Inverted asanas or Yoga inversions are one of the most significant part of Yoga asana practice. They reverse the action of gravitational force on the body; the flow which is usually pulled towards the feet, moves towards the head. This reverse movement helps us see things with a different perspective – the other way around, and often leaves us refreshed and revitalised.
Turning upside down is something that most children love. It excites them, makes them energetic, playful, happy and fearless. The same benefits apply to you when you practice an inversion. Inversions are fun and take you back to your childhood, making you a little more curious, playful and adventurous.
Inversions are basically positions where the heart is placed higher than the head, such as in a Headstand or Handstand. But there are less complicated asanas which come in the semi-inverted category where the trunk and head are horizontal but the feet are raised above the head like in legs-up-the wall pose, or poses where the head is below the trunk like in a Downward-Dog pose.
Traditionally, inverted asanas were practiced to transform the sexual energy into spiritual energy by stimulating the chakras and raising the kundalini shakti. They were used as a tool to help the sadhak in meditation and concentration. But, like with any other yoga asana, it is unlikely that an inverted pose alone can help someone progress in their spiritual practice.
There are other factors that determine one’s progress in the the Yogic path; however, Yogis who practice inversions regularly have experienced reduced stress and anxiety levels, better mood, increase in concentration and self-confidence.
Common Tips and Observances
As per traditional Yoga, there are a few common observances applicable to all the inverted poses. It is recommended that one keeps these tips in mind while practicing Yoga inversions. The practice of inverted asanas should be avoided immediately after any vigorous exercise and one should also avoid practicing Mayurasana with any inverted asanas in one practice session.
The duration can vary from a few breaths to upto 5 minutes or more. While beginners are advised to hold the posture only for a few seconds, regular practitioners are advised to increase the duration gradually, without exerting pressure or experiencing any pain or discomfort. It is obvious that right-handed people will first lift the right leg which leads them into an inversion. But one should remember to counterbalance this movement and also practice with the left leg leading.
Always end an inverted pose with a savasana or balasana, until the breath and heartbeat is completely normal. This can be followed by a counterpose.
Inversions are not meant for everyone and people recovering from a surgery, pregnant women, the elderly, and people suffering from inflammation, should first consult their physician and then practice under the guidance of a Yoga teacher who is well aware of the cautions and contraindications that are mentioned below.
As a beginner, it is advisable to practice in a an empty space and use yoga blankets or headstand pillows as props to prevent injury and protect the neck, shoulders and crown. A wall is one of the most useful prop for inversion practice. Even when practicing advanced inversions, a wall can really help with alignment and of course prevent you from falling until you find the stability and balance.
Benefits of Yoga Inversions
The ability of inversion to reverse the aging process is perhaps one of the most known benefits; Yoga inversions are not just about you turning upside – but about doing it mindfully with breath awareness, they just don’t make you look younger, but also make you feel younger!
Other benefits applicable to almost all yoga inversions are, elimination of toxins, boost in positive energy and immunity, increased flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, works as a natural antidepressant, stimulates nervous system and calms the mind, improves circulation, strengthens the back and core abdominal muscles, improves posture and overall balance.
Mentally and emotionally, one of the biggest advantages of inversions is its ability to eliminate fear and build confidence. At first, most of us are scared of lifting both legs and balancing on head or hands. Fear of falling and fear of change often stands as the biggest barrier between you and an inversion.
But as you keep trying, as you keep falling and picking yourself up to try again, you overcome your fears and begin to enjoy the process. You become more confident about your ability to move forward and balance, and you also learn to accept your failures and view them as a learning lesson.
Your perspective changes. You do not see falling as failing but an opportunity to improve and try again. You build self-confidence and at the same time learn to keep your ego in check. You learn to approach your practice with curiosity and humility, look inward and not compare your practice with someone else’s.
When to Avoid Inversions
The list of cautions and contraindications seem to outweigh the benefits of inversions. Thus one should remember that inversions are not for everyone and your Yoga practice is not incomplete or less effective if your physical condition does not permit you to hold an inversion. There are many other alternatives in Yoga that can help you achieve similar results.
People with high blood pressure, heart conditions, glaucoma, inflammation of the ear, weak eye capillaries, severe nearsightedness, problems with pituitary or thyroid glands, arteriosclerosis, cerebral or other thrombosis, severe asthma, tuberculosis, cold or sinusitis, excessively impure blood, slipped disc, vertigo, weak spine or any other back condition, should avoid practicing inversions. Those with cervical problems like spondylosis should avoid any posture where the neck is bearing weight.
Inversions During Pregnancy
If you have never practiced Yoga before pregnancy then it is advisable that you do not attempt to practice any yoga pose on your own (let alone inversions). However, if you have been practicing Yoga before becoming pregnant and are comfortable with yoga inversions, then it could be beneficial to continue your practice through pregnancy.
However, pregnancy is not a time to learn inversions or experiment with anything new. It is best to stick to your routine and also consult your gynaecologist and yoga trainer who can help you plan your yoga sessions based on physical and mental condition. As with any yoga practice during pregnancy, let your intuition guide you with inversions too. Listen to your body and avoid anything that feels uncomfortable.
Inversions for Beginners
While inverted asanas are all about raising the legs up, semi-inverted asanas help prepare the body and mind for a complete inversion. They gradually strengthen the body and train the mind for the complete inversion. The following are is a list of semi-inverted poses that can be practiced by beginners:
Prasarita Padottanasana or Wide-Legged Forward Bend
Stand with your feet about 3 to 4 feet apart. Place the hands around the hips and bend forward from the hips. Alternatively, you can place the palms down on the mat, in line with the feet and as you bend forward try and bring the crown of the head on the mat, in between the hands.
From here, press into the palms and raise the heels to balance on the head and toes. You can also practice with your hands off the mat, arms raised up and back with fingers interlocked or holding one wrist with the other hand. It is important to remain comfortable and breathe while you hold the posture.
To return to an upright position, bring soles of the feet on the mat and hands around the hip and inhale and return to standing position.
Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward-Facing Dog
This asana works on the entire body, especially the shoulders, calves and hamstrings. It helps decompress the lower back by helping you evenly stretch the spine. It is also a great pose to calm the mind and is often used as the foundational pose in Vinyasa.
You can get into this pose from a Child’s Pose or by coming on your hands and knees. Spread your fingers, keeping your hands shoulder-width apart and feet,hip-width apart. Lift your knees off the mat and lengthen your spine towards the ceiling, reaching through the tailbone.
Root down through palms and heels. Become aware of the deep stretch on the back of the leg. Try not to squeeze the shoulder blades, instead draw them towards the spine and lower them, creating more space in upper back and releasing tension around the neck area. Tuck your head in and stay in the pose for 5 to 10 breaths. Rest in child’s pose.
Viparita Karani ro Legs-Up-The-Wall (Upside-down pose)
Lie flat on the back with legs together in a straight line and arms close to the body with palms facing down. Raise both legs, keeping them straight and together, moving them over the body and towards the head. Push down on the hands and when the buttocks are off the mat, bend the elbows and place the palms under the top of the hips to support the body.
Keep the legs in vertical position and relax while you hold the posture. The weight of the body is supported by the shoulders, neck, palms and elbows, and the trunk is at a 45 degree angle.
To return to supine position, lower the legs and relax the hands by placing them back on the mat in line with the body. Continue to bring the legs down with stability, lowering the spine, vertebra by vertebra. Do not lift your head. Relax in Savasana.
The most popular variation for this pose is Legs-Up-The-Wall which can be done by anyone easily. Instead of supporting the trunk with hands, you move closer to the wall and swing your legs up the wall, allowing your pelvis to rest on the mat or folded blanket or bolster.
Main Yoga Inversions
The following list of poses are usually considered main or basic Yoga inversions that are taught in Yoga Teacher Training Courses or in Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga classes (to regular practitioners).
Sirsasana or Headstand
Sirsasana is also known as the King of asanas as the ancient Yogis believed that the nectar of immortality or amrita is retained in the brain for longer time. You may need help with lifting your legs as a beginner, thus it is advisable to practice near a wall and under a teacher’s guidance.
Sit in Vajrasana and place your forearms in front, with elbows shoulder width apart. Interlock your fingers and form an equilateral triangle within the framework of your forearms and elbows. Place the crown of he head between the interlocked fingers and open palms. Let the fingers and palm give a firm support to the head while you focus on grounding the head.
Lift the knees and buttocks off the mat, straighten your legs and raise your hips high. Slowly walk the feet as close as possible towards the head, gradually allowing the back to move to a vertical position. Stay steady and keep your neck long and relaxed. For the lift, you can either raise both legs together or raise one leg at a time.
Bend the knees, engage the thighs and transfer the body weight from the toes onto the head and arms. Raise one foot off the floor and place it on the wall, keeping your legs bent. Similarly bring the other foot on the wall. Stay steady and breathe evenly for a few seconds before you straighten the legs completely to get into the final pose.
As you gain stability in this pose, you can further practice Prasarita Konasana or Baddha Konasana in Sirsasana. Maintaining Ardha Sirsasana position at first makes you aware of complete sense of balance, which includes not arching the back in and out too much, more pressure on the arms and less on the neck, core and back muscles in action.
Release the posture by slowly bending your knees and lowering the body with control in the reverse order. Rest with your head down on the mat for a short time before sitting upright.
Sarvangasana or Shoulder Stand
Sarvangasana is also known as the Queen of Asanas. In addition to other inversion benefits, when the chest is pressed against the chin (also in Sarvangasana, Halasana) it stimulates the thyroid gland and regulates reproductive, endocrine, nervous and circulatory systems. It is also beneficial for varicose veins.
Lie on the back with legs straight and feet together. Place the hands beside the body with palms facing down. Press into the arms and begin to raise the legs slowly to a vertical position, slowly rolling the buttock and spine off the mat. Now bend the elbows and place the palms behind the rib-cage, slightly away from the spine to support the back.
Take care to not let the elbows move/widen and keep them shoulder-width apart. Gently push the chest forward so it is pressed firmly against the chin. The body is supported by the shoulders, nape of the neck and the back of the head. Try and relax the feet and the whole body. Close your eyes (optional) and stay for as long as comfortable.
To return, slowly release the position of the hands and place them on the floor while you find stability in the legs. Gradually lower the spine, followed by buttocks and legs. Relax in Savasana until respiration returns to normal. Matsyasana is usually practiced as a counterpose to Sarvangasana and Halasana.
Halasana or Plough Pose
Follow the same steps as in Sarvangasana and get the legs to the vertical position. From here, using only abdominal muscles and pressing down on the arms, lower the legs further over the head. Bring the toes towards the floor but do not strain or force the toes to touch the floor. You can practice near a wall and rest your feet on the wall behind instead.
Use your hands to support the back, as in Sarvangasana or place them straight on the mat or interlace them behind your back. For support, bend the elbows and place the palms behind the rib cage. You can also move into this asana immediately after Sarvangasana. If you are comfortable, you can also experiment by moving into a Prasarita Konasana by stretching your legs wide apart. Practice this only if you can comfortably rest your toes on the floor.
Return to supine position in a similar manner as in Sarvangasana and relax in Savasana. Note that apart from other contraindications listed above for inversions, Halasana and Sarvangasana should not be practiced by those suffering from hernia, sciatica, arthritis of the neck or by the elderly/infirm.
Karnapidasana or Knee to Ear Pose
From Halasana position, gently bend your knees and bring them close to your ears with your hips raised upwards. Rest the top of your feet on the floor and allow your knees to apply light pressure to the ears.
You can rest your hands on the mat or take your arms around the back of the knee, hold the opposite elbow and lock yourself in this position. This pose helps you experience pratyahara while you hold the pose. It helps you draw the attention inward. Don’t force the knee down. It is fine to keep them up until flexibility improves naturally.
Advanced Yoga Inversions
The following variations and poses should be tried only after mastering the main Yoga inversions. One should consider learning these advanced variations from a teacher before trying it out themselves. It is also essential to avoid overstraining the body in any way.
These advanced variations are usually designed to further one’s Yogic practice by improving their strength, concentration and flexibility and not designed for any specific therapeutic benefits as such. Thus these asanas should only be attempted by those who have reached an advanced level of practice and understand that such asanas strongly affect the energy of the physical and subtle body.
Vrischikasana or Scorpion Pose
Holding a forearm plank or moving from a Dolphin Pose to a forearm plank will help strengthen the core and achieve stability in this posture. You can either move into this posture from a Headstand or directly get into this pose.
If moving into the pose from a headstand, first bend the knees and arch your back. After finding stability in the inverted posture, adjust the forearms such that the palms are placed on either side of the head, flat on the mat, and the elbows remain at a distance of shoulder width apart.
Shift the weight onto the forearms and slowly raise your head backward and upward.
Raise the upper arms so that they are perpendicular to the forearms. If possible, lower the feet further and get the heels to rest on the crown of the head in final position. This however, needs good practice, strength, balance and flexibility.
Similarly, you can get into a Scorpion pose from a Dolphin pose. Start by walking your feet forward and bring them closer the elbows. This also pushes your hip higher, in line with your shoulders. The head stays up, off the floor and the gaze is forward. Lift your dominant leg first, followed by the other leg and move into the Scorpion pose as explained above.
Try to relax the whole body while holding the posture and hold the final position for as long as comfortable. You can either return to Sirsasana or simply bring the feet back to the floor and relax in Balasana for couple of minutes before sitting upright.
Pincha Mayurasana or Forearm Stand
Like Scorpion pose, strengthening the core and warming up in a forearm plank or a Chaturanga Dandasana will help achieve stability in this posture. You can follow the same steps as given for Scorpion pose except that in Pincha Mayurasana your legs will remain straight (not bent) and the back does not arch to move into a backend.
Instead you work on lengthening the spine by drawing your navel in towards the spine and squeeze your outer legs together to roll the thighs in. The head remains off the mat and gaze is forward, in line with the center point – in between your palms.
Keep the shoulder blades lifted and broad, and to release the posture, bring one foot down at a time.
Poorna Salabhasana or Full Locust Pose
The word ‘Poorna’ means inverted or reverse. This pose gives same benefits as other inverted asanas. However, this is also a deep backbend and should only be performed by those who have supple backs.
For a Full Locust Pose, assume Locust Pose final position, i.e. lie on stomach (in prone) with chin on the mat and palms placed under the thighs. Inhale and raise both legs as high as possible. Keep the arms and shoulders in firm contact with the floor. Lift the legs with a jerk into a vertical position and continue to balance on shoulders, chin and arms.
Retain the breath inside as you balance here, and gradually bend the knees and bring the toes down to touch your head in final position. Breathe normally and hold the posture for as long as comfortable. To release the posture, lift the feet and find the point of balance. Then slowly lower the body to rest in prone. Turn the head to one side and rest, allowing the heartbeat to return to normal.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana or Handstand
The idea of standing on your hands instead of standing on your feet sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? For some, just the thought of turning upside and having the feet flying in the air could get their heart to beat faster! Well, the practice certainly does push the heart rate up and gets blood pumping while working on your core. It helps strengthen the wrists, arms, shoulders, and though it is an asana or a workout in itself, it is one of the rare postures that gets you excited, gets you giggling and gives you a rush of happiness and fun!
These are some wonderful reasons to practice a handstand daily! However, most of the contraindications mentioned under inversion are also applicable to a handstand, especially shoulder/neck or back injury, high BP, headache or any heart condition.
The only way to find stability in a handstand is to practice regularly. As the name suggests, in the final pose you should be strongly rooted like a tree, the only difference is that you carry the entire body weight on your hands instead of the legs.
Start by holding a Downward Dog position facing the wall, at a distance of 5-6 inches between your fingertips and the wall. Keep the shoulder blades broad and rotate your upper arms outward. Bend the left leg at the knee and bring it closer to the wall. Practice a few hops here before sweeping your right leg up and getting it to a vertical position with wall or partner support.
Now slowly work on getting the left leg up to the wall. Engage the core abdominal muscles as you balance and keep the head between your upper arms. Like any balancing posture, setting your gaze at a certain point on the floor, will help achieve stability. Practicing the hops with alternate legs will help strengthening right and left side. Every time you hop, exhale deeply and keep the core engaged.
Gradually, you will be able to kick all the way without the hops. And slowly, you can also practice lifting both legs together. Avoid arching the back and maintain a vertical position by lengthening the torso and rolling the thighs in. Keep your shoulder blades lifted even while coming down, bringing one leg down at a time.
There are numerous other variations that can be practiced after gaining mastery over the basic inversions. Other variations include, Bhoomi Mastakasana, Padma Sarvangasana, Salamba Sirsasana, Niralamba Sirsasana, Urdhva Padmasana, and other variations of Headstand and Handstands.
Seeing Things From A Different Perspective
Since inversions are all about changing the way we feel and the way we look at things, we thought it would be interesting to throw some light on the Myths around the notion of inversions! Today we find many yoga blogs on inversions that cover most of the benefits mentioned above.
However, we at JURU Yoga came across an interesting blog on Eight Myths About Yoga Inversions and would definitely recommend this link to our readers. As per the author, Jon Burras, who is also a Wellness Consultant and a Yoga Therapist, it is important that we update our beliefs. He applies the same principle on ‘yoga inversions’ and thinks there is more mythology than there is truth in our approach.
We have listed his points of concern below and would love to hear your opinion!
Do inversions really benefit the heart? Neither the volume of blood nor the blood pressure really change from standing upright position to when we turn upside down. Thus there is not much evidence to associate cardio-fitness with inversions.
How do inversions affect the subtle energy of the body when there is no evidence to suggest that there is a link between the physical force like gravity and a metaphysical force like chi ? Also most of the important meditation asanas that help channelise the energy are not inversions but seated postures.
Do inversions make you a better human being? Make you calmer, sharper and happier? Well, there is no doubt that inversions leave you feeling strong and confident, especially inversions like a Headstand or Handstand. Other than this, reduced stress levels, feeling happy., etc are common to any Yoga practice done with breath awareness. Isn’t it so? Isn’t the experience with inversion just temporary and suggests that we look inward for true happiness?
If gravity was truly a major cause of aging and pulling our energy downward then wouldn’t all of us have swollen ankles, hunched backs, droopy skin? Perhaps it’s a myth that one needs to turn upside down to increase blood flow to the brain or affect the functioning of lymphatic system.
While placing a physical restraint like in the case of gravity boots, gym equipments or aerial yoga may decompress the spine, this may not be the case with yoga inversions because the spine is still compressed from another direction in a headstand or shoulder stand.
There is no evidence to prove that practicing inversions during periods can harm the body and woman’s health. Whether to practice yoga during periods or not, is really a personal choice, and the same applies to inversions. Yoga is all about listening to one’s body and mind. If you feel like the body needs rest … you should rest and perhaps consider a restorative practice. What do you think?