as they do not allow the hands to support the head at all. These headstands include:
Mukta Hasta Shirshasana A: This headstand is the most basic of the Mukta Hasta series and creates the image of a tripod, as the arms are stretched out straight at shoulder width with the palms facing up. Being a highly advanced pose, most yogis utilize props such as pillows under the head before they gain complete command over the posture.
Mukta Hasta Shirshasana B: More complex than Mukta hasta A, this variation resembles a forklift. The arms are held out straight with palms facing upwards. They are held apart from each other at about a 60 degree angle. This headstand requires a lot of practice as it is a hard to achieve posture.
Mukta Hasta Shirshasana C: This is the most challenging and hard to accomplish headstand and often requires years of practice before one can gain mastery over it. For this asana, the arms are held out straight at 180 degrees from each other and the palms are placed on the floor face down. The elbows have to remain straight as well and can prove to be quite an ordeal to accomplish.
Gaining mastery of these seven headstands is often considered to be a major landmark that differentiates beginner and intermediate yogis from the masters.