By Aadil Palkhivala, Certified Yoga Instructor, Co-founder, Alive and Shine Center, Bellevue, WA
When I announced that it was time for Shirsasana, (Headstand) during a workshop I was teaching in Philadelphia a few years ago, an elderly woman slunk out of the room, quickly followed by her yoga teacher. Moments later, they both came back. Later, I learned that the student had left the room because she had never been upside down in her life and was frightened to try; her yoga teacher had gently persuaded her to return, telling her that this was the perfect opportunity. Hesitantly, the student had agreed.
I helped her up, kept her there for about 15 seconds, and carefully brought her down. She stood up, smiled, and gave me a big hug. The next day, the first thing she said to me was, “Can you take me upside down again today?” I’ve been told that she has been up during every single class since. At a spry 82, this woman had faced her fears, empowered herself and made herself more able in old age than youth.
Since we rarely, if ever, purposefully turn ourselves upside down, an aversion to inversions is natural. But it’s a shame to let fear keep us from so many benefits and delights. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “He has not learned the lessons of life who does not every day surmount a fear.”
A yoga practice without inversions is like a marriage without a spouse, lemonade without lemons, or a body without a heart – the essence is missing. Inversions set yoga apart from other physical disciplines: Psychologically, they allow us to see things from an alternate perspective. Emotionally, they guide the energy of the pelvis (the energy of creation and personal power) toward the heart center, enabling self exploration and inner growth. Physically, they stimulate the immune and endocrine systems, thereby invigorating and nourishing the brain and organs. When done correctly, inversions also release tension in the neck and spine.
To receive these palpable benefits–and to prevent injury, especially to the neck–it is essential to learn the correct setup and alignment for each pose. Also, I recommend that women forgo inversions during their menstrual period. Reversing blood flow goes against the body’s natural urge to release stale blood and the endometrial lining, and it may lead to a backflow of menstrual fluid (known as retrograde menstruation). Other contraindications include neck injuries, epilepsy, high blood pressure, heart conditions, and eye problems. So be mindful about your body as you approach these poses, but give them a try.
After 36 years of yoga, I practice both poses every day and recommend the same to my students. It takes a while to build up a practice of Sarvangasana and Shirsasana. Be patient with yourself, and work with a well-trained certified instructor. It can take time to master these two powerful poses, but when you do, you will reap their benefits for the rest of your life.