Life has a way of surprising us, so it’s empowering to be the one to decide to turn life upside down. Yoga inversions are a safe, beautiful, exhilarating way to do just that.
A yoga inversion is simply any asana that brings the hips above the heart or the head below the heart. With this simple definition, an inversion takes – literally – many shapes and forms depending on what your body needs and is prepared for. Whether it’s as basic as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) or as challenging as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), there is a place for inversions in your practice.
Inversions help to counter the effect of gravity on the body. This includes relieving compression that comes from simple daily activities. Going upside-down has also been shown to benefit the nervous system, aid in lymphatic drainage, and generate health in the cardiovascular network. Finally, inverted poses boost blood flow to the brain, heart and lungs.
Increased blood flow to the brain from inversions has a beneficial effect on the pineal gland, the pituitary gland, and brain functioning in general. This type of blood flow autoregulation also leads to the improved tone of veins in the lower body, so inverted postures are effective in preventing varicose veins.
Especially interesting is the relationship between inversions and a healthy lymphatic system. Lymph (a toxin and bacteria-removing substance) moves as a result of muscle contractions and gravity. Because of this dependence on muscle movement, getting your head below your heart allows lymph to more easily travel into the respiratory system where toxins enter the body.
Studies and anecdotal evidence from yogis suggests that inverted postures have a positive impact on:
- stress, insomnia and many other nervous disorders
- weakened immune system
- diseases of the digestive system
- varicose veins
- hormonal disorders
Like most good things in life, inversions challenge us, scare us, and inspire us while building us up in terms of confidence and courage.
In especially challenging inversions, such as Handstand or Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), we become extremely focused. With focus comes a complete surrender to the present moment – which is the ultimate goal of yoga.
Relaxing inversions, like Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Viparita Karani (Legs up the Wall Pose) can soothe the nervous system, thereby also soothing the mind. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, inversions can produce feelings of balance and calm. This balance is especially potent when combined with a pose like Sirsasana (Headstand), which invigorates the blood and clears the mind.
Finally, inversions are a powerful tool for teaching patience and the power of practice. Because inversions can be tough – not to mention humbling – practicing them provides an outlet to learning non-attachment. With enough practice, you learn not to focus on what the pose looks like, but on being in the moment. By trying to muscle your way into balance, you’ll find yourself flat on your face. With a balanced mind, a balanced body is sure to follow.
Building Inversions into your Practice
When you’re adding inversions to your practice, there’s one rule to top them all: make it fun! Remember your favorite inversion the next time you practice with a teacher and try it at home. This becomes especially important as you progress in your practice and lean into the yoga lifestyle. It’s one thing to kick up against a wall into Handstand in a yoga class; it’s quite another to diligently strive for balance in your own home. At home, you can fall, or cuss, or get frustrated, or do a little dance when you finally touch your foot to the wall, without anyone to judge you.
A key to building inversions into a consistent practice is to never give up. If you stick with it, you’ll find yourself challenged and rewarded by practicing inversions you’ve only dreamed of. As beloved Ashtanga founder K. Pattabhi Jois said: “Practice and all is coming.”
Finally, a story to inspire you on the path towards inversion mastery. The mother of Aadil Palkhivala, the founder of Purna Yoga centres in Washington State, was a successful Bombay lawyer. Like any business person, she faced an acute shortage of time; therefore, she needed a short but effective Yoga sequence. In the 1960s, B. K. S. Iyengar identified the ‘three most important asanas’ and advised her to practice Sirsasana daily for two minutes, Sarvangasana for five minutes, and Savasana for as long as possible. It’s noteworthy that the routine created by a famous master involves two inverted poses of only three asanas total.