If you were alien to the practice of yoga inversions until recently, Anushka Sharma’s pregnancy headstand practice may have possibly changed that. Not only is it exhilarating to watch a pregnant celebrity go upside down (responsibly, of course), but it also hints at the significance of including inversions as part of regular yoga practice. But here’s the thing – many new practitioners love watching people invert, but shy away from attempting themselves.
Whether it is the fear of falling or simply the fear of going upside down, many newbies find yoga inversions daunting at best and petrifying at worst. But it is also true that once you get comfortable with a couple of inversion postures, you immediately see the immense benefits they bring to the body, mind and breath and then going anti-gravity becomes a natural part of one’s practice.
In this segment, I want to emphasise not only on the importance of inversions but also how they relate to our spinal health. And if you have read Part 1 (Spinal health – a gateway to fit life), you know how important it is to maintain a healthy and supple spine. The last segment was about spinal mobility, the five different ways a spine can move and what postures help achieve optimum range of motion. In this segment, we dig a little deeper and go beyond movement into physiological and therapeutic benefits that inversions bring via the spine to the overall system.
Historically, some of the older texts on yoga have very interesting ways of narrating the benefits of inversion. One such is Goraksha Paddhati (also known as Goraksha Samhita) which states, “In the place of the navel dwells the one sun, of the essence of fire. And the moon, of the essence of nectar, is always situated at the root of the palate (mouth). The moon, facing downward, showers nectar; the sun, facing upward, devours that lunar nectar. Hence the inverted pose is to be known so that the ambrosia (amrut/ nectar) can be obtained. When the navel is above and the palate is below, (when the sun is above and the moon is below), then that is known as the inverted pose.”
It may sound esoteric and possibly has layers of meaning, however, one of the interpretations is the ability of yogic inversions to slow down ageing or the catabolic process of cellular degradation (destructive metabolism) and to improve the anabolic process of repair (constructive metabolism) by reversing the flow of blood and other fluids towards the head and heart.
While there are several inversions one can practice, let us look at the three most well-known ones.
Headstand – Sirsasana
Swami Sivananda, a pioneer in introducing traditional hatha yoga to the 20th Century, emphasised tremendously on the inclusion of inversions into everyday practice and called headstand the “king of all asanas” owing to the direct supply of oxygen and blood it brings to the brain. If performed correctly, the whole body is inverted in one straight line with the crown of the head softly pressing on the mat and neck and the rest of the spine completely aligned in a neutral position. As my teacher always said, visualise your arms as your legs and stand tall and straight upon them. Almost 80% to 85% of the body weight is borne by the arms and supported by a strong core, with minimal pressure on the neck.
The posture works predominantly on the brain, spinal cord, the whole nervous system and parts of the endocrine system through stimulation of pineal and pituitary glands.
Shoulderstand – Sarvangasana
Considered to be the queen of all asanas, shoulderstand involves bringing the legs and hips up and allowing the whole body to rest on the shoulders. Arms support the upper back, so that the torso can align with the shoulders and the chin presses into the chest. When performed correctly there is no pressure on the neck as all the weight is borne by the shoulders and a strong core, creating lightness and an upward lift in the body.
The posture works predominantly on the neck and throat region, stimulating thyroid, parathyroid glands as well as activating the parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down.
Bridge Pose – Sethubandasana
It is a gentle inversion and acts as a preparatory practice, strengthening the back and toning the core. Once the bridge pose is mastered, the body is ready to explore shoulderstand. It is a safe posture to practice for most people and helps reduce lower back sensitivity by strengthening the lumbar spine.
The posture works predominantly on the throat and chest area, stimulates thyroid glands as well as expands the thoracic region (chest and lungs) aiding the blood and fluid circulation systems.
On that note, let us look at the three overall benefits of an inversion practice. There are several benefits, however, we will focus on the ones that are most relevant to the fast-paced lives we currently lead.
1. Stimulates the circulatory and central nervous system
As indicated in headstand, shoulderstand as well as bridge, inversions ensure a robust functioning of the circulatory system, giving our heart much needed rest by reversing the flow of blood naturally and encouraging venous return towards the heart. The head, neck and thoracic region receive an influx of blood and oxygen which positively impact all the major sub-units along the spinal cord as well as nervous system.
2. Strengthens the spine (vertebral column) and relieves pressure from the lumbar region (lower back)
Our body is constantly facing gravity’s relentless and uncompromising force pushing down on it almost 24*7. This force places a great strain on our spine, particularly the lower back as well as the limbs and feet. In an inverted position, cervical and thoracic parts of the vertebral column get more pressure, while the lumbar and sacral parts are relieved of much of their usual burden. This allows our spine to strengthen and learn how to carry and distribute weight along its entire length rather than just the lower part. Also positively impacts people with varicose veins as stagnant blood drains from the lower extremities more easily.
3. Regulation of endocrinal activity and improved immune system function
Inversions such as those mentioned above are designed to impact our endocrine system positively through the balancing and regulation of important hormones. The gentle pressure on the hypothalamus, pituitary and pineal glands through practice of headstand and on the thymus, thyroid, parathyroid glands through practice of shoulderstand/ plough/ bridge bring in necessary stimulation, blood, oxygen and energy.
Moreover, the thymus gland (located on the front part of our chest, between the lungs) is well-known to boost the functioning of the immune system.
Key points to note while practicing inversions:
1. Practice headstand, shoulderstand and other advanced inversions under guidance of a qualified and experienced yoga instructor. Do NOT attempt them by merely watching social media or online videos.
2. Attempt inversions after a brief warm-up such as sun salutations so that muscles, joints are more open and ready.
3. Be mindful of any present or previous head, eye, neck or shoulder injuries. Headstand can put pressure on the eyes and if you have undergone a recent eye surgery or suffer from glaucoma, check with your physician.
4. If you suffer from blood pressure issues, consult your physician before attempting.
5. Avoid during menstruation & do NOT attempt during pregnancy unless under proper guidance.
To give you a taste of an inversion practice, the video below takes you through a few inversions starting from gentler ones to more advanced. I have shared a few pointers on alignments, counter postures as well as what to focus attention on while attempting the posture. Hope you enjoy watching this and do leave in your comments!
Read Part 1: Spinal Health: Gateway To Fit Life. Part 3 of the spinal heath series will focus on yoga for thyroid health, exploring in more detail how certain postures can help manage this better.