27 years of upside down! Get the health benefits of inversions in yoga.
I have been turning myself upside down now for over 27 years.
I practise headstand and shoulder stand every day. There is nothing quite like the feeling that comes as a result of Inverting. It is defined as when the head is lower than your heart.
I really enjoy and thoroughly appreciate how I feel after turning myself upside down. Even better are the health benefits of inversions in yoga.
There are numerous physical, physiological, mental and emotional benefits that flow from Inverting. But for me the overriding reason why I enjoy inversions is that my mind stops churning.
When I practise head stand (Salamba Sirsasana), my mind becomes very quiet. I am left feeling alert, focused, mentally refreshed, and emotionally steady.
When I practice shoulder stand (Salamba Sarvangasana), my mind becomes quiet in a different way, and I am left feeling calm and more introspective.
Among other things, this post will show you how the many poses that you learn at every level of Iyengar yoga, steadily and systematically build your ability to do more and better inverted poses.
I will also talk about the health benefits of inversions in yoga.
Benefits of Shoulder stand
“It is no overstatement to say that if a person regularly practises Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), they will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy and confident. New life will flow to them, the mind will be at peace, and she or he will feel the joy of life” [BKS Iyengar Light on Yoga p197]
Before I discuss specific poses, let’s review the benefits of shoulder stand. It’s often called the “queen” of inverted poses. Headstand is known as the “king” of inverted poses.
Many of the specific benefits of shoulder stand apply to all inverted poses.
The benefits of shoulder stand include these.
- Improving circulation to your whole body, head, neck, and brain. It also improves blood flow to all the sense organs in the head, including your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the skin on your face.
- Enhancing blood flow into the respiratory system and blood into your bone marrow, helping the body`s ability to produce immune cells.
- Improving circulation via stimulation of the hormonal system; including pituitary, pineal, thyroid, and parathyroid glands.
- Reducing swelling in feet, legs and pelvic congestion.
- Quietening your nervous system, via turning off your sympathetic nervous system (“flight or flight”), and switching on the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system. This will greatly enhance your immune system as it will help you sleep so much better. It also leads to rejuvenation both physically and mentally. This will only become more pronounced as you become stronger and can hold this pose for 5 mins.
- Helping the body recover; replenish adrenal glands and promote a feeling of wellbeing and calmness.
Go slowly. Establish the foundation. It takes time.
It takes time to build the strength to stand on your head or shoulders.
It takes time to overcome fear and trust yourself that you will be fine doing something that you don`t normally do in everyday life.
There are many simple inverted poses that will prepare you for the more advanced inversions. I discuss several of them below.
They will also help improve your immune system; as circulation is enhanced, and thereby ensuring healthy cell production.
These poses also help soothe the nerves and calm the mind. In turn, that supports your immune system’s ability to fight foreign invaders.
First, practise Mountain Pose & all the arm variations
Mountain pose and arm variations are the basis that lead you towards inversions.
We tend to forget just how important it is to stand upright and have good posture, such as an extended chest, relaxed shoulders, and a soft (relaxed) throat.
Practise regularly all the various arm movements that you learn in Beginners Level, that help keep your chest open (extended), shoulders flexible and relaxed, neck relaxed, and your upper back happy and healthy.
Standing poses are a key place to build towards inversions.
Second, practise the simple inversions like downward facing dog pose
Don’t underestimate dog pose! It does all these things.
- Strengthens your arms and the muscles along your spine.
- Opens and elongates your armpits to help open your chest.
- Develops the necessary core abdominal strength for the more advanced inversions.
- Lengthens hamstrings, and shows you how to use the legs to lengthen the spine
- Teaches you how to lengthen your neck and relax your face so you can stay longer in the pose.
At first it seems impossible to hold this pose and stay calm. It feels like the arms are too weak.
Stick with it and you will progress to practising downward dog pose with your head supported on a block. This will help you open your chest further, as well as appreciate how the nervous system and mind can become quiet.
Third, practise forward bending inversions like Uttanasana
A forward bending standing pose like Uttanasana is inversion preparation because you experience the effect of lowering your head below your heart.
Practise with your head supported on blocks or a chair as this version is both calming and restful and you can stay longer in the pose.
Come out of the pose slowly and see how you feel with the rush of blood to you head.
This standing forward bend is an excellent pose to improve blood flow to throat and head. Blood flow is also improved to the hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus gland, as well as the gonads.
The health of the immune system relies on information from the nervous system and hormonal system (such as these glands). Inversions are also a great way to improve circulation throughout the whole body.
Forward Bending Wide Angle Pose
The forward bending wide angle pose is another Inverted pose (Prasarita Padottanasana) that delivers benefits via improving circulation to throat, chest, head, neck and trunk.
It thereby improves blood flow to pituitary, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid and thymus glands. It also helps quieten the mind and is wonderfully rejuvenating both physically and mentally.
Practise first by using blocks to establish a concave spine.
Aim to lengthen the inner arm in order to bring space around your neck and shoulders.Then rest your head on blocks, chair or floor so you can stay longer in the pose and appreciate how inversions help take the mind inward.
Try Waterfall pose (Vipariti Karani)
Legs Up The Wall pose is a wonderfully relaxing inverted pose which you can practise regularly and extensively.
The chin lock created by the shape of the pose acts to both flush the throat area and upon release the fresh blood to your immune system. It therefore energises and quietens the whole nervous system.
Aim to stay 8-10 mins in this pose.
It will also help with anxiety related issues and improve sleep… both of which are known to help strengthen the immune system.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
This is an excellent semi-inverted pose that will prepare you for shoulder stand.
It can also be practised if there are neck & shoulder issues that prevent you going onto a full shoulder stand. If menstruating, you can do this pose lying over two bolsters.
You can do it in an active manner, as so-called Bridge pose. This is excellent shoulder stand preparation. You get to distribute the weight between your feet and shoulders and see how it feels on your neck.
If it feels too much you can do bridge pose supported over a bolster. This will protect your neck and prepare your neck muscles.
You can also lift your back up with the help of a chair, into so-called chair arch. This pose will give you the feeling of what it is like to be upside down. It will also show you how to open your armpits and lift your back body up.
You can practise Supported Bridge pose. This pose is done lying over two bolsters. It allows for long holdings and can be practised if there are neck or shoulder issues, or when menstruating.
By now you may be ready for a half shoulder stand
In a half shoulder stand, your feet are on a wall, shoulders are tucked a little under on support with enough height so your neck feels fine, and you learn to lift your pelvis off the floor.
You support your weight with your hands on your back. Then, stay at this stage taking one foot of the wall and balancing.
If your shoulders are stiff, take more height, and have another 1-2 blankets.
Go slowly and don’t rush. Don`t stay too long at the beginning. Get familiar with how this stage feels. We are all different. Some of us take more time to feel confident enough to take both feet of the wall.
See how you feel when you come down.
Then venture further and try Plough Pose (Halasana). Try first taking your feet to a wall or chair. Then, when hamstrings and back and neck allow, take your feet to the floor.
Here are three general cautions about inverted poses.
- Women should not practise strong inverted poses (like full head stands), when menstruating.
- Avoid it if you suffer from high blood pressure, tension headache or a migraine.
- Avoid it if you have neck and shoulder issues, and ask your teacher to suggest alternatives.
In the next post I will look at various ways you can prepare yourself both physically and mentally for Head Stand. Meanwhile, start these initial poses as you work towards getting the health benefits of inversions in yoga.