to be upside down or not to be, inversions and their implications

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Salamba Sarvangasana

This week in my yoga foundations class we’ll focus on preparing for and potentially moving into Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana), so a little discussion on inversions is due.  Shoulder Stand as well as Head Stand (Salamba Sirsasana) are somewhat like the poster children of inversion poses because the body stacks so nicely upside down.  But these poses, while very beneficial and often referred to as the queen and king of poses, are not the only ones that provide the many benefits of inverting. In fact, in many cases these poses may bring more harm to the body than good, so it is always wise to proceed slowly with caution, explore alternatives and variations, listen to your body and choose the posture which gives most benefit and least strain.

What are inversions and why do we practice them anyway?  An inversion includes any posture where the heart is above the head, and can be as simple as standing forward fold (Uttanasana) or as strenuous as handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana).  There are mild or half inversions, where the feet still rest on the ground, as well as full inversions where the feet reach toward the sky.  

In general, the benefits of inverting come from flipping around the pressure of gravity on the body.  As Iyengar teacher Yoko Yoshikawa  so nicely put it, “the human body is sensitive to the fluctuations of gravity because it consists of more than 60 percent water. From the skin in, the body is dense with cells, floating in a bath of intercellular fluid. A complex network of vessels weaves in and around every cell, steadily moving fluids through valves, pumps, and porous membranes, dedicated to transporting, nourishing, washing, and cleansing.”

ImageHere are some major benefits of turning the body upside down:

  • Aids with venous return (brings blood in the extremities back to the heart), which can alleviate varicose veins, hemorrhoids and edema (swelling in the legs and feet), as well as generally improve circulation.
  • Increases lymphatic flow and by doing so improve immune system functioning. 
  • Increase blood flow to brain and facial muscles. 
  • Many yogic texts (Iyengar, Satyanada) state that inversions bring calm and clarity to our mind.
  • Shoulder stand in particular flushes the thyroid glad with fresh blood, activating it and increasing efficiency. The thyroid gland (located at the front of the throat) secretes hormones that regulate metabolism as well as other processes.
  • Improve oxygenation of lower lung lobes by reducing pressure of gravity and fluid accumulation in lower lungs.

 While the benefits of inversions are numerous, so are the precautions and contraindications. Mild inversions such as forward fold or downward dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) are generally safe for most practitioners.  Strenuous inversions such as shoulder stand and headstand place a fair bit of pressure on the neck and head, requiring strength and flexibility to be done properly and safely.

Here are some precautions and contraindications for inversions:

  • Avoid strong or long inversions if you have high blood pressure or other heart ailments.
  • People with weak blood vessels in the eyes, detached retna or glaucoma should avoid long inversions, and pay attention to blood pressure in eyes.
  • If you have cervical spondylosis or other cervical vertebra (neck) injuries, a. always use a blanket under the shoulders for viprita karani, shoulder stand and if needed setubandha (bridge), and b. avoid shoulder stand or only practice after consulting an experienced yoga teacher.
  • If you are pregnant or menstruating avoid full inversions. There is a chance of causing endometriosis if done while menstruating.

For any inversion where you are laying on your back and then lift the feet or hips up I recommend always practicing with at least two folded blankets under your shoulders. This allows the neck to maintain its natural curve and puts the weight of the body into the shoulders rather than the neck. 

My favorite inversion is Viprita Karani because you get all the benefits without the strain.  You can practice this pose in the middle of the room supporting your hips with your hands, or with the feet up the wall and bolsters under the hips.

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