For centuries yogis have been turning the world upside down, using inversion postures to help alter their bodies and minds.
Inversion postures, in which the head rests below the heart, help blood flow freely to the brain. Such postures can improve health, reduce anxiety and stress, and bolster self-confidence. “Inversions are the heart of the yoga practice,” says Judith Lasater, president of the California Yoga Teachers Association and a yoga instructor for more than thirty years.
“Inversions clear the mind and bring spiritual awareness and awareness of the breath,” says Jason Nemer, founder of AcroYoga, a partner yoga center in San Francisco. During inversions, Nemer continues, “the mind becomes open, aware, and present. You can’t do your shopping list while doing a headstand.”
Postures run the gamut from a relatively simple, elevated-legs-up-the-wall pose (Viparita Karani) to an athletic handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana). Even in forward bends like downward dog there is some inversion, as the blood flows to the head, making it a good preparatory pose for full inversion poses.
As far as physical changes, there are four major systems in the body that inversions positively affect: cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine. Normally, the heart works against gravity while in a sitting or standing position, forcing the heart to work harder to pump sufficient blood to the upper parts of your body. Turning upside down decreases the strain on the heart, and allows a full supply of oxygen-rich blood to reach your head and brain. Specific benefits can include everything from helping memory by infusing the pineal gland with blood to decreasing blood pressure.
Inversions can also help open up the chakras in the body. According to Brad Lichtenstein, ND, a naturopath who also teaches yoga therapy, apana vayu, a descending energy form residing in the first and second chakras from the navel to the feet, is particularly stimulated during inversions. “If there are urinary disorders or ovarian problems, congestion in the bladder, kidneys, or a sluggish body, inversions help,” says Lichtenstein.
Though inversions are integral, positive forces in the asana series, yoga experts as well as the medical world warn against doing some inversions without proper teacher assistance. “Inversions are the most complicated poses [and]need the most precautions,” says Lasater.
In general, inversions should not be performed during menstruation, since that stops the menstrual flow and can possibly lead to complications like cysts and fibroids if practiced for long durations. Experts also caution those with neck or spine injuries.
“Take time [getting to]know your body and not just wanting to get to the next level,” says Maia James, a San Francisco-based chiropractor and massage therapist. “It’s important to listen to your body so if there is pain or discomfort or a previous [injury], even from twenty years ago, inversions can cause accelerated degeneration, so perhaps you are not a suitable candidate.”
Yoga practitioners as well as those in the medical field agree it is best for beginners to practice inversions with an instructor. David Coulter, author of Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners (Body and Breath, 2001), advises, “In order to appreciate the benefits of inversions, they must be part of a regular practice. If you’re doing them willy nilly you don’t learn [as]much about the benefits.”
1. Shoulderstand Sarvangasana
Posture: Sarvangasana is also known as the queen of postures, strengthening the whole body.
Description: Lie down on your back, bend your knees and swing your hips overhead, using your hands to lift your pelvis as it comes up. Balance on your upper back and shoulders, with your body at an angle. Start with your hands on your lower back. From here, you can begin to explore placing your hands higher up on your back, and slowly straightening your knees, hips, and spine. As you straighten, you have to be more careful, as more stress is placed on your cervical spine. The weight of your body should be on your shoulders and elbows. Advanced students can place their hands higher up on their backs and straighten their bodies. Come out of the posture slowly. First, drop your feet halfway to the floor behind your head and place your hands on the floor, then unroll your body one vertebra at a time.
Contraindications: This posture is not recommended for those who are menstruating or pregnant, or for individuals who suffer from neck problems, retinal problems, glaucoma, hiatal hernia, or heart difficulties. Those with high blood pressure should take caution and do this pose under guidance of a teacher.
Modifications: Lasater suggests supported shoulderstand (see picture 1b) (Salamba Sarvangasana), as a safe start to the posture. In Lasater’s supported shoulderstand, using a wall helps control the ascent and descent, and blankets are stacked under the shoulders for added support. You can place another mat on the stack of blankets to prevent the shoulders from sliding off as you lift up. While lying on your back with your feet facing a wall, roll back and lift your legs up until they touch the wall. With your head on the floor and chin tucked into your chest, press your feet against the wall as you lift your pelvis until you are vertical. Eventually you can take one foot off the wall at a time and balance with your feet together, pointed toward the ceiling. To come out, place your feet on the wall and exhale as you roll down.
2. Dolphin Pose
Posture: Dolphin pose is a great headstand preparation pose.
Description: Start in a kneeling position on your mat. Place your forearms on the floor with your elbows under your shoulders, and upper arms perpendicular to the floor. Interlock your fingers, with your palms apart. Come up on your toes and lift your hips, straightening your legs. Your head stays on the floor, and your spine should be straight. The pose helps strengthen the upper body for headstand.
Modifications: Another option is half headstand using a wall, starting with your arms in the same position. Your head is off the floor as you lift your hips. Place the balls of your feet, one at a time, on the wall, continuously lifting through your shoulders to keep your head off the mat. Keep your legs straight. Eventually your legs should be parallel to the floor.
3. Headstand Sirsasana
Posture: Coulter writes that headstand, the king of postures, inverts our vision of the world and also inverts the pattern of blood pressure in the body, increasing flow to the head and draining blood almost completely from the feet.
Description: Grab your elbows, shoulder width apart. Make sure your shoulders are over your elbows. Come into a kneeling position on a folded blanket, and place the top of your head down. Brace the back of your head with interlaced fingers. Your forearms should be at about an 80-degree angle from one another. Coulter suggests rolling your head around to explore where to put your weight, usually the crown.
Lift your hips up and walk your feet forward, keeping your knees bent as much as needed depending on the tightness of your hamstrings. The weight at this point is only on your head and feet. To get to stage two, your hips need to be raised, your back flattened, and your feet lifted off the floor. You will need to support the posture with your forearms as you are coming up. The less flexible your hips are the more weight you will have to support on your forearms.
In stage three extend your hips and keep your knees flexed as you lift them toward the ceiling. The fourth stage is to extend your knees and flatten the lumbar region of your back.
Contraindications: Headstand is not recommended for those with high blood pressure, chronic or acute neck pain, excess weight, osteoporosis, glaucoma, and other eye problems. It is also not recommended for women who are menstruating or pregnant, though some experts believe women who have developed a regular yoga practice that includes inversions can continue doing headstand while pregnant. Others recommend to stop practicing headstand in the second trimester of pregnancy.
Beginners should work with an instructor to attain the correct alignment. According to Lasater, balance is less important than alignment.
Modifications: For headstand use a wall and blankets with a sticky mat. Beginners can start with Dolphin Pose (see previous description).
4. Bridge Setu Bandhasana
Posture: Bridge pose is a good preparation for such full inversions as shoulderstand and can be used by those leery of being fully inverted.
Description: Lie on a mat flat on your back. Bend your knees and make sure your feet are parallel to each other, a couple of inches away from your buttocks. Lift your pelvis up using your deep back muscles. As you lift your hips up roll your shoulders under and clasp your hands, keeping your arms straight. Keep your feet flat on the floor, knees in front of your hips, and tuck your chin into your chest, opening up your lungs and front of your body. Press your arms into the floor to help lift up.To exit the posture, gently roll down from your shoulders to your pelvis on an exhale.
Contraindications: Bridge pose is not recommended during menstruation, for women in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy, or for those with a hiatal hernia.
Modifications Lasater recommends that beginners try supported bridge pose using a bolster on the mat, which helps keep the lift in the pelvis and minimize the work of the legs. Your shoulders should be off the edge of the bolster, with your shoulders and upper arms touching the floor. Your legs are in the same position as bridge, with your feet on either side of the bolster. To exit the posture, roll to the side and slowly push yourself up.
You may also use one to four blankets under your shoulders to support the curve of your neck.