There’s a lot of hype behind getting upside down in a yoga class. Seeing someone on Instagram nailing a headstand or handstand makes most people think “wow, I want to do that!”
But there’s more behind the scenes to yoga inversions than just a pretty picture. Yoga inversions can be powerful and insightful. Getting upside down has numerous benefits so naturally, it should be part of any yoga practice. With that said, safely should be a priority for any practitioner especially when exploring inversions. Getting upside down without proper training and form can easily result in injuries with painful consequences.
First, it’s valuable to understand exactly “what” a yoga inversion is. The definition refers to any yoga pose that allows the head to rest below the heart OR when the legs (and feet) are above the hips.
Why is this important to understand? Because not all inversions are completely upside down. In fact, one of my favourite inversions is practiced with a reclined torso. Technically, even downward facing dog is an inversion. Which brings me to another important point…
Not all inversions should be practiced all the time. In fact, there are some yoga inversions that should be avoided under specific circumstances. Those circumstances involve creating discomfort or pain. In yoga, one of the ethical codes that yogis follow includes “ahimsa” aka non-harming which means to avoid harming yourself or others. Although some poses, plank or chair for example, may not be “comfortable” but they shouldn’t be painful. Particularly, for your joints.
When Yoga Inversions Should Be Avoided
The below circumstances require extra attention and care when the head is below the heart and the pelvis is above the heart:
- Heavy days of a menstrual cycle
- Eye/ear/sinus infection or extra pressure (a cold for example)
- High Blood Pressure
- Eye problems that apply additional pressure to the eye (glaucoma)
If legs are also elevated (like in a headstand for example) extra caution for:
- Recent internal surgery
Some of the above examples are a “yellow” caution light, rather than a hard “no-go.” I believe it’s important that each yogi uncover what is right for them. For some people, they may be perfectly comfortable practicing with a cold and not feel additional pressure or pain. Pregnancy is another yellow light. Although it might not be appropriate for newer yogis, due to risk of falling, experienced practitioners may love getting upside down. Another point to consider is what stage of pregnancy the practitioner is in. During later stages it may be not appropriate due to the core strength many inversions involve and the risk of diastasis recti.
Alright, so If I’ve scared you off—have no fear. Yoga inversions can be extremely safe, supportive, and even fun!
The key element is whether the inversions are taught properly since technique and muscular engagement are the tools to practicing safely. It’s also important to consider past injuries or sensitivities. For instance, practicing handstand might not make sense for a student with a wrist injury, and that’s ok, but there may be other yoga inversions—perhaps headstand—that help them feel empowered.
My favourite “anytime” inversion
If I’m experiencing any of the yellow lights mentioned earlier, my favourite inversion to practice is legs up the wall. It has many of the benefits of the traditional yoga inversions without the risk, discomfort, or pain.
How-To Practice Legs-Up-The-Wall (aka Viparita Karani):
- Lay your mat up along a wall
- Set both sit bones sideways on the wall (so you’re laying on your side)
- Rest both shoulders down, send your feet up the wall
- Circulation: allows the circulatory system to become more adaptable. More easily transports blood (in legs) through veins back to the heart (with the assistance of gravity)
- Very grounding and soothing, especially since the heart is more relaxed
- Can relieve edema (swelling) in feet and legs
- Used to mitigate pain of headaches
- May prevent varicose veins or assist with other circulation issues
- Stimulates the first chakra (muladhara) associated with grounding, safety, security, and feeling “home”
Inversions are a fun way to test your boundaries, experience freedom, and explore the unknown in your yoga practice. Navigating these shapes safely will align you with the compassionate values of yoga while staying injury free.