Ask the Teacher is an advice column that connects Yoga Journal members directly with our team of expert yoga teachers. Every other week, we’ll answer a question from our readers. Submit your questions here, or drop us a line at email@example.com.
Inversions tend to inspire an array of questions from yoga students. How do I strengthen my arms? (Actually, you need to strengthen your core and your alignment as much as your arms.) Can I kick up? (Please don’t. It’s preferable to rely on strength and stability rather than momentum.) How soon can I come into Handstand? (That depends on a lot of factors—it could be weeks or it could be years.) What are the benefits of inversions? (They are numerous! Some students experience enhanced calm and focus while others find reduced swelling in the legs.)
Yet few yoga students question whether or not inversions are appropriate and safe for their personal practice. The answer to this has nothing to do with your strength or agility, which can be enhanced with practice, and everything to do with other health conditions that affect your body’s ability to withstand the intensity of being inverted.
Yoga poses that are inversions
Technically, any pose in which your head is lower than your heart qualifies as an inversion. Some require more strength, stamina, and attention to alignment than others, yet the the upside-down nature of all of these positions places certain stressors on your body.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)
Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance | Feathered Peacock Pose)
Halasana (Plow Pose)
Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand)
Uttana Shishosana (Extended Puppy Pose)
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel | Upward-Facing Bow Pose)
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose)
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Reasons why you shouldn’t come into inversions
Ultimately, your body is your wisest teacher. Listen. And, when in doubt, consult with a physician or physical therapist. (And despite the longstanding tradition that you shouldn’t come into an inversion during your cycle, there is no scientific support for that. Many women prefer not to for energetic or personal reasons, but that decision is up to you.)
You should immediately come down from any inversion if you experience pressure, discomfort, or pain in your head, eyes, ears, neck, or throat. Similarly, if your experience wrist issues or feel any strain while placing pressure on them,
Cervical spondylitis is characterized by reduced disc space between the cervical vertebrae, bony spur formations, a loss of the lordotic (normal) curve of the cervical spine, and numbness and tingling in the hands or feet due to nerve compression.
According to Ralph Laforge, a physiologist at Duke University Medical Center who teaches physicians how to integrate mindful practices with conventional allopathic medicine, static inverted poses can pose problems for those with coronary disease because they “place undue pressure on the chambers and valves of the heart, which in turn places undue stress on the already compromised coronary circulation.”
If you experience high blood pressure, the baroreceptor mechanism which protects the brain from an excessive surge of blood may possibly be compromised in inversions, explains Laforge.
Diabetes and/or insulin resistance
According to Laforge, virtually every adult with type II diabetes has coronary disease, or “silent ischemia.” The internal pressure on the arterial walls from blood volume changes can result in cardiovascular complications.
Glaucoma, detached retina, or extreme nearsightedness
Unlike the brain, the retinal veins of the eyes might not be protected from the sudden onrush of blood by inverting. If your eyes become repeatedly bloodshot from inverting, consult a medical professional. Note that retinal detachment is more common in those who are extremely nearsighted.
Sinus or ear infections
If your body is fighting off an infection or a cold, let your body rest. Also, much of your balance has to do with the ventibular system in your ears, which can be compromised when you experience congestion.
Pregnancy past the first trimester
This can vary greatly depending on your familiarity and ease with inversions. Your center of gravity adjusts in pregnancy, which can require acclimating in balancing poses. Some women find that Supported Shoulderstand with a chair or Viparita Karani can be of benefit well into pregnancy.