Finding Safety in Inversions
Aside from the body generally objecting to the reversal of gravity, there are many debates stirring with regard to the safety of headstand and shoulderstand, sometimes called the “king” and “queen” of all asanas. Some say that they aid in slowing the aging process, healing and balancing thyroid production, healing the heart, restoring energy, moving and circulating stagnant blood flow, the list goes on. And yet, despite all these benefits, I always ended up feeling like I had hurt myself after practicing shoulderstand and plow, and for the longest time I thought it was just me!
The intersection of new medical literature with yogic physiological philosophy has led to much drama with regards to what is safe and beneficial in practicing certain postures. Not only that, instructors are realizing that the bodies of today are not the bodies of the first yogis, and adjusting the practice accordingly has led to some revision.
In headstand, the dominant posture that promotes injury to the cervical spine is leaning the head forward from the body, as it is when we use technological devices. This puts a crushing weight on the cervical spine and can be very risky. One way I found to get around this is to practice forearm balance first, strengthening the shoulders enough to support the whole weight of the body so they can hold you up instead of using your head. That way I know what it feels like to have zero weight on my head when I want to practice a safer headstand, and maybe find enough ease in the pose to switch between headstand and forearm balance because my neck is so free.
In shoulderstand, there is heavy weight on the cervical spine, while the posterior longitudinal ligament that runs along the seven cervical vertebrae and discs is elongated, even more-so in plow. Besides that, I find it difficult to get into the pose without flattening my lumbar curve, which makes me sore or in the worst case makes my back spasm. Instead of practicing shoulderstand and plow, I put my legs up the wall and enjoy the restorative effects of this less showy inversion. I’ll even use a bolster under my lumbar curve for extra comfort.
As long as my wrists are up to it, handstand is my favorite inversion. Yes, it can be the most scary, and the most challenging. To me, that says it has the most to offer for my practice. On the wall, off the wall, jumping into it or pressing up with control; it has become the most versatile pose that energizes my practice. It brings my inner child out to play and helps develop strength without making me hurt later.
Maybe headstand and shoulderstand are your therapeutic bread and butter, or maybe not! Proceed with awareness and your body will let you know what feels safe in the moment. Every body is beautifully different, and it is important to honor your own because it is a precious gift.