Inversion yoga is exactly how it sounds: Yoga asanas done in a way so that the head is below the heart. You might instinctively think of a hand or headstand, which are advanced inversion poses. (If you are new to yoga, sign up for the Beginner’s Yoga course to start.)
While you CAN learn to do hand stands and headstands, you can also focus on asanas that are a bit easier while offering similar benefits, such as the Downward Dog or Forward Bend, which are taught in depth in our Yoga Poses Decoded class.
What Are the Benefits of Inversion Yoga?
Inversion yoga contains a host of benefits, including aiding in digestion and releasing congestion. Inversion yoga also helps with the following:
- Energizes: Think about it – when you place your head below your heart, you are changing the normal course of circulation. Blood is moving to the brain, which can help you both physically AND mentally. (Pretty cool stuff, huh?!)
- Helps With Balance: If you are working on poses such as a head stand or head stand, you will be working on keeping your balance. You can’t do either of these poses without a fair amount of balance. Keeps the Core (and Arms!) Strong. To maintain balance in an upside fashion you must engage your core. Not only that, inversion yoga poses such as the handstand and Downward Dog work the arms, too!
- Inversion Yoga Changes Circulation Patterns: With your head beneath your heart, your blood will now flow in the opposite direction. Many yoga practitioners and followers feel this reversed flow of circulation helps improve circulation throughout the entire body, along with assisting to clear up congestion and aiding in venous return.
Contraindications to Inversion Yoga
As with any exercise practice, there are cautions and contraindications for those who are practicing or considering practicing inversion yoga.
Certain poses, such as the headstand and shoulder stand, can put a lot of stress on the neck. Prior to engaging in inversion yoga, make sure you do not have problems with your neck or spine. If you have past spinal or neck injuries, you should always check with a doctor before going upside down in poses that put pressure on the neck or shoulders.If you suffer from back or neck problems, try our Yoga for Neck and Back Care class.
Additionally, if you have problems with high blood pressure, heart issues, or epilepsy, you should check with your doctor before embarking on any type of inversion yoga practice. Menstruating women, particularly those with a heavy cycle, may want to wait until the cycle has ended before doing poses that places the feet in the air.
Inversion Yoga Poses and the Benefits
So, if you’ve gotten your doctor’s okay to participate in inversion yoga, which inversion yoga poses should you try? While the Shoulder stand and headstand are great complete inversion poses, they are also fairly advanced; so we’ve included the Plow and Downward Dog in our list. These two poses offer excellent benefits, but are a little less advanced – and bit less stressful – on the body than the first two.
Shoulder Stand, known in yoga as Salamba Sarvangasana, should be entered into carefully and slowly due to potential neck strain. Some yoga practitioners recommend beginning with Viparita Karani, or Legs Up the Wall, pose. This is similar to the Shoulder Stand in that the legs are positioned up, but in Legs up the Wall there is no strain placed on the neck.
For Shoulder Stand:
- Use folded blankets for support.
- Lie on the blankets with your shoulders on the blankets and your neck and head over the end of the blankets and resting on the floor.
- Place your arms by your torso.
- Bend your knees.
- Exhale while pressing your palms against the floor.
- Lift your feet, knees and back slowly.
- Use the palms of your hands to support your back as you continue to lift off of the floor, elbows against the floor.
- Stop and take note of your neck. Make sure you are not putting too much pressure on your neck as you lift your bent knees toward the ceiling.
- Straighten your knees and lift your legs toward the ceiling.
- Gaze into your chest.
- Again, make sure you’re not placing pressure on your neck.
- Try to lift your upper spine away from the floor without letting the pressure of your body fall to your neck.
- To exit this pose, bend your knees and let your thighs rest near your shoulders.
- Place arms on the mat and, with knees bent, roll back onto the ground.
- Hug your knees to your chest.
The headstand, or Sirasana, is another challenging inversion pose in yoga that requires previous yoga experience, patience and practice. Again, those with neck problems, high blood pressure or heart problems should not attempt the headstand unless doing so with doctor’s approval.
To do the headstand:
- Begin on all fours.
- Place forearms on the ground. Elbows should remain shoulder-width apart.
- Interlace fingers, palms down, to create stability as you balance in the pose.
- Place the top of your head in front of your interlaced fingers so it touches your hands.
- Pull your chin toward your chest enough to remove pressure from your neck as you perform the pose.
- Lift up from the mat on your toes.
- Walk your feet toward your body. Stop when your hips are over your shoulders.
- Bend your knees while engaging your core and pull your feet up from the mat. You may need to practice this portion of the headstand pose for a while until you are able to continue to pull your feet upward. You can also do this part of the headstand against a wall, which some people find the easiest way to eventually pull into a full headstand. (Learning Wall Yoga Poses is another way to change up your yoga practice and experience big results!
- Pull your feet upward toward the ceiling when you can. If you are against the wall at this point, practice pushing away slowly from the wall and trying to gain balance. Focus your eyes on a point behind you and engage your core to keep balance.
- Keep your arms pressed into the mat, making special note of your neck and the way it feels during the pose.
- To come out of the headstand, slowly lower your toes back to the ground while keeping your core engaged.
- Rest in Child’s pose for several minutes.
- Begin in Shoulder stand.
- Lower your hips until your toes touch the floor.
- Keep legs extended while lifting as much as you can through your toes, pushing your tailbone toward the ceiling.
- Keep your hands as they were in Shoulder stand or place them on the floor and stretch them behind you.
Probably the most well-known pose in yoga, many people don’t consider the Downward Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana, when thinking of inversion poses. However, in this pose the heart is above the head, improving circulation to the top of the body. Downward dog is less taxing on the body than the abovementioned inversion yoga poses, and it is included in most yoga practices. Because it is an inversion pose, if you have high blood pressure or heart problems you should check with your doctor before practicing.
To do the Downward Dog:
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Push hands forward just a bit.
- Spread your palms.
- Turn your toes under as you lift your knees away from the floor.
- Push your sit bones toward the ceiling while keeping your tailbone long.
- Push your heels down into the floor. You can also rise up on your toes in this pose, and you can alternate lifting on one side while remaining rooted on the other.
- Press your fingers into the floor. Those with wrist problems can curl hands into a ball and rest on this, which will alleviate some of the pressure on the wrists during this pose.
- Keeping shoulders firm and wide, draw them down toward the tailbone.
- To exit, bend your knees and bring your forearms to the floor to rest in Child’s Pose.
Inversion yoga offers many benefits when done correctly. As you participate in inversion yoga, remember to continue to inhale and exhale as you would during other asanas. Additional relaxing poses you may want to look up include Legs Up the Wall, which we mentioned earlier, and the forward bend.