*Contains more than the usual daily serving of anatomic and physiological references. 100% useable. Does not contain traces of (being) nuts.
Inversions in general and headstand (shirshasana) in particular are controversial in the yoga community. On one extreme there are those who say they are the most important poses in yoga. On the other, there are others who see only dangers and no benefits and exclude them from the practice altogether. In order to find our place along this continuum I think it’s important to put aside unsubstantiated claims like “it purifies the blood” or “it cures diseases” and look at some facts:
- When we are standing up, the connection taking our weight to the ground is through our two hips, which are very stable joints. However, in headstand this connection is made through the shoulder girdle. This has in fact four joints on each side, providing greater mobility and less stability. In order to do headstand, we need to develop a strength and awareness for balance in our shoulder joint that we do not practice at all in our everyday life.
- The spine is designed to take more weight at the bottom than at the top. Inversions challenge this logic and therefore call for precaution. Even if the vertebrae themselves can take the weight, bringing the spine out its natural curves with a heavy load on top can expose the intervertebral discs to injury. Thus, it is necessary to have developed precise propioception and strength to preserve the spine’s natural curves as we go upside down. In particular, any cervical discs that are already damaged will suffer.
- On the other hand, moderate mechanical loading strenghtens all spinal tissues, including the discs.
- Both lymph and venous blood return are supported in inverted positions. This allows for a better exchange of nutrients and waste products between cells and capillaries.
- In inversions the heart needs to pump harder, against gravity, to get the blood all the way around the body. This is counterindicated for people with high blood pressure, irrespective of whether they are on medication.
- Increased pressure stimulates the very sensitive baroreceptors in the arteries supplying the head with blood. The result of this is a reflex decrease in blood pressure (however, this is not a cure for high blood pressure).
- The weight of the abdominal content encourages fuller exhalation and, therefore, renewal of the air reserve in the lungs (that is, better oxygenation) and stretching of the diaphragm.
- Diaphragmatic breathing is encouraged, because chest breathing is restricted by the muscles required to hold the asana. Also, the weight of the abdominal contents on the diaphragm provide resistance, that is, extra exercise, that strengthens the diaphragm.
- The pressure in the head and, therefore, inside the eyeballs, increases. Increased intraocular pressure is one of the factors that can lead to glaucoma. There is also a relationship, although much weaker, to retinal detachment.
- It is difficult to be distracted from the here and now when we are in a challenging position like this. However, it is easy to be distracted from the experience of how our body is doing and be carried away with the idea of making the asana ours.
Headstand is one of the iconic poses of yoga. It can be very seductive as a sign of progress, a measure of comparison and a trophy of accomplishment. We mustn’t forget, though, that hatha yoga is not merely a catalogue of body shapes (see post #7 – Progress). This practice is physical and can definitely open up more awareness, flexibility, strength and balance in our bodies. However, not only that. It can also open up more awareness (about what we need and can, as opposed to what we want), flexibility (to let go of ideas of what we should be doing), strength (to stay true to our course) and balance (to find middle paths that honour every single aspect of our beings). Full headstand is not for everyone. However, all the component parts that make it up can be made available to “every body” by means of alternatives or adaptations. The most important thing is not whether we do headstand or not, but to go for what serves us best and do away with the rest.
Thanks to all my students at Yoga Hub Berlin, who inspire me with their practice.