Inverted poses are the earthbound, yoga version of floating in space. A Shoulder Stand supports your legs as they extend straight up in the air. A Headstand turns your world completely upside down. Both can be exhilarating, freeing and deeply liberating postures as muscles release and gravity loosens its grip. Each has particular mind and body benefits. But inverted poses call for competence and caution, so the only changes you experience from upending yourself are healthy ones.
Yoga's Regal Poses
B.K.S. Iyengar calls Headstand and Shoulder Stand the king and queen of yoga poses because they provide generous measures of composure, vitality and health. Both are graceful actions and extreme poses, not recommended for beginners. Cyndi Lee, yoga teacher and author, notes that inverted poses help to build muscles and increase bone density in the upper back, shoulders, chest and arms. Inversions boost lower body circulation, revive a tired face with fresh blood to the muscles and skin cells, take a load off the legs and feet, and stimulate the hormones melatonin and serotonin, which elevate your mood and help you to sleep better. Stand on your head to heat the body. Rest on your shoulders, feet heading skyward, to cool it down. Master both poses to enjoy the full range of benefits from inversion.
Salamba Sarvangasana, Supported Shoulder Stand
Salamba Sarangasana is a prelude to learning Headstand and it is a stand-alone pose. No special preparation, aside from fitness and a solid yoga practice, is required to safely master it. "Yoga Journal" recommends the supported version of Shoulder Stand to lower the risk of injury. Fold a couple of blankets on the floor, and lie on them with your shoulders at the edge of the support and your head lower. As you bend and lift your legs into the pose, your upper arms and elbows provide stability against the floor and your hands support your back. Once your legs are fully extended upward and your torso is raised nearly perpendicular to the floor, you rest in the pose. Shoulder Stand stretches shoulders and neck and strengthens legs and glutes. It may also stimulate thyroid and prostate glands, invigorate the abdominal organs and the digestion, ease insomnia, reduce stress, relieve depression and calm the mind.
Salamba Sirsasana, Supported Headstand
Use a folded blanket or yoga mat to cushion the head and arms for Salamba Sirsasana. Novices at this pose can put too much weight on the neck going up, so "Yoga Journal" suggests working against a wall at first for extra stability. In Headstand, you kneel and rest your forearms on the floor, make a basket of your clasped fingers and tuck your head into it. Lift the knees, walk the feet in toward the shoulders and raise both legs together up into vertical. Sirsasana may develop and calm the brain and stimulate pituitary and pineal glands as it builds strength in the spine, arms, legs and lungs and positively affects the abdominal organs and digestion. Hang in the pose, lengthening and aligning the legs and torso continually for a few seconds or minutes and build stamina slowly. If you are especially wobbly, park yourself in a corner and use the angled walls to guide your body to vertical.
Inverted Pose Precautions
The benefits of inverted poses are legion but they are not without risk. Unmodified Shoulder Stands can cause strained muscles, hyperstretched ligaments and injure cervical disks, according to Roger Cole, Iyengar yoga teacher and columnist for "Yoga Journal." Headstands can cause compression of nerves connecting the head to the arms, and inverted poses may be off-limits for certain medical conditions. Check with your doctor if you are pregnant or if you suffer from headaches, back or neck injuries, high or low blood pressure, glaucoma, a heart condition or any health problems that could be exacerbated by inversion. Skip inversions when you are menstruating and work on Headstand and Shoulder Stand with a certified instructor to fine-tune your postures for maximum safety.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .