A year ago, the morning after carrying his bouncing 2-year-old boy on his shoulders, Peter woke up and discovered he couldn't move his head. The pain in his neck and shooting down his left arm was so intense that he could not lie on his back, sit upright, or focus enough to drive a car. Diagnosed with cervical radiculitis at C5, C6, and possibly C7, Peter missed work, numbed himself with muscle relaxants, and kept his neck trussed up in a brace for two weeks. He discovered that the pose that gave him greatest relief was Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). For months, his practice was gentle and low-to-the-ground: hip-openers, forward bends, and restorative work. Five months later, the skin of his left elbow was still numb and the first fingers on his left hand occasionally tingled.
The irony of his injury wasn't lost on him. Forty-one years old at the time, Peter had been practicing yoga for 13 years. Though he knew he was getting older, Peter had always been "good" at yoga, handling advanced poses with aplomb, competing with his peers for the teacher's compliments.
He had started practicing inversions within the first year of his practice. Shouldn't those 13 years of Headstands and Shoulderstands have guaranteed that Peter's neck would be strong, supple, able to withstand his child's weight and unpredictable, energetic kicks?
Or is it possible, rather, that Peter's inverted practice created the conditions for his injury? Peter has had tight neck muscles throughout his adult life, and in times of stress, his shoulders hunch up toward his ears. Peter's modus operandi for years was to show up for class a few times a week and blithely hoist his densely muscled body upside down via his neck muscles.
He forced himself to stay upright through a 10-minute Headstand, sweating liberally. Perhaps one can do that without repercussions at 20-something, but a dozen years later, the effort takes its toll. We all operate in a tangle of pernicious habits, and unless we consciously unpack and dismantle them in our yoga practice, they lie in wait and trip us up.
Many yoga practitioners in the United States are probably like Peter—householders pressed by other demands and desires, unable to practice yoga daily. So they show up for class whenever feasible, and execute every pose that does not provoke immediate and acute pain.
Peter's teacher, like any good yoga teacher, urged his students to develop a home practice, but Peter had never found the time. While it's impossible to say how pivotal Peter's inverted practice was to his injury, it's worth asking the question: If he had practiced more consistently, more mindfully, could he have averted it?
Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) are seductive poses—physically challenging, visually dramatic, and exhilarating. They are also surprisingly accessible. Despite the limitations of a tight lower back or hamstrings, most yoga practitioners can move into an inversion relatively easily.
As yoga grows ever more popular (there are more students practicing hatha yoga in California than in the entire country of India today, asserts Larry Payne, coauthor of Yoga for Dummies), students are enthusiastically practicing Headstand and Shoulderstand across the nation—in crowded Ashtanga classes without props, and for fairly long periods (10 minutes plus) in Iyengar Yoga classes.
Unfortunately, however, beginning and veteran yoga students are showing up in the offices of bodyworkers, chiropractors, and medical professionals with compression of the upper spine and impaired mobility in the neck, presumably from the practice of inversions.
In a culture that emphasizes competition and achievement, some students are clearly flinging themselves into inversions too soon. Couple that with the desultory nature of many people's practices—one class a week at best, on a drop-in basis—and classes that are too large for the teacher to see everyone in a given pose, and you have the recipe for possible disaster.
How, then, do we evaluate and approach inversions, poses that are said to be invaluable and that possess distinct physiological benefits? We can start by sculling back through the years and studying the role of inversions in classical yoga, at the river's source.
Fountain of Youth
Yogis in India have experimented with their own bodies and breath in search of enlightenment for at least 5,000 years. What they came to understand about themselves was a direct result of sustained self-study and contemplation, or svadhyaya.
In their stringent meditation and ascetic practices, over the slow unfolding of days and months and years, they came to know and love the deep, enduring movements in the body—the pulse and rhythm of fluids and electric charges—and put exercises, images, and language to those movements, so we could follow.
The ancient texts state that there are seven main chakras (or psychic energy centers) along the vertical axis of the body. At the risk of being reductive, one might describe hatha yoga as practices designed to raise prana, or life force, up the spine, the path of the chakras. David Gordon White, in his fascinating book, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, writes of an "inner void" that begins at the muladhara chakra at the base of the spine. It runs upward through the heart, and ends at the fontanelle, or "cleft of brahman," known as the brahmarandra, in the cranial vault. He quotes the Kathaka Upanishad (6.16), which states: "There are a hundred and one channels of the heart. One of these passes up to the crown of the head. Going up by it, one goes to immortality."
The Natha siddhas and other Tantric schools, forebears of the hatha yoga tradition, believed that amrita, the nectar of immortality, was held within the cranial vault, at the seventh chakra, the sahasrara chakra. The valued nectar, meting out our days, dropped down through the center of the body and was consumed in the fire of the torso. Turn yourself upside down, the reasoning went, and amrita would be retained, thus prolonging life and preserving one's prana.
The Pradipika lists Viparita Karani Mudra as one of "the ten mudras which conquer old age and death." Unfortunately, that requires a daily practice of Viparita Karani Mudra for three hours!
From the Goraksha Shataka, a twelfth- or thirteenth-century text on hatha yoga, we learn that "in the region of the navel dwells the lonely sun, whose essence is fire; located at the base of the palate is the eternal moon, whose essence is nectar. That which rains down from the downturned mouth of the moon is swallowed by the upturned mouth of the sun. The practice [of Viparita Karani] is to be performed as a means to obtaining the nectar [which would otherwise be lost]."