This post was written by Leena Miller Cressman, director of Queen Street Yoga, about her current thinking and understanding of inversions.
We recently added the following statement to our “Studio Policy and Etiquette” document that we post around the studio and on our website. We are the first yoga studio community that we know of to make a public statement about this. We hope that this adds to important conversations about safety and risk in the wider yoga community.
Inversions at QSY: We choose not to teach full Headstand and full Shoulderstand (where weight is placed on the head and neck) due to safety concerns for the spine. We ask that students do not practice these poses before, after, or during public classes for the safety of all QSY members.
What’s an inversion anyway?
Different styles or traditions of yoga define inversions differently. Most generally, inversions can be any pose where the head is at a lower position than the heart and pelvis. This could include simple and common poses like downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) or standing forward bend (Uttansana), but also arm balancing poses like handstand or forearm stand. The two poses often called “full inversions” in yoga literature are headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) and shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana). Many teachers, such as BKS Iyengar, have gone as far as to say that headstand and shoulderstand are the King and Queen of all yoga poses.
I’m no expert in all styles of yoga, but here’s a bit about what I’ve gathered about approaches to full inversions in different styles of yoga. In Iyengar Yoga and Anusara Yoga (my former background) headstand and shoulderstand are typically taught only to intermediate and advanced students (students with at least 3 to 5 years of practice, primarily of standing poses, under their belts). In these two styles, the full inversions are taught gradually and progressively, and props are typically used to make the poses more accessible and safer. In my limited experience of Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Sivananda Yoga traditions, full inversions are more commonly taught to newer, less experienced students and props are not typically used. In Moksha Yoga no full inversions are taught.
Inversions are touted as having many benefits to the body and mind.
Many yoga teachers and yogic literature purport that a vast array of benefits come from inversions: Improved blood pressure and heart function, increased nutrients available to the brain and vital hormone-producing glands such as the thyroid and pituitary, strengthening for the upper body and core, improved balance, and mental clarity are just a few. However, of the factuality of many of these so-called benefits are questioned by medical professionals.
Full inversions also come with risks, that we believe may outweigh any benefits.
In headstand and shoulderstand the majority of the weight of the body is placed on the neck (the cervical spine). According to osteopaths and chiropractors that I’ve spoken with, placing that much weight on a perfectly healthy cervical spine is in itself risky, especially when that posture also requires balance. Any movement or a fall could be quite dangerous for the neck and spinal cord. (If you want to think worst case scenario, think spinal cord injury). Cervical bones are simply not designed for weight-bearing according to many health professionals.
Here’s another big caveat. The vast majority of North Americans have at least a slight, or often a significant forward head carriage, as well as restriction in the muscles of their chest and weakness in their neck and upper back due to too much sitting, poor computer posture, poor driving posture, etc. A lot of North Americans also suffer from TMJ and other head, neck, and shoulder injuries or chronic pain.
Forward head carriage posture creates misalignments and imbalances that can eventually lead to weakening and even degeneration of the intervertebral disks and the cervical bones themselves. If any of those misalignments or conditions are present, then placing the majority of the weight of the body becomes even more risky.
On a personal note, I have had an x-ray of my spine, and my upper spine is quite flat (probably a blend of genetics and poor alignment), which puts my cervical disks at greater risk for degeneration. So, based on this knowledge and the urging of my osteopath, in my personal practice I’ve chosen to only practice inversions in a supported way, where props are used to take all the weight off my cervical spine.
More on why we’re choosing not to teach full inversions in drop-in classes.
Earlier on in my teaching career, I did teach full inversions. I taught them to consistent and experienced students with an emphasis on safety. I taught them to small groups progressively, not to larger drop-in classes. Still, I regret that choice. Given the current environment that I teach in, my own journey with these poses and negative effects that I’ve experienced because of them, and because I am understanding a lot more about anatomy and physiology that I used to, I’ve changed my tune about these postures. I urge other yoga teachers to read, learn, and carefully reconsider conventional wisdom about these poses. Read what people are saying outside the yoga community, especially medical professionals. (Check out a list of resources at the end of this post.)
Given that our teachers are not trained medical professionals, osteopaths, or chiropractors, and that without looking at an x-ray the level of health in a person’s spine is difficult to evaluate, and due to the other risks involved, we have chosen to not teach full inversions at Queen Street Yoga in drop-in classes. The majority of our classes at QSY are “drop-in,” which means that people don’t necessarily attend the same class regularly, and there are often students who are new. We feel that it is irresponsible to teach advanced and risky poses in this environment. We believe that if full headstand or shoulderstand should be taught at all (which we are unsure of and are still thinking carefully about), it should only be done in a small group setting, with an experienced teacher who can take the group through a regular practice that builds up to the postures consistently over time. Given that these circumstances are quite uncommon in current yoga class cultures, we choose to teach less risky inversions, and variations of inversions that don’t put the neck at risk.
But inversions look so cool! #yogaselfie
Another aspect of modern yoga culture that might make inversions appealing is a widespread urge to “achieve” difficult poses. We can see this on yogis Instagram and Facebook feeds, where fancy and difficult poses are often put on display. While this can be fun and empowering at times, it can also turn yoga practice into something to be looked at, idealized and even idolized. We can become fixated on the idea that only being able to perform the hardest postures makes us accomplished yogis.
Our intention in teaching and practicing yoga at QSY is to grow as individuals, and deepen our sense of connectedness with the wider world. While practicing headstand and shoulderstand, or other “fancy” or extreme poses, may be fun and provide learning experiences, they do not necessarily bring us any closer to that aim.
What alternatives are there to full headstand and shoulderstand?
Many of the benefits of inversions can be experienced in poses like downward-facing dog and standing forward bends such as Uttanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana. Blocks can even be added beneath the head which can give a moderate and pleasant pressure to the skull, which I’ve found can be helpful if I have a tension headache. Handstand and forearm-stand also offer similar benefits as headstand in terms of building strength and cultivating balance. Supported bridge and legs-up-the-wall pose can be great alternatives to shoulderstand.
It is also possible to do a full headstand with the weight of the body placed on the shoulders between stacked blocks or 2 folding chairs, so that no weight is place on the head. Shoulderstand can be practiced with a chair and blankets so that most of the weight is in the pelvis and shoulders rather than on the neck. These versions require more set-up and lots of props and are therefore they are not always appropriate for a drop-in class, but I believe they are safe, and beneficial alternatives to the full postures.
This post is the start of a conversation, and we are still interested in thinking through and talking about these poses, and our approach to practice and teaching. If you’re interested in a course or workshop to learn what we believe are safer alternatives to these inversions, let us know. Maybe this is something we can offer to the community in the future.
RESOURCES TO LEARN MORE:
This is a great three part series written by a medical doctor who is also a yogi, discussing the history, benefits and risks of headstand.
Matthew Remski is a Toronto-based author, yoga teacher and Ayurvedic therapist. His current project “WAWADIA – What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?” looks at questions of yoga’s history and claims, and its current intersection with medical research and what we are learning about the body.
This article looks at the risks of practicing inversions during menstruation. It is also written by a medical doctor.
This New York Times article takes a critical look at the risks of modern yoga practice.
This article is geared to the beginner yogi, and encourages them to consider possible risks in approaching certain poses.
Leena Miller Cressman is the director of Queen Street Yoga. Right now she’s in love with practicing the Tensegrity Repair Series, handstands and doing gentle twists over her bolster. You’ll also find her cruising around on her rusty but trusty bike, and tending to her community garden plot full of arugula, kale, and basil.