Ed’s Guide for Starting and Developing an Inversions Practice

What are inversions?

Any pose where the head is below the waist can be counted as an inversions posture. However, most often it’s the poses where the feet are above the head that are called “inversions”.

Inversions

Why do inversions?

Hatha Yoga is an amazing physical practice. If you read into it a little, you soon see that there is no part of the human body that is not targeted for practice. So, of course we would try to stand upside down. Hatha Yoga creates people who are as strong and stable upside down as they are standing upright.

Ok, but why do inversions?

There are lots of physical and not-so- physical benefits to practicing inversions.

Circulation

Venous return is the flow of blood back from extremities to the heart. Going upside down, against gravity, helps venous return. Venous return relies on muscular movement and gravity to move the blood.  Inversions (and aerobics) give it a helping hand, improving circulation. I am told that this can stem the development of any further varicose veins (although it cannot remove any that are already there).

Lymph flow

Our body cells create waste products as part of their normal function. These are carried away in the lymph system, which is a bit like the blood system but doesn’t have blood. Lots of our immune system works around the lymph system. Like with venous return, our bodies rely on gravity and muscular action to move lymph fluid. Inversions can really help us to keep that system moving.

Menstruation

Some people wonder whether it’s safe to go upside down while you are menstruating. There are lots of opinions about this, and basically there isn’t a definitive answer. However, Hatha Yoga recognises natural energy movements (vayus) in the human body, and during menstruation that’s predominantly downward as the body releases blood and endometrial lining. So, make it a personal choice: if you decide not to do inversions you can still work on them by doing gentle core work, balances and shoulder opening poses (more about how to prep our bodies for inversions later in the blog).

Pregnancy

Can you do inversions while pregnant? It all depends on your pre-pregnancy practice. If you practiced inversions comfortably and for a long time before becoming pregnant, it could be beneficial to continue the poses through pregnancy. Some women definitely appreciate the way that inversions take weight out of their pelvis for a while. You don’t have to go for full versions of the postures either – you can practice entry-level equivalents. Basically, it’s got to feel right and good. Please remember that pregnancy is not the time to experiment with new inversions or any other new poses that are challenging in any way for you. As with all Yoga during pregnancy, let your intuition be your guide and work with a qualified teacher that you really feel you can trust. If it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t feel good, then stop!

Confidence

Inversions are great confidence-builders – when we get them! It can take time to become safe and steady upside down, but it will feel great to know that all the effort was worthwhile. It will feel like a real achievement, and this brings a good deal of satisfaction and gives a reason to have confidence in other aspects of practice and our wider lives.

Why do I feel afraid of going upside down?

We learn to walk at a very young age. Being upright means that falling over is possible, and if you’ve ever been around toddlers you’ll have seen it happen a lot! It’s at this time that we develop the reflex to put our hands out to break the fall and protect our faces and heads. That fear of bashing our heads stays with us – we have an instinct not to put our faces anywhere near the ground in vulnerable positions. And we’re going to feel vulnerable until we have the strength, balance and stability to hold inversion postures. Often people aren’t limited by strength or even balance – the thing that really roadblocks their practice is their fear of the risk of falling – and that’s completely understandable.

What and how to prepare for inversions

Our shoulders, arms and hands will learn to be as strong, stable and responsive as our hips, legs and feet. So, we must put some time into getting hands, shoulders and arms ready. Our core strength links our legs to our trunk. Shoulders and arms are not as big as hips and legs, so we need great core strength to hold it all together when we are upside down.

Hands and Wrists

It’s essential to strengthen and warm your wrists and hands if you plan to place your weight into them. Our wrists can handle our body weight – we evolved from tree-swingingmonkeys – but most of us never really use that strength so it fades. Hands and wrists are more prone to injury if not taken care of. So where do you start? Our feet have arches, and these are maintained by the strength of muscles in each foot. We walk well, and our ankles, legs, etc are well when our arches work properly. There are muscles in our hands as well, and we can get the same effect. Muscles in the hand can lift weight through the centre of the palm and give support to the wrist – in Yoga, it’s called hasta bandha. Here’s a link to my video about Vasisthasana (side plank) that discusses and demonstrates hasta bandha. Take a look, and try to find the action in your own hand (side plank practice is optional!)

Link to my hasta bandha YouTube

Finger activation – stand in front of a table or worktop with place both hands palms down and shoulder-width apart. Spread your fingers. Lift your fingers: feel muscles tense across and lift the centre of your palm, creating a suction cup. The outer circle of your palms will be firmly planted. Lean forward and shift your weight from your wrists to your top palm and your finger-tips.

Shoulders – Strength, flexibility, and mobility in your shoulders is needed. Focus on downward facing dog, puppy dog pose (against a wall or floor), and child’s pose with side stretches. Once you are comfortable, you can include dolphin pose. You might need a strap around your elbows to keep them at shoulder width for dolphin – otherwise, the elbows spread too far apart for some people. You can use a block between your hands to keep them shoulder width apart also – otherwise, the hands tend to collapse in together for some people.

Core – Core activation is an essential aspect of inversions. There are lots of ways to approach core strengthening. The golden rule is: go slowly, give yourself weeks or even months to build up your core. You risk hurting your back if you try to rush core strength.

Some things you can try: navasana (boat pose), chatturanga dandasana, planks, bakasana (crow pose), L-sits (toleasana is slightly easier if you struggle with L-sits) and knee-to- nose crunches. You’ll be shortening along the front of your torso a lot with these, so include lengthening releases such as setu bandhasana (bridge).

By the way – bakasana is especially good, because it’s a little unsteady and everyone falls out of it from time to time. That’s going to happen in inversions as well, so bakasana is great prep!

Step-by- step approach to headstand

OK, so you’ve recognised the benefits, taken note of all the precautions and spent time strengthening yourself ready for inversions. What’s next? The answer is to choose an inversion to practice and break it down. You can break it down with the help of information from your teacher, or from the internet, or from taking time to really think the posture through. Check your ideas with a competent teacher of course.

Tip-toes dolphin

In dolphin pose, simply walk your feet as close as you can to your arms. The limiting factors
are:

– Your back. Be very careful not to strain your back by walking too far in and arching
your spine. Keep a good, straight back – you might not be able to walk in very far to
start with.
– Your balance. When you can walk in close, you might start to tip over. Practice near
a wall so that you can catch yourself, and pay close attention to how your balance
feels.

 – Your strength. Keep weight out of your head by firmly pushing the whole of each
forearm very strongly to the mat. You can have the head touching the floor, but you
need to have the neck straight. The head doesn’t take weight, but it can be a balance
reference point.
– Your hamstrings. If your hamstrings are too tight to straighten your legs, then keep a
slight bend in your knees. Don’t compromise your upper body position (don’t come
too far forward) and continue to work on lifting your hips up towards the ceiling.

Breathe and maintain this pose as long as you can before you want a break – maybe 30 seconds to 60 seconds, really focusing on the position of your hips. When you need to rest,
lower your knees to the ground and rest in child’s pose. Relax your neck and shoulders and try again when you feel ready. You can repeat the pose one or two more times.

Single leg lift

Once you are comfortable walking your feet forward in dolphin, you can of course start lifting one foot off the ground. Bend the knee of your lifted leg, and tuck the heel in towards the hip. Maintain that same push and lift of your shoulders away from the floor, as a way of protecting your neck from taking all the weight of your body. You should feel the majority of the pressure on your forearms, and not on your head. Bearing all of your body weight on your head can be dangerous for your neck and spine.

Breathe and maintain this pose as long as you can before you want a break – maybe 30 seconds to 60 seconds, again, and repeat the other side. When you need to rest, lower your knees to the ground and rest in child’s pose. Relax your neck and shoulders and try again when you feel ready. You can repeat the pose one or two more times.

Again, practice near a wall so that you can catch yourself if you feel you are tipping too far.

Headstand tuck

Once you are comfortable holding one leg lifted, you can try lifting both feet off the ground. There are two ways to enter the pose.

1. Bend the knee of your lifted leg, and tuck the heel in towards the hip. Keeping that foot drawn in, lift the other as well.

2. Alternatively – this depends on hamstring flexibility and confidence – keep walking your feet in until your body is just about to tip forward. Go one tiny bit further, and as your body starts to tip your legs will naturally lift. Since they are heavy, they can counterbalance the tipping action.

Maintain that same push and lift of your shoulders away from the floor, as a way of protecting your neck from taking all the weight of your body. You should feel the majority of the pressure on your forearms, and not on your head. Pressing down hard into the ground through your forearms will keep your shoulders engaged and lifted. Squeeze your legs together firmly.

Breathe and maintain this pose as long as you can before you want a break – maybe 30 seconds to 60 seconds, again, and repeat the other side. When you need to rest, lower your knees to the ground and rest in child’s pose. Relax your neck and shoulders and try again when you feel ready. You can repeat the pose one or two more times.

Again, practice near a wall so that you can catch yourself if you feel you are tipping too far.

Wall Headstand

Now you’re getting close to a full, free-standing headstand. You can support yourself upside down on your forearms without hurting your neck or shoulders, so you can try extending your legs vertically. Be near the wall, so that you can pop your feet onto it to feel steady and to get used to the feeling of your legs towering in space. All of the same safety points apply – use your strength through your forearms, be careful not to drop your weight into your head, and only hold it as long as you can concentrate and have strength to be stable. Take rests between rounds.

BEFORE YOU START!

Yoga inversions are not recommended for people who have high blood pressure. You should also avoid them if you have any recent or ongoing neck, shoulder or spinal injuries. Don’t place lots of weight on your hands if you have wrist, elbow or shoulder injuries. Please seek help from a certified Yoga instructor and consult your doctor before starting on any exercise program. Make sure to practice against a sturdy wall in a space that is clear of any furniture or sharp objects.

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