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Inverted postures are those poses in which the head is lower than the heart, the reverse of our usual upright orientation. Some examples of inverted poses are: Downward-facing Dog, Standing Forward Fold, Prasarita Padottanasana, Dolphin, Shoulder Stand, Headstand, and Legs-up-the-wall Pose.
All of these postures have a number of benefits to offer the practitioner, but there are a few precautions as well. For the more upside-down of the inversions (like headstand or shoulder stand), it is a good idea to gradually develop strength and skill before rushing in. These two poses in particular should not be practiced if you have very high or low blood pressure, if you are very overweight, if you have glaucoma, or if you are currently menstruating. In those cases, it is safe to work on some of the earlier or supported variations of these postures.
The unique upside-down-ness of the inverted poses provides a special set of benefits. Because the body is put into such an unfamiliar setting, our focus and concentration become heightened – both physically and mentally. For many people, one of the first responses to inverted poses is that of fear. Being upside down doesn’t feel safe and it is easy to doubt one’s abilities to be stable and supported. And just a reminder that it is indeed important to listen to your sense of safety during the yoga practice! Gradually, the longer that we practice yoga, we learn to observe physical messages of safety (“This doesn’t feel good on my knee”) versus psychological messages of safety (“I am afraid to try this pose”). This is an important tool in separating our sense of identification with our fears and also helps us gradually challenge them. This is such a gift! With regular practice, we begin to refine postures that once seemed distant and intangible… our sense of our own limitations in life becomes less and less dominant.
Physically speaking, being upside down has some important offerings. First of all, the inversions are very strengthening postures! The shoulders, back, abdomen, and legs work especially hard (when done correctly), as they are learning to work against gravity from the opposite direction. These are areas of the musculo-skeletal system that are particularly supportive, so they are good places to be strong and have many options. The topsy-turvy poses also stimulate the circulation, since everything is now moving in an opposite direction. Whereas the blood from the heart usually has to pump up toward the head and down toward the belly and legs, this is reversed during inversions. Because the blood carries in nutrients and carries away waste, strong circulation is a very important part of good health. Being upside-down flips around the internal and digestive organs and inversions are particularly good for digestive troubles of any sort. Headstand and shoulder stand in particular also stimulate the glandular/hormonal system, bringing vitality and balance.
The inverted postures are physically and mentally challenging, and have much to offer us in return. As we develop the strength for the postures, some of the brute effort is softened, and we begin to feel some of the more subtle effects of these poses. We are given a new perspective from which we can view the world, both externally and internally. Inversions are simultaneously very calming and very energizing… you’ll come out of your practice feeling confident, centered, stable, and ready to engage with the world around you. So even if these poses seem difficult and remote, keep working at it and your hard work will be rewarded!
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