My home yoga practice began when I was twelve-years-old and I read about this new-fangled exercise routine in my mother’s Redbook magazine. There were probably about three poses listed. One of them, of course, was adho mukha svanasana, the infamous downward-facing dog pose. In my late teens I began working at a local gym where I was able to take yoga classes for free. When the teacher introduced shoulder stand, I thought I was hot-stuff. Flash-forward to graduating as a 200-hour certified yoga teacher, I had the knowledge of how to practice and teach several inverted poses under my belt. However, the longer I study yoga and the more I learn about inverted poses (or asana in general!), the more perplexing I find them!
Inverted poses: why do we practice them?
Let’s begin with the simple definition of an inverted pose. In yoga, and inverted pose is one where the head is below the heart. This includes poses such as sirsasana (headstand pose), sarvangasana (shoulder stand pose), and even adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose). Inverted poses are said to have many benefits including activating the inner organs, improving circulation to the brain, and strengthening the thyroid and parathyroid glands (Silva, Mira, and Shyam Mehta 95).
The problem is the science behind these claims does not hold up. I could do a handstand all day (presuming I can do a handstand at all) and it is not going to cause my organs to digest better. Thanks to my heart and circulatory system, blood will flow to my brain regardless of whether or not I am upside-down or right-side up. Gravity has nothing to do with it. And if shoulder stand were a cure for thyroid issues, I would imagine more doctors would be sending their patients to physical therapy to practice it.
Wait… why do we practice them, again?
If the claims that yogis such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri Pattabhi Jois do not hold up to modern science, why do we practice them? I think it is important for us to remember that the hatha yoga practice is far more than physical exercise. In fact, the physical benefits of yoga are more like a marketing strategy to make the practice more appealing to the average western practitioner. (That strategy is still being used today, by the way.) It isn’t that there is anything wrong with beginning one’s yogic journey as a quest for physical health and wellness! In fact, there is something profoundly beautiful and poetic in beginning a spiritual practice with the body and then working one’s way inward. It is just that the physical body is not the spiritual mountaintop.
No, really… I want to know. Why do we practice inverted poses?
As yogis, our question is not “Gee, what does some authority outside of myself tell me I am going to get out of practicing this pose?” That authority may be a guru; it may be science. That authority may be wise, trustworthy, time-tested, and proven to be true. However, as yogis our question is, “How am I experiencing this pose in this moment?”
What is my experience of handstand? Last Saturday I was doing my home yoga practice. I had not practiced handstand in a while. I’d actively been avoiding handstand because I’d been experiencing a lot of fatigue and needed a more grounding, stabilizing practice. It is okay to avoid things when they could exacerbate dis-ease. However, that day I felt my avoidance was out of habit, and frankly, laziness than fatigue. It was time for me to give handstand another go. No one told me I had to practice handstand. My intention of practicing handstand was not to heal my digestive disorder or bring more blood to my brain. I practiced handstand because I wanted to. It is a challenging pose that for better or worse certainly has a way of effecting my mood!
Total body balance.
The asanas do more than work with our physical bodies, but our mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies as well. There is a reason why we go into child’s pose to rest, and not Warrior Pose II. For many people (but not all), child’s pose has a soothing quality that is unique to that asana. It is energetically grounding and self-nurturing. Likewise, inversions have their own energetic signature. Inversions are exciting! They require us to call upon our courage, patience, and a willingness to try. It is the challenge of inversions that makes us love, or fear, them so much.
For most people, a balanced hatha yoga practice can help to build the core and upper body strength needed to practice challenging inversions such as adho mukha vrksasana (downward facing tree pose, usually just called handstand) or pincha mayurasana (feathered peacock pose). However, there are some practical contraindications to take into consideration when discerning whether or not you would like to attempt inverted postures: head, neck, shoulder, and spine injures; high blood pressure that is not being controlled by medication; eye issues such as detached retina; dizziness and vertigo.
Learn from a pro!
My favorite way to learn inverted poses is from a knowledgeable and experienced teacher. At Eternal Health Yoga, D’Arci Freeland is our resident expert on all things upside-down! On October 28th from 2-4:30pm she will be hosting an inversion workshop. She’ll be teaching how to safely practice four inverted asanas: Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Pincha Mayurasana (Feather of the Peacock), and Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). You will be sure to leave this engaging workshop with a new, fresh perspective!
For further reading on the topic of inversions, check out:
Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar
Yoga Body: the origins of modern posture practice by Mark Singleton
The Science of Yoga: the risks and the rewards by William J. Broad
Mehta, Silva, et al. Yoga the Iyengar Way: The new definitive illustrated guide. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 2010.