How to embrace yoga inversions with confidence and ease
For those new to yoga, inversions — that is, poses where the body is literally flipped upside down — can seem daunting, to say the least. Even for the more experienced yogi, progressing to the next level in your inversion practice can be met with fear and you can often start to doubt whether you’re strong enough, whether you can support yourself and whether you will fall, or fail. Facing these challenges on the mat is an exercise in self-acceptance, trust and self-reflection — which you can also call upon in your day-to-day life.
Inversions are energising, invigorating postures that turn the body upside down and are typically known for building upper-body and core strength. But there’s much more to this collection of asanas than meets the eye.
When we think of inversions, headstands and shoulder stands — the king and queen asanas, as they are known — come to mind. However, technically speaking, an inversion is defined as any asana in which the head is below the heart. This means some surprising poses such as downward dog, standing forward bends, bridge pose and viparita karani — in which the legs are up against a wall — fall under the inversions category. These asanas are much gentler inversions and a great introduction to the series, particularly for newcomers who don’t want to go in head first.
After practising inversions and returning to an upright position, normal circulatory patterns are replenished and restored with new vitality that creates a sense of calm and stills the nerves.
All inversions, whether of the gentle or more dynamic variety, share the same benefits. As they literally upturn the body, these poses reverse the normal flow of blood and lymph, stimulating the organs and glandular system. As inversions increase blood flow to the head, they allow the brain to be flushed with rich, nourishing blood. After practising inversions and returning to an upright position, normal circulatory patterns are replenished and restored with new vitality that creates a sense of calm and stills the nerves.
On a more emotional and spiritual level, inverted asanas literally allow you to see things from a different perspective and help guide energy toward the head to allow for self-reflection and inner growth. These poses build great inner confidence and strength, which you can harness in your practice and in your life — but first you must take the biggest step of facing the fear around them so you can start to reap their benefits.
Make fear your friend
There’s not a lot of people who would take kindly to the challenge of turning themselves upside down and holding pretzel-like, head-standing, gravity-defying poses for minutes at a time. That’s why we yogis are a special bunch. We’re willing to be calm and patient and trust ourselves enough to put our bodies into what can seem like precarious positions in the pursuit of ultimately achieving balance, harmony and calm throughout our entire being.
Well, some of us at least, because — let’s face it — inversions are scary. And generally it’s much more than the physical aspect of the fear that gets to us; it’s the journey these complex poses take us on. Through practising inversions, you start to realise that it might not be the act of standing on your head that you’re actually finding scary but, rather, putting trust in yourself.
Through practising inversions, you start to realise that it might not be the act of standing on your head that you’re actually finding scary but, rather, putting trust in yourself.
What if I’m the only one who can’t do this? What If I’m not strong enough? What if I fall? What if I fail? Inversion practice can make you ask these questions and more; it suddenly becomes unclear whether you’re talking about the asanas or about yourself and your life.
This is why inversions teach you a lot about fear. They bring up a range of emotions but, with practice, persistence and — probably most importantly — patience, they can teach you how to get past these barriers. They teach you to harness your inner strength and put trust in yourself to, first, take on the challenge at hand. Then they make you focus on cultivating serenity and balance. When you can achieve calm and find harmony — even when you’ve been flipped upside down, in asana practice or life — you can eventually move from feeling shaky and scared to secure, strong and collected.
Having said this, it’s important to remember that fear isn’t a bad thing. Fear, after all, acts as the body’s inbuilt defence mechanism that keeps you safe from harm. When it comes to inversions, it’s vital to know your limits and boundaries so you don’t go into that unsupported headstand if you’ve never practised it before and risk hurting yourself. However, fear can also prevent you from progressing in your practice when you are indeed ready to take the next step. It can also act as a barrier preventing you from progressing spiritually and emotionally in your day-to-day life.
Releasing the ego
Inversion practice gives us a chance to take on our fears in a controlled environment and on our own terms. You can take them step by step and nurture yourself as you start to build more and more trust and confidence in your practice. Chances are you’ll have a stumble or two along the way but it’s all part of the process and eventually, perhaps even without realising it, you can move past the fear.
When you can achieve calm and find harmony — even when you’ve been flipped upside down, in asana practice or in life — you can eventually move from feeling shaky and scared to secure, strong and collected.
This whole process allows us to put yoga philosophy into action. In inversion practice, it is essential to know your limits and be gentle with yourself. This allows you the perfect space to actively practise the yogic principles of santosha, contentment with and acceptance of yourself, and ahimsa, nonviolence towards yourself.
In yoga, no matter what you’re practising or at what level, patience is key. More so than in other asanas, chances are you might not get to that final inverted position the first time around. You need to take it piece by piece. You may need to opt for a gentler variation or modification of the pose rather than push yourself too far and inflict “violence” or harm on the body. You might not get quite where you hoped but that’s all perfectly OK. It’s your individual practice and no one else’s, and learning to release the ego, giving up comparing yourself to others and practising santosha and ahimsa will help you get there — and past the fears, too.
This is the real yoga in action, in which you become aware of yourself and learn to accept who you are. Even if you don’t master the asana, in time and with practice, you start to see that you do actually have strength, courage and confidence and that it’s OK if you fall or if you don’t succeed. You can always pick yourself up and try again, whether in inversion practice or in life.
To invert or not to invert?
While inversions offer great benefits for the body and mind, they must always be practised with caution. It is essential to be on the safe side before going on the flip side, so consult your yoga teacher before practising inversions, particularly if you have a pre-existing condition or have suffered a recent injury.
Generally speaking, if you have cervical spine issues, it’s almost certain to say that inversions are unfortunately not for you. Inversions are also generally not recommended during pregnancy and, depending on the school of thought you choose to follow, during menstruation. Scientific findings in this area vary but some yogis are staunch in the belief that inversions reverse the flow of blood during menstruation, leading to endometriosis. Others refute this and leave this to the discretion of the practitioner.
A sequence of inversions
I’ll be looking at a few key inverted asanas, as well as poses that break up some of the more intensive inversions so you can tackle them gradually. These poses also focus on building upper body-strength and emphasise alignment, which can often be forgotten when in pursuit of achieving that final position. Even if you have mastered some of these inversions, try approaching these with santosha and ahmisa in mind, allowing yourself to explore, respect your limits and reflect on cultivating inner strength. This will prepare you as you eventually move further into inversion practice, at any level.
Ensure you warm up sufficiently before practising inversions and, once you get started, remember to follow up each asana with a counter-position. As the blood rushes to the head in an inversion, coming out of a pose too quickly can leave you feeling dizzy. Remember to exit out of the pose slowly and gently and into a counter-posture. Balasana, child’s pose, is ideal for this.
Dolphin pose strengthens and opens the upper body and prepares you for other inversions. Start by bringing your hands and knees onto the mat. Interlace your fingers and bring your elbows to the floor to create a tripod. Lift the hips and knees up and start to bring your heels down to the mat. You can try several variations here including lifting up and straightening your legs one at a time or transitioning from dolphin into the plank position. Remember to engage your core in this pose and any variations. Bring your awareness to the tripod created with your arms and feel the connection with the earth.
Wide-legged standing forward bend (prasarita padottanasana)
This pose combines an inversion with a forward bend and builds strength in the shoulders and upper back while stretching the hips, hamstrings and calves. Begin standing upright with your feet parallel and as far apart as possible. With the feet firmly on the mat, lift up the arms and slowly fold forward. Bring the hands to the floor and keep them shoulder-distance apart with the crown of the head pointing toward the ground. Stay here or start to bend the elbows, letting the crown touch the floor. Use a blanket or a block if unable to reach the ground.
Shoulder stand (sarvangasana)
Shoulder stand, the queen of asanas, is a calming position that allows for reflection and lots of variations. Begin lying on your back with your arms beside you. Bend the knees and bring them above your chest. Press the arms against the ground and start to lift the hips up. Use your hands to support the hips and slowly straighten the legs upward. Allow the hands to move further up to support the mid-back. Allow the chin to come close to the chest.
This is a dynamic pose in itself and can help you progress further in your inversion practice. Start by bringing your mat toward a wall and come onto all fours, with the feet against the wall and hands underneath the shoulders. Start to walk your feet up the wall. Ensure your hands are in line with the shoulders and adjust yourself if you need to. Keep both legs on the wall to create an L-shape. If you can, raise one leg up. Press down onto the ball of your foot that is on the wall and allow the heel to lift so you come onto your big toe. Hold this position, then release and repeat on the other side.
Prepare yourself for the king of the asanas by interlacing your fingers and bringing the elbows onto the mat. This is similar to dolphin pose; however, in the headstand, the crown of your head will be on the mat with the hands gently cupping the back of your head. Lift the hips and knees up, come onto your toes and start to lift one leg at a time and hold. Stay here, or try to lift both legs up and come into a full headstand. Don’t be afraid to ask your yoga teacher to stand by and support you in this pose — or you could use the wall.
Legs up the wall (viparita karani)
Viparita karani replenishes the flow of blood in the legs, and is also a relaxing pose to end your practice. Start by sitting with your side against a wall, with both knees bent and your hands behind you. Lift both legs up and start to rotate yourself to bring the legs straight onto the wall. Use your hands to adjust yourself and bring the sit bones against the wall. Bend the elbows and place them in line with the shoulders. Close the eyes and relax in this position.
A Q&A with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre
We sit down with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre, based in Byron Bay, New South Wales.
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