The Classical Inversions of Hatha Yoga:
The Technology, Benefits and Risks
Practicing and teaching the classical inversions of hatha-yoga is undoubtedly a very tricky and hazardous business. All the possible risks (which are many) and benefits (most of which can be achieved through other less risky, similar and easier postures) must be carefully taken into consideration in each particular case, and then the well-known classical inversions – which are shoulderstand (salamba-sarvangasana) with arm support and headstand (salamba-sirshasana) with arm support – can be very discriminately and very gradually practiced by and taught to only some people, let’s say one in five, or less. There are good and effective substitutes for them like ardha-sarvangasana, halasana, urdhva-prasrta-padasana, dvipada-vipraita-karani, dvipada-pitha, sasakasana, apanasana, balasana, uttanasana, pascimottanasana, stretching the legs against the wall at a comfortable angle while lying on the back or putting the legs on a chair bent at the knees and many more. I usually teach only viparita-karani-mudra (a half-shoulderstand in which there is a slight angle between the legs and the torso) to avoid the pressure on the neck (which is significant if the body is fully straightened as is the case in full shoulderstand) and get all the benefits or almost all the benefits from a Yogic inversion. I personally practice both classical inversions, but only occasionally and very carefully, and I have an extensive background in complex movement through artistic gymnastics that I practiced for ten years in my teenage years and martial arts that I am still practicing. The first principle in teaching Yoga for me has always been safety. And when practicing and teaching the inversions, safety is definitely the most important factor to be considered. If we are serious teachers, we need to put emphasis on our actual practicing/teaching experience rather than on common stereotypes, which abound in modern Yoga and sometimes affect our practice and our teaching to such an extent that we keep injuring ourselves and others (falsely) thinking that we are practicing and teaching Yoga. Of course, none of our activities is absolutely safe, but that is one of the reasons why we adapt everything to our personal needs and the needs of our students: to reduce the risks to the minimum and achieve maximum results. Perhaps there is no other human activity that exemplifies this truth better than Yoga, if it really is Yoga.
Practicing and teaching the classical inversions is very complex and delicate, and it all boils down to respecting individual needs and differences. Some people can benefit immensely from the inversions and can practice them until the end of their lives, with or without props, while others can be severely injured or even killed. There are also many technical details that need to be known about the safe practice of the inversions that most Yoga teachers simply don’t know. Most notably, I am referring to the principles of vinyasa-krama-yoga, or the intelligent structuring of a Yoga practice and the principles of the viniyoga of Yoga, or the efficient adapting of the Yoga techniques to a particular practitioner. Without the practical knowledge of these principles, Yoga cannot be taught safely and effectively. In short, a Yoga practice must be well-structured and well-adapted to each individual, instead of being taught indiscriminately in group classes as it is usually being taught, where the instructors more or less mechanically follow some arbitrary standardized patterns of the innumerable styles of “yoga”. This is the main cause of most injuries, including the injuries that happen in teaching the inversions to people who don’t need them or are not ready for them, and very often in the ways that are not appropriate for them.
In my careful approach to practicing and teaching the inversions, I am not disregarding Krishnamacharya’s authority (who emphasized the practice and the benefits of the inversions more than any other modern teacher). On the contrary, I respect it by actually applying the principles of vinyasa-krama-yoga and the viniyoga of Yoga to the way I am practicing and teaching all Yoga. And Krishnamacharya’s authority in the field of Yoga is primarily based on his clear and comprehensive formulation of these principles. And, in the final analysis, the authority of my personal experience is the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding what to teach and what not to teach. And my personal experience tells me that teaching the inversions in a group setting (especially if I don’t know the abilities and needs of the people I am teaching) is a very unsafe and unreasonable activity. I have been teaching Yoga for more than 20 years now and have met only 4 or 5 people who were ready for all the inversions and so could really benefit from them. On the other hand, I have seen too many people who were taught the inversions in inappropriate ways, and so either got injured or received no tangible benefits from them. So, if you are a Yoga teacher, I urge you to reconsider what you know or think you know about the inversions and perhaps modify your teaching accordingly, so that the possibility of injuries is reduced to minimum or hopefully is totally removed. If you are a Yoga student, I am asking you to find yourself a competent and caring Yoga teacher, and be very careful in the practice of the inversions, so that you are sure you are practicing the Yoga that is right for you and all the potential injuries are totally avoided.
It goes without saying that the inversions are to be taught only in a one-on-one private setting, never in a group setting because teaching them in a group class can be extremely dangerous. Almost anything can happen: a person who has never gone into a headstand might do it because other people are doing it or is encouraged by the instructor, and then either hurt only himself/herself in many different ways or fall down and badly injure himself/herself and/or somebody practicing close to him/her, even causing a domino effect of a few people falling down in a row if the place is fully packed. However, if the group is composed of experienced practitioners/teachers who are practicing the inversions on a regular basis with benefits, it can be done relatively safely, but I wouldn’t recommend it even then. Did you know that my teacher’s teacher, T. K. V. Desikachar, almost killed his first student (in a one-on-one class!) by having him lift his arms overhead a few times?! He thought: What can be the most simple and safest thing to do? However, the man had a weak heart, was obese and probably hadn’t lifted his hands overhead for 20 years or more, so he fainted, went all blue and Krishnamacharya, who was fortunately in the adjacent room, had to resuscitate him. He almost died. And his teacher Desikachar went into a state of shock and taught Yoga under the close supervision of Krishnamacharya for the next five years until he felt competent enough to teach independently. So, the point is to get a good Yoga education and know your students very well. Then you will not teach what you are supposed to teach (mechanically following a pattern) or what your students want you to teach (also mechanically following some pattern), but what you feel is the right thing to teach as an informed intuitive response to the real needs of each particular individual and the unique situation you both find yourselves in. And, as clearly stated in Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra (2.46.), each asana, the inversions included, must have the dual quality of stability (sthirata) and comfort (sukha), and the way to get there must also be stable (safe) and comfortable (joyful).
Let me now focus on a proper sequencing for a safe and effective performance of the two most important inversions – supported headstand (salamba–sirshasana) and modified, so called half-shoulderstand (ardha–sarvangasana, also known as viparita-karani-mudra). There is a lot of controversy and misunderstanding about how these quintessential Yoga postures should be performed. Their safe and effective performance is quite an achievement since most people nowadays who practice or insist on practicing these inversions do not understand the basic requirements or the purposes for which these highly coveted Yoga postures (actually, the seals, or mudras of hatha-yoga) should be practiced. So, the point of this article is to show and explain in clear terms how and why these postures can be practiced without causing any health problems, and so really give their full benefits to a cautious Yoga practitioner.
Inversions, like all cultural asanas (as opposed to those used for mediation) for that matter, seem to be a relatively recent development in the history of Yoga, or more specifically hatha-yoga. And in the oldest hatha-yoga texts they are usually described under the general category of viparita-karani-mudra, whose main purpose is to stabilize the effects of asanas and pranayama, and are therefore higher, more subtle practices. Many modern Yoga innovators, including Sri T. Krishnamacharya, emphasized the practice of inversions as being very important in producing various medical and spiritual results. However, the dangers of an incorrect practice of inversions, especially those due to the exceeding pressure exerted on the neck and the increased blood pressure in the head and eyes, have not always been dealt properly by those teachers. It is true that Krishnamacharya, although a fervent practitioner of inversions himself, had said that headstand was good only for healthy people who are well-versed in Yoga and never taught inversions indiscriminately, it is still quite unclear what the purpose of inversions really is, how they should be practiced safely and why they are so important in the overall Yoga practice.
In my experience, shoulderstand holds all or almost all the benefits of headstand, excluding most of the risks present in performing headstand, especially its modified version in which there is virtually no pressure on the neck, which is also sometimes specifically referred to as viparita-karani-mudra. Headstand may be “the King of asanas”, but shoulderstand is definitely “the Heart of asanas”, especially the above-mentioned modification. Therefore, for most people, the efforts should be made to learn that posture and forget about headstand for a long time or for ever! Only adequately prepared practitioners can venture into practicing headstand and it is always done under supervision of a highly competent teacher. A person must be technically well-prepared (have all the technical information) physically well-prepared (have the muscular strength of the whole body to do it, especially in the neck, shoulders and arms), psychologically well-prepared (since inversions literally invert our experience of ourselves and the world) and spiritually well-prepared (that is, be in a real need of doing the inversions). People who have psychological problems, who are obese, have high blood pressure, glaucoma, weak heart, respiratory difficulties, any kind of neck problems and many others must all avoid headstand. Possibly some of them could try half-shoulderstand, and most of them can do half an inversion (any lying posture on the back in which the legs are lifted above the pelvis) or one third of an inversion (just holding the knees while lying on the back), especially if they are older or have low energy for whatever reason. And this can be decided only in consultation with both their Yoga teacher and their physician.
An effective practice that includes one or both classical inversions could be artfully and intelligently designed within only a 20-minute-long yogasana session, with the proper preparation and adequate counter posing included. According to the principles of vinyasa-krama-yoga, inversions are to be done in the middle of an asana practice as its peak, since they require adequate preparation in the form of the postures leading to them, and then adequate counter poses leading out of them to annul the possible negative effects they can have on the organism. Being very strenuous and demanding postures, especially in terms of the significant muscular effort needed to assume them and the necessity of deep breathing while holding them, they must be done with great caution and immaculate precision, and due effort must be made to make deep inhalations in inversions. Namely, it is easy to breathe out in them since the gravity pulls the abdominal organs downwards pressing the diaphragm, but it is quite difficult to perform a good inhale in them, for the same reason. If a practitioner does not inhale properly, tension will immediately be developed in the whole body, the breath will soon shorten and exhaustion will eventually set in, and no benefits will be accomplished in these postures. In the most advanced stages, mula and uddiyana-bandha can be applied in headstand and all three bandhas (jalandhara-bandha included) can be applied in shoulderstand, which actually turns them into a mudra, especially if they are held for longer periods of time with deep and even ujjayi breathing. When that is the case, a very strong cathartic effect on the body and mind can be achieved, making the two inverting mudras an excellent preparation for pranayama and meditation.
So, the whole body should be well-prepared through performing standing postures first, especially those involving forward bending so that the head gets prepared for the inverted position, including some postures done from the kneeling position, like adho-mukha-svanasana. The neck is properly prepared with the practice of jalandhara-bandha in each samasthiti posture (those in which the spine is straight and elongated upwards) and especially in the revolved triangle, known as utthita-trikonasana-parivrtti where the neck is properly strengthened in the rotation of the cervical spine. Without a reasonable mastery of the basic standing postures, jalandhara-bandha and (ardha-)sarvangasana it is futile and dangerous to attempt to do sirshasana. Beginners should first do some basic postures lying on the back that involve the lifting of the legs or pelvis for a long time before attempting the inversions, most notably urdhva-prasrta-padasana and dvipada-pitha, especially as a preparation for shoulderstand. To prepare specifically for headstand, other additional postures can be done, particularly dvipada-viparita-karani immediately before going into it. According to Krishnamacharya, if both inversions are practiced within one session, then headstand is always done first, since shoulderstand is done as one of its counter poses to stretch the compressed neck after doing headstand. Other recommended counter poses are balasana and savasana in order to rest the neck, shoulders and arms, and then the whole body. After shoulderstand, appropriate counter poses must also be done, especially those stretching the neck backwards. They are usually back bends done by lying on the stomach like bhujangasana and salabhasana, but matsyasana and possibly its stronger variation uttana-padasana can also be done. When practiced together, the number of breaths taken in both inversions should be the same, breathing is always long and smooth of the ujjayi type, and the eyes should be closed, even in headstand if possible. Headstand has a very stimulative effect while shoulderstand has a predominantly soothing effect on the whole organism, affecting positively all the limbs (sarva-anga), that is the whole body. Both inversions are ideally done on inhale because the legs move away from the body, but they can be done on exhale too, depending on many subjective factors, or they can be assumed in a series of steps. All kinds of props can be creatively used if necessary, especially the wall, but there are teachers who insist on doing them without leaning on the wall, relying on other methodological procedures such as the prolonged assistance of the teacher, finding balance without the help of the wall and learning how to fall safely forwards into a roll if balance is lost. Teaching methodology is very versatile and it always depends on the real needs of the practitioner, the specific situation and the changing circumstances. No methodology is the best one or the only right one. And it is crucial that headstand is always done with support (salamba) of the arms, never without support (niralamba) of the arms as it is often the case in modern Yoga in the tripod variations or even with no hands on the floor. There has to be enough of counter pressure against gravity from the forearms and shoulders all the time because not more than approximately 30 percent of the rest of the body weight should ever fall onto the neck, and the neck must be well-prepared for that heavy load because it is built to bear less than 10 percent of the body weight, that is only the weight of the head. In the classical shoulderstand with support (salamba-sarvangasana) of the arms, special attention should be paid to provide a soft base for the neck, a folded towel or blanket, so as to avoid too much pressure on the cervical vertebrae that can easily be damaged if the base is too hard.
And finally, I must emphasize that the decision whether or not to do headstand, and when to do it is quite a tricky one. Obviously, the risks must be carefully calculated, all the security measures must be applied and the practitioner must be clear what he or she wants to accomplish by doing inversions, especially headstand. The basic purpose of doing them, aside from the many obvious physiological effects that the lifting of the legs above the head and pelvis can have on the entire organism (primarily a better circulation of the blood and lymph throughout the body, especially in the head), mitigating the negative effects of gravity on the whole body (most notably by the rearranging of the misplaced vital organs, slowing down of the respiratory rate and heartbeat, regenerating the vascular system, better respiratory capacity and improved digestion and elimination) and improving all cognitive functions (better concentration, higher mental stability, increased sense of balance, better memory, sharper senses and stress resistance) is getting a radically new perspective on oneself in radical bodily positions we almost never take in our everyday life, knowing that their cleansing effects on the entire organism at all levels are also extremely strong. Doing an inversion can trigger off all kinds of very unpleasant emotions that have been bottled up, since the bottle of the body has been strongly shaken up and turned upside down. So, be wise and don’t hurry into inversions, make an informed decision and then proceed with great caution, supervised by a good teacher in a private setting. And, for most people, headstand is quite irrelevant (or even contraindicated), since some variations of shoulderstand can give us almost all the benefits of headstand without so many (in most cases quite unnecessary) risks involved in doing headstand. Other, more complex inversions like the forearm stand and handstand with all its innumerable variations are relevant only for a small number of young and strong people and are only rarely used in teaching general population. However, the variations and adaptations of the classical inversions can be practiced by those who are learning them or have learnt them well to make them easier and safer, to fight monotony and reap some additional benefits. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, obssessiveness of any kind is detrimental both in Yoga and in life, and should be avoided in the practice of the classical inversions that have proved to be addictive in many cases, which is yet another one among many of the hazards that must be taken into consideration when practicing and teaching the inversions, especially the headstand.