Remember when your mom used to tell you to “turn that frown upside down?” She may not have intended it, but she was highlighting one of the many benefits of inversions: the changed perspective we gain from putting ourselves in an unusual position.
One of my most cherished memories comes from doing inversions on a rooftop in a Chinese village. My teacher, Rico, a retired Peace Corps hippie, had invited me and my friend to practice on his roof, setting the mood for our class by pumping loud Bee Gees hits from his stereo. By the end of the practice we were all in Shoulderstand, and I remember watching my feet superimposed against clear blue sky and cotton clouds and thinking: this is pure joy. Sure, the Bee Gees, the thrill of a foreign land and the peace of intentional breath were all part of my experience, but there’s something about turning topsy turvy that has an immediate ability to produce happiness.
Inverted postures not only encourage a literal change in perspective, they are also proven mood-enhancers, credited with aiding depression, stimulating the endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, and nervous systems, strengthening the core, and calming the mind. Practicing inversions may also provide a practical template for overcoming fear, and increasing confidence and general wellbeing.
In Vedic philosophy, inversions are believed to prolong life by helping us to retain our jalam, the nectar of life that flows from our heads into our bodies. We are born with a limited amount of jalam, and, so go the teachings, when it’s gone, we die. Turning upside down helps us keep the jalam in our head, reversing gravity’s aging effects. Inversions also allow our waste energy (mala), which is stored near muladarha cakra at the base of the spine, to drop into the digestive fires (agni), burning impurities and leaving us spiritually lighter.
Inversions range from relatively common and simple asanas like Downward Dog and Legs up the Wall, to more complicated poses like Shoulderstand, Headstand, Handstand, Peacock Feather and Scorpion.
Advanced postures should be practiced under the care of an experienced teacher, and require careful attention to strength and flexibility. Poses like Headstand and Scorpion look really cool, often tempting students to rush into them before they are ready. Avoiding injury in these (and all) poses is important, and careful attention to preparatory poses that help build strength and flexibility in the required areas is essential.
Next week we will look at a variety of poses that can help you prepare your body for Shoulderstand, Headstand, Handstand, Peacock Feather and Scorpion.