Upside down? Heaven or Hell? Reflections on recent discussions re Inversions
A spate of communication has been in the yoga airwaves since Mathew Remski wrote this article for Yoga International.
A response of sorts to the comments and questions that have arisen as a result.
A few months ago, a Buddhist friend of mine who happened to be on the same monastic meditation retreat as myself, spent most of her meditation time lying down because her neck pain was so intense. She is middle aged, an academic scholar and therapist and although she knows postural and ageing issues and too many hours at the computer contributed to this condition that may culminate in surgery soon, she pointed the proverbial finger to her practice of headstand. And particularly doing headstand in a class situation with a very respected teacher who demanded that she stay in the pose even when she felt she knew she should come down. She doesn’t blame the teacher but her own good sense she calls into question.
I have been to these classes, by this teacher in fact, many moons ago. I remember the power of those challenging words and also the delight that little by little one did build up strength and stability in inverted and other poses by following the rhythm of the room and the teachers demands. Fortunately I never really had neck issues over 40 years of practice. Besides falling out of apple trees on my head and a few car accidents, I have not had to deal with pain in this area. However, I also had the opportunity to question the whole rationale for practicing this intense way when meditation became a stronger pulse in my whole practice and with the work of Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten. These innovative teachers started to step away from the mainstream of yoga teaching back in the 80s. Angela and Victor both in the early days of Iyengar practiced long inversions like myself. 45 minutes in each pose at times. They realized that when you take a more intuitive, internal perspective then inversions with timers go out the door; in fact Angela hasn’t taught regular head or shoulder stand at all for decades. Her car accidents and health issues demanded that she explore other variants of these poses and her experimentation gave many of us an opportunity to really examine what these longer inversions were doing for us.
Intention is a key issue here. We come to yoga ignorant on some level and also enthusiastic when each class opens our body to a new sense of possibility. But we are not ignorant on all levels and a skillful teacher can encourage us from the very beginning to take full responsibility for ourselves and to truly listen to what we are feeling and the impact of different poses on our being. I can’t say that happened in my early years of study but I do feel that we were all just beginning to absorb the impact of these body practices in a western context.
There were few that knew much! But now we are becoming much more aware, especially as yoga asana becomes more mainstream and more researched. As we see from our scholars, much of modern yoga was modified to fit certain situations of the time and was impacted by gymnastics, nationalism, western lifestyles, and teachers attempting to carve out careers and maintain livelihoods.
So the first question is Why Bother? When Angela and Victor first encouraged me to look at these poses with a little more breadth of vision, I realized that although I had no injuries, my neck was a little dull. It was an area that I kind of dismissed as long as it didn’t hurt. Oh boy....now I see that the whole mechanics of over intense active practice had created both an addiction and also a lack or sensitivity with programmed repetitive poses. I personally feel many of the basic standing poses, particularly trikonasana, have created endless problems in hips and SI joints in long term practitioners when done in a repetitive, non-inquiring fashion. Although that is another article, it behoves us all to frequently reappraise why and what we are doing in yoga asana and how it fits into/doesn’t a broader sense of yoga or a spiritual path.
Unlike Angela and Victor, I still practice headstand and shoulderstand because they are as close to meditation in movement that I can find. When periods in my life mean that I cannot practice these poses, I know that my whole being is compromised. This is not an addictive relationship but more one of getting to know how my internal prana thrives. I have modified the way I practice them and I need to be very present when engaging in these poses. They are a daily practice and when those blessed days arrive when one is wholly present in the pose, it can feel like riding/being ridden by prana.
Sirsasana is a pose that – to me – is about the central channel and inner spaciousness. I use no timers, I only stay as long as I can be totally present...usually a few minutes but it varies day to day. There are days when it is a no brainer that it’s just not going to work. On occasional days of delight, coming out of sirsasana flows directly into seated meditation, there is no other option! When I teach this pose, which is rare, we do a lot of work on handstand and elbow balance and headless headstand prior to any attempt to come up with the head on the floor. If there are no untoward reactions to these poses, no contra-indications – and there are many, we do put the head on the ground. The weight is carried by the arms ,shoulders and the belly initially and for some people that will always be the case. An advanced headstand there is a two way movement into the earth and up to the sky so the neck actually lengthens and should feel refreshed and more open on coming down from headstand. But there are few - with all the whiplash, postural issues, lack of practice and inner sense of the body issues – that get to that stage. And it doesn’t matter at all if that’s the case. The magic of Sirsasana can be found in many other poses. I often teach a reclining sirsasana that fulfills much of the focus and central channel work even though it is clearly a different pose.
In recent years, everyone who comes to classes or trainings is asked to read the very excellent Yoga Journal article by Patricia Sullivan “Artistry in Action” – This article, through Patricia’s own personal voyage, focuses on some important safety issues and the skillful use of props for modifications and preparations. Even if you never do full sirsasana, this article has much wisdom and possibility to impart.
Sarvangasana is an interesting dilemma. Such a lot of flexion. I too used to demand that folks piled their blankets up until I realized that this pose is incredibly individual. My intention here has changed over the years. Now, sarvangasana is about keeping the 5th chakra area open and alive, nourishing the voice, coming home to the hearth. After realizing how dull my neck felt with all those over exerted inversions in my 20s and early 30s, I cultivated a new found delight in unraveling that density and found that sound, breath and imagery are tremendously powerful in this more yin of poses. Unlike Angela’s supported bridge (or what I call sling pose where the pelvis is held in bridge position and the legs spiral up) – a fabulous pose in itself – I have enjoyed full shoulder stand for varying periods of time for many years. The variations – yes, challenging to the neck and not for every day of practice – are some of the most fun poses in the book and we create new ones all the time. They get into corners of the body that other poses never even touch. I have though, concluded that soft support, the multi-blanket approach does not help my overall intention in the pose and can even lead to reverse curve in the cervical area, and a lack of 5th chakra vitality. When there is softness under the neck, you don’t truly know if you are collapsing here. Most pictures I see of sarvangasana, most students who show me how they pile up the blankets in this pose, I sense are running the risk of the drip-drip method of flattening or reversing that curve. When the support is hard (foam blocks or wood), or there is a skillful use of chairs and walls, this may not be the case. But again, sarvangasana is not a pose for a beginners or a regular class where individual attention can’t be given to each neck, and each being. And the multitude of reasons of why it’s inadvisable often understandably prevent teachers from exploring its delights more frequently.
In recent conversations about inversions, there is very little talk about adho mukha vrksasana, pincha mayurasana or the variations of headstand where the head is off the floor. As these poses are the only ones in which some people will be able to explore inversions safely, this is a pity. These are the first inversions. Yes, they require skillful teaching but they give a student a lot of what they were initially looking for in the more famous sirsasana and sarvangasana. Especially the students who are not going to practice daily and do not have a larger perspective of yoga. Learning to support yourself in a handstand at the wall can be problematic if the room is large, if someone is of heavy build and/ there is a large fear factor going on. This pose needs training, experience, guidance for it to be broken down and explored for the regular yoga studio practitioner but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Until someone can release their head completely in pincha mayurasana without touching the ground and get themselves up easily with good abdominal support in this pose and handstand, sirsasana has no place in their yoga menu. They are excellent starting places and remarkably enjoyable and rewarding poses in their own rights.
Going upside down is one way that is actually very helpful in terms of building safety in the support of the hips and back. For eg with students who are over flexible and have over done their standing poses and surya namaskar, part of the rehab is to find positions where you can work deep into the core and the breath but in different relationships to gravity. Inverting yourself has many effects on the body that are refreshing, rejuvenating, challenging in ways that beneficially impact emotional and physical health. If everyone is scared s...less about doing inversions in future, we are actually going to create a lot more safety issues in other parts of the body down the road. Yoga asana is evolving – we are learning everyday. Can we find ways to share this information and also respect the wisdoms from yesteryear in that process? Can we encourage practitioners and ourselves to truly listen to our bodies and take the information that is pouring out of every yoga crevice right now as part of this evolving yoga story, part of our way of not letting the web overwhelm or enrage us!, part of our modern 21st century collective practice? I’m trying!!