Yoga tips

Inversions

In essence, an inversion is a Yoga pose that turns you upside-down to some degree.  Common examples are headstand and shoulderstand, both of which I'll talk about more in a moment.  However there are plenty of simpler gentler, and safer ways to invert, and they give many of the same benefits.

Benefits and Cautions

Our bodies are mostly water, which is constantly affected by the pull of gravity.  When we invert, gravity is now pulling the other way.  The stale blood in the legs returns more easily to the heart whilst the brain gets an enhanced supply of oxygen.  The lymph system removes waste products more efficiently.  You might find relief from blocked up lungs, and indeed all the organs can be affected.

However this reversal is not guaranteed to be beneficial for everyone - consult your doctor if any of these apply to you or if you are in doubt.

  • If you have high-blood pressure or other heart problem - the added blood pressure in the heart and brain can be too much.
  • During pregnancy (check with a specialist teacher) or menstruation (reversed gravity can aversely affect the flow - but opinions vary and it's a personal thing).
  • Various injuries, especially eyes such as Glaucoma where fluid flow in the eye is impaired.

Easy inversions

"Legs up the wall pose", known in Sanskrit as Viparita Karani, is a simple inversion that is safe for most people.  It brings the benefits of inversions in a safe, relaxed way.  There are plenty of websites with details.

If your back is healthy, strong and reasonably flexible, then you might like the variation shown in the picture.  Before you start, position a chair just behind where your head will be in case you need some help getting out!  As with the basic pose, the easiest way in is to roll in from slightly sideways; then gently open your chest and lean back.  Keep the back of the neck long.  The head is just resting gently, taking its own weight and no more - hence we have also reversed the effect of gravity on the spine - instead of compressing, it is lengthening.  Don't stay too long at first.

Don't forget, many regular poses are partial inversions, e.g. standing forward bend or downward-facing dog.

Shoulderstand and Headstand

Often dubbed the queen and king of poses, these strong inversions are a key part of many people's Yoga practice.  Certainly they can be highly beneficial, but also both poses can lead to neck problems if done wrongly.  I would advise that you learn them thoroughly in your class before trying them at home - you cannot possibly learn them well from this article or any website.   Don't try them if you have neck or back problems.

Good alignment is crucial in both poses - and lack in either strength or flexibility can create problems.  Unfortunately, when we are first learning to turn upside down, we tend to lose all awareness of our alignment.  A good teacher will lead you through a sequence of poses to help you gain what you are lacking.  It's crucial that you set yourself the aim to help your body gain health and eventually do the pose well, rather than being determined to achieve a particular body shape now at all costs.

Shoulderstand

  • The weight must be on the shoulders and arm, not the neck.
  • Neck needs to strongly flex (bend forwards) - if tight stay lower.
  • Arms need flexibility to move behind body and strength to press firmly into the ground whilst behind.
  • Core must be strong to keep the pose alive and not sagging.

Headstand

  • Neck must be aligned with each vertebra stacked above the next, so the bodyweight transfers through without strain.
  • Shoulders must be flexible to allow the arms to reach comfortably into the ground be the head, and strong enough to actively support the body from there.
  • Core must be strong to keep the pose alive and not sagging.
  • Hamstrings must be long enough to walk the feet in close when entering the pose (don't jump in!)

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Yoga poses: what, why, how

Most Western Yoga classes are primarily a physical practice.

The original Sanskrit word asana means manner of sitting, but is now used to cover any Yoga position.  The common English translations are pose or posture.  To my mind, neither translation is ideal because the words share a second possible meaning: behave in a way that is intended to impress or mislead - which could hardly be further from the right approach.

In essence, I would say a pose is a way of working the body physically that is beneficial to health.  Many of the common poses have been practised for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Wise sages dedicated their lives to studying their minds and bodies.  The exercises that are handed down to us are those that stood the test of time.

A pose is a challenge to the body.  Some muscles have to lengthen, some activate, some even do both.  The mind has to orchestrate this potentially complicated combination, keeping maximum awareness of what degree to push the challenge to - always keeping calm and breathing smoothly.  Our bodies are amazing things, and if we regularly challenge them in a particular way, then they get better at doing it.

So it's simple then?  Well not entirely.  Here are my tips to get the most our of your poses:

  • Practise regularly.  Obvious, but crucial.  Even 10 minutes 5 times a week makes a big difference.
  • Maintain awareness.  Are parts of your body wondering off in wrong directions?  More subtly, are you engaging and releasing the correct places?  Are you challenged but not strained?  Are you mind and breath calm?  The classic ancient text Patanjali's Yoga Sutras says "the pose is firm and soft" (II.46).
  • Remember that the prime purpose is to benefit your health.  Set aside how your thoughts on how impressive the body shape might be, or whether you can reach some part of your body to touch another part.
  • Each pose is a journey.  "Can you do such-and-such-a-pose?" is a nonsense question.  Keep practising Yoga, and you will come back to each pose again and again to get some new benefit from it.
  • Poses are not fixed.  Different teachers might give different instructions.  I might give two students different instructions each, or even different ones to the same student on different days.  You can use props/not; work deeply or gently; hold longer or shorter; emphasise one body part or another.  Try to feel the essence of a pose and build from that.
  • When doing self-practice, try to pick the poses that will help you most - probably not the one you find easy, nor necessarily the one you desperately want to be able to do.  Much of my own practice is simple poses to work weak and tight areas.  From time-to-time I come back to my challenge poses, and sometimes they've got easier. 

Above all, practise with the right mental approach and you will reliably end up feeling great - even on days when your body is more tired or tight - provided you don't spoil it with a fixed mind that says something different ought to be happening.

Happy practice!

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