I took a famous yoga teacher’s workshop once where we descended into the inversion trenches – it’s dangerous down there.
It was 2003, when you could say things to large groups of people and not be called out in a viral video the next day. The wildly popular teacher told us that those of us who had lost the curve in our cervical spine would be practicing headstands on our foreheads in order to learn how to “reclaim the curve.”
. . . red flag.
The woman on the mat next to me, earnestly trying to reclaim her curve, fell on the pile of blocks next to her mat. She was wincing and in tears. The teacher came over and told her to “open her eyes and not indulge in the pain.”
. . .lots and lots more red flags.
Headstands are not my thing (and, I never studied with that dude again).
But I get it. Some people love headstands. If you love them and do them and get a lot out of them, I salute you! But I also cringe at the thought of what is going on inside many bodies (even if you are holding your weight primarily in your forearms). Personally, I choose not to teach them.
A few years later, I had a student in her early 70s who decided daily headstands were good for her brain.
I objected. I was worried she’d hurt her neck.
She persisted. One day I realized I hadn’t seen her for a while. Soon after she told me that she detached her retina and was laid up for a couple of weeks after the surgery. Well, that’s one way to put the kibosh on the headstands.
Another time a student came to me with a request. He’d been all over town and NO one was able to help him nail the perfect shoulder stand.
You have thrown down the gauntlet, sir!
I was sure I could help him find the Holy Grail, the queen of inversions! After a couple sessions and a truckload of props, it became apparent that his body just wasn’t cut out for it. What about legs up the block? I offered, feebly. He let me know that he was not impressed. Epic fail.
My last inversion anecdote is personal. For years I thought if I could just get my shoulder stand right and alternate it with the perfect fish, my Hashimoto’s thyroid disease would evaporate. Eventually I gave up. I feel much better now thanks to medication and I am humbled (and slightly embarrassed) by my magical thinking about asanas.
Yes, life is filled with fantastic lessons!
Don’t get me wrong, inversions are really good. Legs up the wall, block, or the couch (sometimes while watching Netflix) is something I make sure to fit in almost daily.
But the primary mechanism that we activate in shoulder stand and headstand is the baroreflex, not T-3 production or better brain blood flow. I’m not saying inversions aren’t good for your thyroid and/or brain, but we just have no scientific evidence about that yet.
What we can say, with some amount of certainty, is that when you get upside down, you initiate changes in your blood pressure. We have pressure sensors in our hearts and carotid arteries called baroreceptors that get a little concerned when we are upside down.
When you do an inversion like legs up the block or even downward dog, your head is lower than your heart and all that blood in your legs is suddenly coasting toward your heart more easily. Gravity alters the speed and ease of blood flow and your baroreceptors start to stretch. (***EDIT – I have been schooled! This is wrong and I apologize. Blood does not flow any faster (lymph does), but blood pressure does indeed change.)
This stretch signals the Central Nervous System to send a cascade of chemical responses intent on lowering your blood pressure. This is why inversions are so very relaxing for so many people. They stimulate the relaxation response.
Most adults spend the majority of their time either sitting, standing, walking or sleeping, and perhaps a little bending over to do the laundry, pick up the newspaper, or pet the dog. In yoga asana practice we do all sorts of other things – lateral bends, forward bends, back bends, and twists from positions including standing, lying on our backs or stomachs, and/or kneeling. And then we also do inversions. All these different positions challenge your baroreceptors in ways that they don’t typically get challenged in normal adult activity.
Your blood pressure has to adapt to the different postures, and that’s why inversions (and many other postures), can help to trigger the relaxation response. They help to build physiologic resilience.
Inversions are great! Do them!
Just don’t buy into the idea that you have to nail a perfect headstand to get to yoga heaven.
Here are a few of my faves:
If you would like to know more about the benefits of inversions, when not to invert, and inversion sequences, you can download my new free guide, “Invert! The Why and How of Safe, Transformative, Sustainable Inversions.” Download it Here!
Once again, you are the voice of wisdom in the noisy yoga world. It is like attuning to that wise part of oneself who whispers her good advice. Slow down to listen and follow her.
Aw thanks so much Margaret. It’s noisy out there isn’t it? I am humbled by your words. You are so good at helping others slow down and listen to their own inner wisdom and that’s, what I think, is the highest service we can provide in this profession. Thanks for doing what you do Margaret!!
Thank you so much for this post, and all your others. I have truly been enjoying the many things I am learning from you!
Thank you for this article! I just learned to do a headstand (for the first time in my life!) at 50 years old. I have never enjoyed being upside down and at time the idea has outright terrified me. I felt compelled to learn because I am attending 200-hour teacher training later this year and I know inversion is part of the curriculum. It is something I felt like I had to “get over” before I do this.
When I think about my long-term goals both as a yogi and a future teacher, I am relieved to read this and know that I am not depriving myself or my students of any benefits by leaving “stands” out of a practice. THANK YOU for providing some freedom from the pressure to teach/practice inverted stands.
Not all bodies should do headstands. I’m 71. If I had been doing headstands all these years, they might not be a problem; however, I have a good idea what my cervical spine is like, and have osteopenia, so I know I have no business even attempting headstands. I don’t have a problem with shoulder stands when using 4-5 blankets under my shoulders but a block under the pelvis is accessible to almost everyone.
Yes, we can all find our own yoga with good advice, some research, experienced teachers, etc. Thanks for sharing!
I am grateful for your openness and you’re sharing, I have been in many classes where it is presumed that the entire class can get into the position exactly how perfect form would tell us it should be, and although the teacher is programmed to say to do it at your own level, I think they need to understand more that everyone’s meaning of own level can vary according to age, Wellness and other variables.
Aw thanks so much Marie. I love that yoga is so adaptable for all those variables.
Than you, I’ve learnt something new to start my day with.
Thanks for letting me know Mel! hope it was a helpful post for you.
Thank you so much for this article. I had an aversion to inversion but persevered as I was undertaking my 200 hr teacher training cert and what sort of a teacher would I be without headstand credentials.. one weekend of inversions = one torn retina. My opthalmologist explained the pressure increase in the vascular system and I began to question a lot of the “ benefits” of poses that I had been taught. I am sure the intent is good but frankly there seems to be a lot of Chinese whispery type info being promulgated in western yoga classes. I’ll leave the headstands ( an instagram pics) to others !
Yes and I have seen more than a few yoga teachers for their injuries.
So Sane !!! You speak my mind.
lots of love Sue! Your students are so lucky to have you!
Thank you Kristine for your common sense and safe approach to a yoga asana practice.
Headstands are indeed not for everyone and I don’t teach them either, especially for the typical population I get. I think it is actually wildy inappropriate and irresponsible to teach headstand in a large group class with only 1 teacher. Unless it’s one on one – and I think the practitioner should be assessed beforehand whether they are ready for this inversion.
Yup. I agree Linda, and perhaps that awareness has starting to percolate up into yoga teachers’ minds. I would like to think so! Practitioners have to be ready and teachers have to be really skilled and experienced to teach things like headstand IMHO.
Magical thinking about asana: oh, yes, I have been there myself! And I have attended a famous yoga teacher’s workshop and been hurt from an aggressive teacher adjustment that I did not want or invite. ***May these experiences make me a more compassionate and safe teacher.*** Thanks for being real, open, and honest. I appreciate your perspective!
Oooh Jean, sorry to hear about your unfortunate run in with the famous dude. I appreciate your intention – we can learn as much about how not to teach from some folks as we can learn how to teach from others. Thanks for your comments!
You are spot on, as usual! Those of us who teach & practice “gentle” yoga instinctively know that inversions in their extreme form are not for everyBODY! Thank you for your inspiring words!
Aw, thanks so much Susan. It’s always nice to hear from you and I hope you are doing well!
I appreciate your gentleness to yourself and, of course, to your students. Thanks foryour honesty, sensitivity and humour.
Thanks so much for your kind words Kate.
Thanks! I needed this refresher because it reminds me of why I love the The Therapeutic Yoga class—she always ends with legs up the wall. After 34 years of teaching in public schools ( mostly standing) , my body thanks me every time I do this pose.
Yes! Me too, I find legs up the wall a lifesaver, in fact, I’m on way there in a few minutes!
You hit the nail on the head. We can benefit greatly from simpler supported inversions as well as basic supported asanas.