I feel that this month’s focus naturally follows April’s theme of balance. Being comfortable and safe in an inverted pose asks us to find balance in our body. In April we did a lot of work on strengthening our arms and shoulders for arm balances. Many of the inverted postures require upper body and core strength.
One definition of an inverted posture is one in which the head is below the heart. Using this description we can then put adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and uttanasana (standing forward bend) into the inverted posture category. I suppose we could call these ‘half-inversions’. Another way inverted postures are categorized is those in which the feet are above the head i.e. postures such as salamba sarvangasana (supported shoulderstand) and sirsasana (headstand). I will be exploring the latter with my students this month as I consider these postures to be ‘full inversions’.
Inverted postures should be practiced with vigilence. Preparation is key in finding correct alignment and building the necessary strength. Certainly, a beginner student should not attempt full inversions without the supervision of a well-trained teacher. Students working with injuries – acute or chronic – in their wrists, shoulders or neck should take particular care in how they practice inversions that bear weight on the affected body part. It is also recommended that during menstruation, women should avoid full inversions and there are other contraindications applicable to each posture. Even seasoned yoga practitioners should always be present and attentive when inverting, as a slip of concentration or eagerness to achieve the end result can potentially lead to harm.
Now, with the cautions laid down, let’s move onto the positive points of this rewarding group of asanas. My teacher once said to our class ‘if you only ever practice one pose, make it shoulderstand.’ The physiological benefits of turning ourselves upside down can be learned from a Western perspective. When we up-end ourselves and reverse our relationship to gravity, we can beneficially influence the function of our cardiovascular, lymphatic, endocrine and nervous systems. The following excerpt is from the book ‘Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha’ published by the Bihar School of Yoga:
“Inverted asanas encourage blood flow to the brain, nourishing the neurons and flushing out toxins. Blood and lymph, accumulated in the lower limbs, pelvis and abdomen, are drained back to the heart, then circulated to the lungs, purified and re-circulated to all parts of the body. This process nourishes the cells of the whole human organism. The enriched blood flow also allows the pituitary gland to operate more efficiently, tuning the entire endocrine system. This has a positive effect on the metabolic processes and even on ways of thinking.”
On the other hand, the view of the ancient yogis was not concerned with health and longevity but instead of assisting the path of kundalini (life force energy) upwards through sushumna nadi to encourage spiritual awakening. Yoko Yoshikawa writes on Yoga Journal:
“The Natha siddhas and other Tantric schools, forebears of the hatha yoga tradition, believed that amrita, the nectar of immortality, was held within the cranial vault, at the seventh chakra, the sahasrara chakra. The valued nectar, meting out our days, dropped down through the center of the body and was consumed in the fire of the torso. Turn yourself upside down, the reasoning went, and amrita would be retained, thus prolonging life and preserving one’s prana.”
Whatever your beliefs and reasons for including full inversions in your asana practice, remember to treat each posture with respect, leave behind your ego when you come to your mat and remain attentive. Know that accomplishing the perfect headstand/handstand/forearm balance which may have once seemed an impossible feat, will not magically change your life but it will teach you that with patience, practice and dedication, transformation is possible.