Inversions in Yoga: Shifting Your Perspective
When you are stuck in life, a shift in perspective can do wonders. Practicing an inversion may be just what you need to see the world from a different viewpoint.
I personally love inversions and include them in my practice daily. I enjoy teaching them as well, as they bring a sense of playfulness for students at any level. There’s a reason kids enjoy standing on their heads so much!
It is best to do inversions after Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) and standing poses, but before invigorating backbends. This ensures your body is warmed up and you have plenty of energy. Afterward, take a short rest in Child’s Pose (Balasana). You’ll feel refreshed and renewed for the rest of your practice.
The Benefits of Inversions
I find that people with a prominent pitta dosha want to push themselves into the most challenging inversions, but when pitta is high, Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana) is a better choice. The head and neck are stabilized on the ground in the pose, which makes it more cooling than other inversions that bring increased blood flow to the head.
Those with a lot of vata in their constitution benefit from strength-building and warming inversions, such as Headstand (Sirsasana) or Half Arm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana). These poses also require the mental focus that heals a troubled mind.
People with more kapha do well with stronger inversions, such as Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) or kick and float, which is a preparation for full handstand.
No matter what your primary dosha is, you’ll receive many benefits from getting upside down. Inversions move stagnant energy and circulate lymph, which supports the flow of prana throughout the body. They also support the function of the heart by circulating blood through the head and upper body.
Upside down, things seem different than you had previously thought. The mind has to let go of using sight as a reference, and suddenly you have a new way of seeing things.
How to Do Inversions Safely
Inversions are powerful asanas, so exercise care in their practice. It’s a good idea to have a skilled yoga teacher guide you in the beginning, including giving you adequate preparatory poses and showing you how to fall safely without hurting yourself if you lose your balance. Learn to avoid injury by practicing the poses from the ground up, which means focusing on stability with whatever part of your body is on the mat.
Most people need to learn inversions in phases, using preparatory poses, props, and walls to provide support and build strength before moving into the full expression. I’ve found it especially useful to teach Shoulder Stand with a block beneath the sacrum so that students focus on keeping their upper spine and necks safely off the ground before they lift their feet into the air.
If you’re not ready for handstand, keep in mind that not all inversions involve balancing acts. You can still get the benefits of an inversion from Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Taking 15–25 breaths in this pose can bring tremendous physical and energetic benefits.
Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani) is a wonderful substitute as it has many of the same benefits. It’s especially nice if you are a woman on moontime. This pose allows apana vayu to continue to move downward while encouraging the circulation of lymph in your legs and feet. Legs Up the Wall is a lovely restorative pose that is nice to do in the evenings. Step away from your phone and other electronics and stay in this pose for three minutes before you go to bed and you’ll sleep much more soundly.
The benefits of inversions come when you hold them for an appropriate amount of time. I find that about 30 slow, even breaths provide enough challenge without overdoing it. If you’re not used to holding an inversion that long, getting to 30 breaths may seem very difficult. Start where you are and work up to that breath count gradually over time. Avoid especially long holds—staying in an inversion for more than five minutes puts too much pressure on the head and can aggravate pitta.
Avoid inversions altogether if you have unstable or untreated blood pressure, glaucoma, a detached retina, severe indigestion, or autoimmune disorders that cause weakness in joint tissue.
A Sustainable Yoga Practice for Life
As you shift your perspective while doing an inversion, you can also shift your thinking about how you practice the inversions themselves. A sustainable asana practice is one guided by sattva, balance, and harmony, as well as ahimsa (non-harming in word, thought, or deed), kindness, and consideration. This is what will allow you to practice for life. If you push yourself too hard, you risk injury and will soon lose the joy that comes with getting on your mat.
No matter how you decide to go upside down, stay two steps away from your edge. It’s easy to tell when you have gone beyond your capabilities by watching your breath. Your breathing will likely become stronger as you build strength in an inversion, but if it becomes uneven or stops, come out and go into Child’s Pose to regain your center.
Practice consciousness while going into and coming out of inversions. Engage your pelvic floor to use the strength from within—your feet should not make a loud noise as you come to your mat or lift them against the wall. If you often land with a “thud,” go back to the preparatory poses and build the strength you need for the pose. It may seem counterintuitive, but you’ll advance much faster this way.
Learning inversions and looking at the world upside down is a lot of fun. What you practice on your mat is what you get in life, so infuse your journey of learning inversions with a sense of enthusiasm and fun. When you come back to standing on two feet, these qualities will stay with you and guide you through the rest of your day.