Yoga blog and class notes 24 February 2017

Why go upside down?

Doing an inversion is today regarded as a fundamental aspect of a yoga sequence, along with twists and forward and back bends. Even without realising it, you are already doing quite a few inversions, in which the head is taken below the heart, in class. Examples include standing forward bends and downward dog 

Some yogis believe that more challenging inversions such as headstand and shoulderstand should form the pinnacle of a good practice, and these are usually done near the end of a sequence before relaxation.

Most of these are more recent inventions, and even sun salutations, one of the most venerated yoga sequences today, were invented in the 1930s, while the more acrobatic inversions and arm balances have only appeared in the past few decades.

Gentle or strong, they usually come with health warnings – they are not advisable if you have neck issues, high blood pressure, or eye problems such as glaucoma, for example.

Why do we do them if they carry some health risks?  

Because of the potential benefits: after all, we can agree that “putting our feet up” is a good way to restore a tired body. So, the approach I take in my class is to practice the more gentle inversions with the head below the heart, such as legs up the wall, downward dog, standing forward bends, and supported bridge. For students with a more regular practice, I suggest including shoulder stand, plough and half-handstands.

What happens when we invert?

As the body is made up of 60 per cent water, these postures can have quite a strong affect. They reverse the normal flow of fluids in the body, encouraging the return of blood to the heart down the veins in the legs, and more blood into the head. They change the way gravity works on the lymphatic system – and the movement of the lymph which seeps through all of the tissues, helping to cleanse and eliminate waste products.

They are also thought to change our mood, as they are thought to affect the hormonal system, and make us breathe in a different way too. Practised safely, they can help us feel more relaxed and reduce stress levels. For those who move onto the more challenging ones, such as handstand, it can also bring about a boost in self confidence when we succeed in doing them.

They can also have the opposite effect, for example a beginner or older student might be put off from doing yoga by seeing lots of more athletic people springing up into arms balances, or failing to do one. Or worse still, someone might stay too long in a pose like shoulder stand, ignoring painful warning signs, as they didn’t want to come out of the posture before the others.

As ever, my advice is to listen to your body. It’s your practice, and don’t let others throw you off balance (literally!) Start gently, and explore how you feel when you practise your inversions. Don’t forget that building the strength in the body is fundamental to safely coming into and holding inversions such as shoulderstand and headstand, and even downward dog. Remember to think about your alignment too – which will be the topic for my class this coming week.

The sketches below are a reminder of some of what we practised last week. Please warm up first, and give yourselves at least five minutes of relaxation at the end.