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Inversion Yoga Poses

Turn Your Practice Upside Down: A Yogi’s Guide to Inversions

How to do it, why you should, and the secrets to making inversions less scary, more stable, and a ton of fun

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I love inversions. Considering most of our lives are spent with our heads held high, legs below, reversing this arrangement feels like a refreshing change of pace. Plus, it’s got lots of benefits. For starters, inversions build upper-body strength, balance, and confidence, and they prompt you to see the world from a new perspective (literally!). Moving into postures where your head is lower than your heart also helps to prevent lymphatic fluid from pooling in your legs (a result of our upright lives), while increasing circulation to your brain—a combo that instantly boosts energy. Then, there’s the fact that inversions can be just plain fun. They give us an opportunity to get a little playful with our practice and not take ourselves so seriously.

Of course, I understand that not everyone loves going upside down. Some inversions can be frightening, especially at first. It takes a lot of strength—and trust in that strength—to stand on your own two hands or forearms. But with the right instruction, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself looking forward to going upside down and feeling more self-assured once you get there.

Practice these five inversions in the order that they appear, holding each as long as you can before your form begins to suffer. (If you have a neck injury, epilepsy, eye problems, a heart condition, or high blood pressure, talk to your doc beforehand.) I hope these inspire a new outlook on your practice—and your life.

Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

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This is one of yoga’s feel-good poses: It’s an all-over stretch that opens the back of your legs, lengthens your spine, and can even relieve lower-back pain. Down Dog can be challenging to hold for long stretches of time at first. But when you practice it regularly, it will quickly begin to feel like a resting pose, even as it helps you build the arm and shoulder strength you need to move on to more challenging inversions.

How to
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), fold forward, bending your knees if your hamstrings feel tight. Then, step back into Plank Pose and look down at your hands, making sure they’re shoulder-width apart with your fingers turned slightly outward, which will help externally rotate your shoulders and engage your triceps. From here, begin to lift your hips, pulling them up and back into Downward-Facing Dog Pose. 

TIP: Stretch your bottom ribs away from your hips, which will help you find more space in the sides of your torso and prevent you from rounding your back.

TIP: Internally rotate your inner thighs toward the space behind you. This action will help you prep for all inversions because it activates your pelvic floor—a crucial set of muscles that enables you to balance when you’re upside down.

See also VIDEO: Downward-Facing Dog

Dolphin Pose

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This is a wonderful shoulder opener that helps you get used to the feeling of bearing weight in your forearms. Because of this, it’s a great precursor to Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance) and Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand). But before you move on to try either of those poses, make sure you’re able to hold Dolphin Pose for at least 1 minute. 

How to:
From Downward-Facing Dog, lower onto your forearms and step 
back into Forearm Plank. This is an important step because it stacks your shoulders directly over your elbows, which is key in Dolphin Pose. From Forearm Plank, walk your feet toward your hands, working toward stacking your hips 
and torso over your shoulders (shown). As you do this, be sure your elbows 
stay at shoulder width (no wider), and keep your forearms parallel to one another. Finally, press your hips back and engage your legs as you try to 
redistribute weight from your upper body to your lower body. 

TIP: If your shoulders are tight, rather than keeping your forearms parallel, as shown, bring your hands together and clasp your fingers.

TIP: Hug your forearms in to keep your elbows from moving out wider than your shoulders.

See also Warm Up for Handstand with Kino MacGregor & Kerri Verna

Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana)

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Not only is this a great pose for building upper-body strength, but it also gives you a taste of what it feels like to stack your shoulders above your elbows, your hips over your shoulders, and your feet over your hips. Once you understand this stacking of the joints, you’ll find it easier to straighten your arms and come into Handstand

How to
From Dolphin Pose, lift one leg up, return to the starting position, and then lift up 
the other leg. As you do this, keep both of your inner thighs moving toward the space behind 
you (internally rotated). The next time you have one leg up, shift your gaze forward and look at 
a point between your hands. Then, lift high onto the ball of your standing-leg foot and hop just an inch or so off the ground. Next, hop the same foot a little higher off the mat, maybe all the way up so that leg is stacked over the hip. Bring your other leg up to meet it for the full expression of Pincha Mayurasana. Keep in mind, you shouldn’t use momentum to launch yourself up into this inversion. The goal is to float one leg up, and then the other, and when you’re ready to come down, to land lightly and with control. If you can move slowly and land your foot with control during your initial one-legged hops, it’s a sign you’re ready to come up into the full inversion. 

TIP: Keep your inner thighs glued together and internally rotated when both legs are up. To do this, imagine someone put 
a $100 bill between your thighs and if you hold onto it, you can keep it. 

TIP: Don’t let your shoulders move in front of your elbows—a common mistake practitioners make as they hop one leg up. Move slowly to keep your shoulders stacked above your elbows as you bring your legs into the air.

See also 3 Prep Poses for Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana)

Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)

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While this is often the most fear-inducing inversion for practitioners, it’s actually an advanced inversion with a low chance of injury. After all, it doesn’t place as much stress on your shoulders as Pincha Mayurasana, and it’s one of the easiest inversions to fall out of and catch yourself without causing serious damage to your head, neck, or shoulders. 

How to:
Start in Downward-Facing Dog 
and walk your feet about a foot closer to 
your hands, bending your knees as much 
as needed if your hamstrings are tight. Stack your joints here, making sure your shoulders are above your wrists and your hips are above your shoulders. Gaze at a point between your hands and lift one leg straight up. Lower your leg, return to the starting position, then lift the other leg skyward. Bend your standing leg at the knee and hop your foot an inch off the floor, then 12 inches, continuously hopping higher with control (read: not using momentum!) until that leg is stacked over your hips. When you’re ready, bring your standing leg 
up to meet your floating leg. 

TIP: Try not to arch your back, which can be especially tempting if your feet are resting against a wall for support. To avoid this, imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach, which will engage your core, tightening inward and up and lengthening your low back—taking you out of that banana shape.

TIP: Push your hands firmly into the ground to feel even more lift in your feet. Handstand is all about rooting down through your hands to rise up and balance. 

See also Iyengar 101: A Stability-Building Countdown to Handstand

Supported Headstand (Salamba Sirsasana)

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This is one of the most challenging inversions from a technique perspective because it’s so important to keep pressure on your head and neck to a minimum. However, once you’re able to do this pose properly, it’s an incredibly cooling posture—and one of the only inversions in which you can close your eyes and stay upside down for 5, 10, 15 minutes or longer without fatiguing. 

How to
Come into Tabletop, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Drop to your forearms, making sure your elbows are directly under your shoulders. Clasp your hands, interlacing your fingers loosely and leaving a little bit of space between your palms. Place the crown of your head on the floor in the small space you’ve created with your hands, with your fingers at the back of your skull. Move your shoulders as far away from your head as possible, creating length in your neck. Tuck your toes under and straighten your legs, lifting your hips so they’re stacked over your shoulders. Drive your weight firmly into the ground through your forearms and outer edges of your hands, then lift one leg up, being careful not to let it swing behind you. Take tiny hops with your other leg, being careful not to use momentum. Eventually, hug that knee into your chest, and then straighten it to join the other leg for the full expression of Salamba Sirsasana. 

TIP: Find the correct spot on the top of your head 
to place on the floor: Before you move into 
the pose, make an L shape with your thumb and pointer finger, then put your thumb at your third eye and move your pointer finger toward your crown. The place where your pointer finger lands is about where your head should be on your mat.

TIP: Lengthen your shoulders away from your head. If your shoulders are scrunched down toward your mat, it’s a sign that you’re putting weight on your head rather than where it should be, which is predomi- nantly in your arms.     

See also Daily Practice Challenge: Inversions for Illumination with Clio Manuelian