Inversions: Turning Yoga on Its Head
The first time my yoga teacher encouraged me to go upside down into a headstand, I yelped.
My outburst was just loud enough to let everyone in the class—especially me—know that I was petrified. Stiff as an ancient tree turned to stone, I had to be told to breathe. While some people give no thought to going upside down, it was a Herculean challenge for me. I practiced for four years before I felt comfortable going up away from a wall, unassisted. I’ve since learned that the poses I find most difficult, whatever they may be, have the richest rewards.
Headstand, or sirsasana, as it’s called in Sanskrit, is not a beginner’s pose. But it blesses practitioners with a beginner’s mind. It’s almost a cliché: standing on my head gives me a new perspective. But it’s true. Reversing my relationship to gravity alternates the flow of prana, or life force, through my body. Increased blood circulation refreshes the pituitary and pineal glands, located in the head. Blood drains from my legs and is cycled fresh throughout my tissues and organs. Out with the old and in with the new. Yogis credit sirsasana with cultivating courage, clarity of thought, even-mindedness, and compassion.
Like all other inversions, sirsasana requires a solid connection between the upper and lower body. When I started doing asana, I had difficulty translating my teacher’s instructions into physical movement. I was so disconnected from my body that I thought I had to look down at my legs in order to move them. Understandably, throwing them up into the air where I couldn’t see them was cause for alarm.
Inversions also require engaging the pelvic floor. This web of muscles below the belly is the seat of strength. Summoning this strength requires letting go of a victim’s attitude, martyr’s role, or passive approach to life—especially a passive-aggressive approach. Tapping into that continuous flow of energy means finding my real strength, who I truly am. When I access that, it doesn’t matter what happens; I will intuitively know how to handle it.
For some people, this surrender comes natural. For me, it was wrestling a bone from a bulldog. On a subconscious level, I believed that being stiff and fearful would protect me. But clenched fingers and gritted teeth didn’t lend me the power to lift my legs over my head. I had to develop a sense of balance, concentration, and trust.
My sirsasana practice included many preparatory steps: repeatedly kicking my legs up from downward dog to establish a sense of lightness in my lower body; using a headstander (blocks of wood that support the shoulders); and strengthening exercises. In class we practiced going up and over—and coming out of the pose backward. My teacher guided my legs as they flopped down behind me. This required faith. It taught me to land like a cat, rather than crunch over to one side. Control freaks tend to keel to the left or right, rather than flip all the way over into the unknown.
My case of mind–body disconnect might sound extreme, but since becoming a yoga teacher myself I’ve found that it’s common. Modern culture moves at breakneck speed, pressures us to look outward for reassurance, and saturates us in addictive substances and activities. Turning inward requires courage but repays each effort handsomely. Over time, I gathered my strength, inched away from the wall, and turned my old ideas on their head.
Up and Over
Ready to go upside down?
Try these exercises to prepare yourself for sirsasana:
1) Kick and float the legs up from downward dog.
2) Practice downward dog with hands in the headstand position (hands interlaced on mat, forming a triangle with elbows placed directly beneath shoulders). Slowly lower your chin over your hands, hold for a breath, then return to starting position.
3) From the position described above, walk your feet up a wall until your legs form a 90-degree angle with your torso.
4) Practice the pose halfway, keeping knees tucked into chest.
5) Practice pelvic floor exercises.
Remember to breathe continuously.
For an illustrated sequence to build strength and confidence for headstand and other inversions, visit spiritualityhealth.com/inversions.