Table of contents
Defying Gravity – A Unique Characteristic of Yoga
Inversions, in which the body is upside down defying gravity, are undoubtedly a unique characteristic of yoga. The two significant inversions are headstand or Shirshasana (pictured) and Shoulder stand or Sarvangasana. These are considered the king and queen of all asanas.
At one point in my life, I practiced Tai Chi in addition to yoga and I truly enjoyed it. There were even rare moments I contemplated devoting myself to Tai Chi at the expense of yoga, but each time this thought arose, I just could not bear the thought of giving up inversions. Indeed, there is no substitute for inversions; inversions are a component central and essential to yoga and are truly one of the gifts that yoga brings to society, humanity, and us individuals. The benefits inverted asanas can offer are tremendous.
Many years ago, when I installed the first rope in my home in order to do a hanging headstand, my eldest daughter, who was a small child then, hung upside down on the rope and said, “wow dad, how fun! It just makes life more fun!” Since then, I cannot find a more accurate expression of the feeling you get when you perform inversions: It really does make life more fun!
Whatever nectar flows from the moon which is divine form, it is all swallowed up by the sun. Hence the body decays.
There exists a divine process by which the sun is duped…
If one’s navel is high and palate is low, then the sun is above and the moon below. This position, the inverted pose (Viparita Karani), is to be learned through the instructions of a Guru.Hata Yoga Pradipika III, 77-79
The above quote from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes symbolically the extraordinary benefits of inverted poses. The downward flow of the nectar which is swallowed up, causes the body to decay. Inverted poses reverse, or at least slow this process. Indeed, inverted positions – a unique gift of Yoga – are a great benefit. These poses take us to an inner journey into the core of our being. They touch and heal us on a deep level; they penetrate deep within, where our fears are hidden yet where our powers and joy can be found.
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The benefits of inverted asanas
Geeta Iyengar and Lois Steinberg describe the benefits of inversions in the following words:
… In addition to the reproductive effects, inversions also benefit the endocrine, lymphatic, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, urinary, excretory, and central nervous systems. The pituitary, pineal, thyroid, and adrenal glands receive a proper blood supply. Inversions are the greatest poses for balancing hormones, which are also connected to maintaining bone density. Constipation, flatulence, and hemorrhoids are alleviated. The urinary tract, urethra, kidneys, and bladder benefit from the relief given by the anti-gravitational force. Again, mineral loss from the bones is checked when the muscles and bones are going against gravity. The resilience of the lungs is improved, and the body is kept warm. Retention of fluid, edema of the lower legs is reduced. The brain receives a healthy current of blood, is rejuvenated, and the clarity of thoughts predominates. Sleep problems may improve. A state of equilibrium, balance, and health is established with the regular practice of inversion.Woman’s Yoga Practice by Geeta Iyengar and Lois Steinberg, p. 120
Geeta Iyengar writes
…one should not perform inversions during menstruation. Inversions performed during menstruation arrest the menstrual flow. They dry up the uterus and can lead to complications like cysts and fibroids if practiced during menstruation. On the other hand, inversions can control menstrual bleeding when it exceeds the normal duration or if it occurs in-between. They check the flow and strengthen the uterine system. They dry up the area faster than any other asana. One should immediately commence the practice of inversions after the completion of menstruation since it is the time for the re-establishment of hormonal balance. Such a practice will prevent diseases like endometriosis, leucorrhea, and also miscarriages. They help in maintaining the health of the reproductive system.(Yoga Rahasya volume B, p.29)
Concerning the benefits of practicing inverted asanas during pregnancy she writes:
… pregnancy is the opposite state of menstruation as the fetus has to be retained. Inverted postures should be performed in the first three months when there is a chance of miscarriage, especially for those who are prone to miscarriages and abortions. One can continue to practice them up to the end of the pregnancy. Their regular practice strengthens the spine, improves blood circulation, checks water retention, prevents infections, maintains hormonal balance, lubricates the reproductive passage, checks blood pressure, maintains emotional and mental balance. Inversions are harmful during menstruation and helpful during pregnancy. Avoid inversions during menstruation but practice them religiously during pregnancy. One should continue with the practice of inversions even after menopause in order to keep a check on blood pressure, heart problems, circulatory defects, and aging. We have to learn to be in an inverted position as long as we are in an upright position!.Ibid., p.29
Inversions are also the gateways to Pranayama practice:
Sirsasana unfolds two diaphragms or hearts. It is a very important asana for understanding the suction and spreading of the pelvic floor, which is the heart of Mulabandha, and the suction and spreading of the abdomen for Uddiyanabandha. The variations in Sirsasana intensify this action. Sarvangasana and Halasana pacify the vocal diaphragm and allow it to spread, whilst unblocking the neck and thus allowing Jalandharabandha to be unfolded. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana awakens all three bandhas.The Hero’s contemplation, by Cristian Pisano, p. 124
Inverted poses teach us what is a Yogic mind – an alert, neutral, innocent, non-reactive, and passive mind. Inverted asanas are central in the Iyengar method and long stays in Sirsasana and Sarvangasana are an integral part of the daily routine of every serious practitioner. Iyengar summarized his description of the effects of Sirsasana in Light on Yoga, in these inspirational words:
The regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind, and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.
I strongly identify with the following words of Geeta and Lois:
The benefits of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized. Practitioners of inverted postures experience the effects daily. If circumstances truncate the time for practice, they know to do Sirsasana and Sarvangasana as their benefits would be missed.Woman’s Yoga Practice
Duration of practicing inversions
These two key inversions complement each other; Sirsasana represents the dynamic, active (Surya or sun) element, whereas Sarvangasana the passive, contemplative (Chandra or moon) element. Hence, in the practice sequence, Sarvangasana and its variations will appear after Sirsasana and toward the end of the session. It is recommended to stay in Sarvangasana and its variations, one and a half times longer than the duration of Sirsasana and its variations.
Duration is a very important factor. To get the full anatomical, physiological, mental, and psychological benefits of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana one needs to stay in them for more than just a few minutes. The internal processes that take place need time to yield effects. As Prashant Iyengar terms it: “you can’t put rice in boiling water and expect it to be ready after just one minute.” Every now and then, I dedicate most of my daily practice to inversions and stay 30 minutes in Sirsasana and 45 minutes in Sarvangasana & Halasana – this is a very deep practice and it changes completely the state of the mind!
Staying for 10 minutes or more in Sirsasana or Sarvangasana is challenging both physically and mentally. Develop your practice gradually and consistently and build up your mental and physical capabilities so you can stay for long durations. Until then you can complement the independent practice of these poses with intervals of practice with props. Iyengar has developed props that allow almost everyone to savor the flavor of long stays in inversions; Rope Sirsasana and Chair Sarvangasana are the most useful and beneficial; but many other props and arrangements of blankets, bolsters, and blocks, help to extend the duration of the pose without excessive effort. These are documented in Volume III of my book Props for Yoga.
Avoid practicing inversions if you suffer from:
- High blood pressure
- Eyes or ears problem
- Heart disease
- Dizziness or nausea
- Women shouldn’t practice inversions during menstruation days
If you have neck problems, you can still practice inversions using props (consult your teacher on the appropriate method)