The benefits of inversions in a yoga practice include the positive effects on the cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine systems as gravity works in the opposite way on the veins, tissues and organs of the body. Blood flows to the heart, and the legs and pelvic area are given a break from the usual weight carried around and the immune system is stimulated. These benefits can be experienced through the practice of simple inversions such as Viparita Karani (Legs up the wall) and Setu Bandhasana (Bridge pose) but the full effect is better felt through full inversions such as shoulder stand, headstand, forearm balances or hand stands. Remember there are safety issues that go along with these more advanced postures, they require preparatory poses to be mastered first and are often contraindicated.
I have had a challenging relationship with Headstand throughout my 15 years of yoga, only in the last year bringing the pose into my regular practice. Early on in my practice my teachers did not teach the pose, even my Ashtanga teacher would only teach shoulder stand and in the more gentle Hatha classes we didn’t go near it. Occasionally I would try to practice against a wall, but without proper preparation and instruction I was not comfortable moving away from the wall. At the point when I started to deepen my practice further and thought about attending more advanced classes I became pregnant and so needed to scale back. Even when I did my teacher training we didn’t practice or workshop inversions as we were learning a hot yoga sequence. So I found myself, after graduating as a newly qualified yoga teacher, unable to hold a headstand in the centre of the room. And… I beat myself up about it. Constantly! I didn’t feel like I could be an authentic yoga teacher without having this “king of asanas” posture in my bag. But, I was about to have another baby and I knew it would take time for my body to regain enough strength to even begin to work up to it so I had to work on accepting where I was and being content with that (Santosha) – something I constantly try to teach my students.
However, I started to become identified with the idea that you don’t have to be able to do Headstand to be a good yoga teacher (which of course is true). I wondered whether I really ever had to practice it and even as I regained my old strength (and improved on it) around 10 months after birth I shied away from the pose. It was the ego that had convinced me I would only be a good teacher if I could do a Headstand, and I felt that if I put in the effort to achieve the pose I would somehow be giving in to the ego. Eventually I realised that there was a journey to take here. I needed to cultivate a sense of Tapas in my practice. In the physical practice Tapas can mean practicing poses we usually avoid or find difficult, realising that it does take time to achieve more advanced poses. Practicing consistently and having the humility to admit when we’re not perfect are both essential to reaping the rewards that discipline has to offer. So I started to really step up all of the preparation poses; forearm plank variations and dolphin pose (to strengthen the upper body and core), forward folds (to lengthen the backs of the legs), puppy pose (to open up through the chest) and half headstand against a wall. I practiced regularly, with discipline, for the sake of the practice itself and not the end goal. In the end though I mastered it. Then I got tripod headstand and a few variations. Now I’m working on forearm balance.
So what this journey has taught me, and why I really wanted to write this article about it, is that we always have to balance Santosha and Tapas.
If we focus only on being content then we may get stuck in the ‘same old’, unable to grow and learn. If we focus only on discipline and motivation to overcome limitations we may find the ego taking over, turning this into more of a striving to achieve rather than enjoying the moment. Through the experience of working towards the achievement of a particular pose, by breaking it down into manageable steps, I was able to enjoy and find peace each step along the way. I was able to acknowledge that achieving Headstand would not make me happier or better than I was before, and that it would not even be the end of this journey, but that it was still an achievement in itself. More than the benefits I get of being inverted, the improvement I feel from the increased core and upper body strength, improved posture and openness, is wonderful.
And this once again shows how much we can learn about life through physical practice on the yoga mat. How often do we hear the words “I’ll be happy when… ” or people beating themselves up mentally for not achieving something. At the same time though there are those that constantly listen to the inner critic that says they can’t do something before they have even tried. When we push ourselves to overcome our limitations (from a place of peace and compassion rather than because our ego tells us to) we can truly achieve great things.