A vigorous yoga practice may include inversions that put your head below your feet. Poses such as Headstand, Plow pose and Handstand are invigorating, but can pose a risk to your eyes – especially if you suffer from certain conditions such as glaucoma. Check with your ophthalmologist before introducing these poses into your practice, and always practice under the watchful eye of a certified teacher.
Standing on your hands instead of your feet can raise the pressure in the eyes. When you have glaucoma, or risk factors for this condition, your eyes cannot properly control and produce the fluid that regulates the pressure in your eyes. When fluid pressure builds up, it causes damage to the optic nerve fibers, potentially leading to blindness if untreated. In its early stages, glaucoma has no symptoms. Movements such as lifting a heavy object, squatting, bending over suddenly, playing a brass musical instrument and performing a Handstand can suddenly increase the fluid pressure behind the eyes, causing immediate damage.
Retinal detachment is a condition in which the retina, a layer of tissue at the back of the eye, pulls away from the blood vessels that are its source of nutrients and oxygen. A detached retina can lead to vision loss if not treated. High blood pressure or an air embolism, when air is trapped somewhere in your vascular system, can cause the detachment of the retina. Both of these are potential, but rare, side effects of holding the Handstand.
The pressure behind your eyes nearly doubles during inversions such as Handstands. This pressure occurs within the first few moments of going into the pose, so even attempting Handstand when you have glaucoma, or have been identified as a glaucoma suspect, is usually discouraged. The greatest complications to the eyes from inversions occur when the position is held for sustained periods over several days, explains Ophthalmologist Carolina Valdivia. The risks of Handstand to people at risk or suffering from glaucoma outweigh the benefits. If you are healthy enough to go into Handstand, but see floaters, flashes of light or a shadow over your vision field, come out of the pose and seek treatment for potential retinal detachment immediately.
You can still practice vigorously if you have eye conditions. Most standing and seated postures pose little or no risk to the eyes. Speak with your yoga teacher about modifications during inversions such as Handstand so you can still participate, but keep your eyes safe.
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.