Why do we do inversions in Iyengar yoga?
by Shayna Ogden
Sitting in my local library chatting to an erstwhile yoga student, I was contemplating subject material for my next blog instalment. I asked her if she had any burning questions to ask about yoga. What is it that she most wanted to know about yoga?
“Inversions” she replied.
“What about them?” I asked. So she dictated a list of her questions about inversions and here, I attempt to answer them all.
Why do inversions?
What are the benefits of turning oneself upside down? Why would someone want to do that?
There are many benefits. When we correctly practise inversions, the blood flow to the chest and head region is increased. In Sirsasana (headstand), this increased blood flow lubricates and refreshes the cells of the brain. As we age, brain cells begin to dry out and shrink a little, such that they can become dull, less sharp. Going up-side down returns blood to the brain ensuring these delicate cells are rejuvenated and kept in good health. One feels mentally alert and sharp when headstand is practised regularly.
Likewise the glands that are responsible for controlling hormone balance in the body (pituitary, pineal, thyroid and adrenal glands) receive a proper blood supply, and are stimulated ensuring that they function effectively and efficiently.
Whilst there are few scientific studies to prove that inversions have these benefits, from my own experience, my mind feels quiet but sharp after long inversions. I can feel my heart rate decrease. Since commencing the practice of daily, longish inversions as well as regular forward bends my menstrual cycle has stabilised and become regular. I know this is also true for many other long term yoga practitioners.
Sirsasana is regarded as the king of the asanas as it is energising and uplifting, it relates to the sun energy. Sarvangasana on the other hand is known as the queen of the asanas, is cooling and quietening and relates to moon energy. Sarvangasana is particularly helpful for the health of the thyroid and parathyroid. Done together, one after the other, the inversions are both invigorating and quietening. The nervous system is soothed and cooled. A scattered, busy mind from the rigours of the day is brought to a quiet steady state. The skin on the upper trunk becomes soft and silky – it develops a creamy texture.
The inversions provide a sensation or feeling that is impossible to get from any other type of practice (swimming, music, art). For me, a day without inversions feels incomplete.
Because headstand is stimulating and shoulderstand quietening, when practised together in the one sessions (as they should be), headstand should always be practised first followed by sarvangasana to quieten the system. Sarvangasana should be held at least as long as headstand, preferably longer. For example if you do Sirsasana for 5 minutes, you should stay in Sarvangasana and its variations for 7 minutes or so.
Why so long?
We stay in the inversions for longer times to allow the benefits of the poses to take effect. The benefits do not come instantaneously. We have to work and stay to accrue these things. We have to ‘cook’ in the pose until we are ready. When beginners first learn to go upside down, they are not expected to stay for such a long time. It is understood that beginners first need to learn how to do the pose before they can stay longer to increase the benefits. They might only stay a for one minute initially.
When first learning how to do these poses, Sarvangasana is always introduced first. Beginners usually learn how to go up against a wall first then soon after they will learn how to do it in the middle of the room. Once a student can hold Sarvangasana independently for 5 minutes or so, it is a good indicator of readiness to learn Sirsasana.
When is a good time?
The inversions can be practised at any time of day but they work better when practised in the afternoon or evening. Before bed can be a good time however this may be too soon after the evening meal. Remember that yoga should not be practised within three hours of eating a main meal – your body will still be digesting and you will feel uncomfortable and sluggish.
Inversions can be practised in the morning but at this time the body tends to be a little stiffer, especially the neck and shoulders. So if practising in the morning, inversions work better at the end of the sequence rather than at the beginning when the neck and shoulders have loosened up.
Prior to performing the inversions, it is preferable to do a few asanas to ‘warm up’ or prepare the neck and shoulders. Typically we start a sequence with a supine pose over a blanket or bolster (Supta Virasana or Supta Baddha Konasana) then go forward to Adho Mukha Virasana, Uttanasana and Adho Mukha Svanasana (dog pose). The standing poses are useful to energise and activate the arms and legs which are required to be fully alert and engaged in the inversions (see our blog post Why do we focus so much on standing poses in Iyengar Yoga). If the student hasn’t learnt to ‘switch on’ the legs in the standing poses then the inversions will be difficult.
Surely inversions are a pain in the neck?
Some students complain about neck pain or discomfort of the head pressing into the floor in headstand and / or shoulderstand. This should not be the case. If there is pain or discomfort (pressure of the head into the floor or pressure inside the head) then the pose is being performed incorrectly and the student should come down. In shoulderstand, typically these problems occur if the student cannot get high enough onto the tips of the shoulders and is instead resting or dropping heavily onto the back of the shoulder blades with the back waist resting in the hands. Possibly extra height (blankets) are required under the shoulders to assist in getting high onto the tips of the shoulders. The belt should also be adjusted to a width that will keep the elbows in rather than splaying wide to the side. This will help to keep the trunk and spine ascending and alleviate any head pressure. If the elbows flare out, the shoulder blades and back ribs will drop causing the spine to drop and will put pressure on the cervical spine (neck).
Similarly in sirsanasana, if the shoulders drop down there will be pressure on the neck and it may feel as if the head is being ‘driven’ into the floor. This is incorrect. The shoulders must lift. In both poses if the legs are dull or inactive the spine will drop causing compression in the neck – hence the importance of learning the standing poses well as preparatory poses for inversions.
Inversions must not be performed during menstruation. The period of menstruation requires that a specific set of asanas be performed to assist in the expulsion of menstrual material from the body but also to alleviate discomfort caused by menstruation, to balance the hormonal system and to soothe and quieten the nervous system. Repeated practice of inversions during menstruation could cause health disorders later including irregular periods or heavy periods and could aggravate (or potentially cause) conditions such as uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts or irregular cells in the cervix. Refer to our previous blog post Why are we concerned about menstruation in Iyengar yoga? for more information about menstruation and yoga.
Inversions are highly beneficial when practised during pregnancy if the woman is able. This should be done under the supervision and guidance of a qualified teacher.
Some women experience embarrassing symptoms during inversions. When going upside down the vaginal wall widens sucking air into the cavity. This air is then involuntarily expelled through the vagina causing a loud ‘farting’ noise, usually referred to among women as ‘fanny farts’. The process doesn’t involve waste gases and so does not have a specific odour. The woman has no control over this phenonemon and it can be very embarrassing. I know that it has put some women off doing shoulderstand. This can happen a lot for some women. It is more common in women who have had babies or multiple babies, abdominal surgery or a C-section (or two or three). It is associated with the uterus having been expanded and not completely returning to its original shape. This condition is resolved quickly by practice of standing poses to draw the abdomen back in and firm and tone the abdominal muscles for the inversions. Keeping the tailbone pinned in towards the pubis will cause the mula bandha grip and will help. Personally I found after each of my three pregnancies, practice of Virabhdrasana II with specific attention to pinning the tailbone in to the pubic bone solved the problem. I know it can be an awkward moment but if possible, get over it. Don’t let embarrassment stop you doing yoga.
If the neck, shoulders or head feel pressure or discomfort in any of the inversions, it might be alleviated by the correct use of props. In Sirsasana this might mean placing a block or blocks into the shoulder blades to lift the shoulders whilst doing Sirsasana against the wall. In Sarvangasana you may require extra height under the shoulders, extra support between the shoulder blades or under the elbows. There are many ways that props can be used to get the correct shape, lift and alignment in the inversions such that there is no discomfort or potential for injury and the student performs the pose correctly. This is why it is difficult to learn the inversions without the correct guidance from a qualified teacher. You need to attend classes regularly to learn to perform the inversions well.
Practice of the inversions or practice of a suitable similar alternative for those who are not ready to go upside down are important for a complete yoga practice. Inversions are an important part of the system of yoga. Unless there is a medical reason for not doing them (eg glaucoma), they should be done. Avoiding inversions means that the yoga practice is incomplete. They are so invigorating, dynamic, uplifting and yet soothing, calming and quietening all at the same time. They alter mood and make you feel good. So why wouldn’t you want to do inversions? Try.