Recent years saw frequent bad publicity for inversions like shoulder-stand and headstand. Most of that circled around arthritis of the cervical discs, which can be accrued in both postures, whereas headstand additionally is singled out for demerit incurred through increased pressure in the head. All of that can be avoided by performing the postures to a high standard. That means that in shoulder-stand any pressure or weight born on the cervical vertebrae must be avoided and in headstand pressure on the head must be minimized.
I have previously described in my various books and also in previous articles on the two postures how to do that. The problem though seems to be persisting and only recently I read an article describing shoulder-stand and headstand as balancing postures in which only alignment matters and no exertion at all should be felt. To prevent demerit, however, it is essential to look at both postures as strength postures. Before I describe this approach let me quickly recap why we are performing inversions at all and preferably even hold them for longer.
One of the fundamental texts on yoga is the Yoga Gorakshataka, Goraknath’s One-hundred Verses. In this slender text the siddha devotes 10% of the stanzas extoling the virtues of the inversions. He considers them the most straightforward way to attaining pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga. The purpose of pratyahara is to gain independence for external or sensory stimulus. As long as one is dependent on sensory stimulus success in meditation practice is difficult to obtain.
The relation of inversions to pratyahara is as follows: In Yoga Yajnavalkya we find the image of the pranic body (subtle body) being like an aura that during resting extends 12 angulas (approximately 25 cm or 10 inches) beyond the surface of the gross body. Particularly during any form of agitation pranic protuberances extend out much further and attach themselves to sense objects. As soon as the prana has attached itself to a sense object the mind then interprets this as “just wanting to have it”. The connection between thought and prana has already been described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, where we find the sentence, “Where prana goes there goes vrtti (thought) and were vrtti goes there goes prana. As milk and water once mingled are difficult to separate so mind and breath cannot be kept apart.”
As soon as the pranic body has made contact with a sense object the mind will interpret that contact as “needing to have it”. This could be a person that you intensely desire only to ask yourself years later after an acrimonious marriage break-up, “What was I thinking?” It could also be an initially promising business venture that ends disastrously or the decision to invest to the hilt in real estate only to see the real estate prices dropping and you losing your shirt. There are of course many less dramatic instances in which this mechanism is at work but the important structural element in all of them is the seeming lack of choice. We “just needed to!” What if there was something that could intercept these pranic protuberances latching on to the sense objects. In this case the thought, “I just want it”, will never occur. There may then still be an impulse but it will never be accommodated by a lack of choice.
There are actually such techniques in yoga and we call them pratyahara techniques, i.e. techniques designed to obtain independence from sensory stimulus. They come in broadly three baskets, amongst which are pranayama techniques (chiefly breath retentions), Raja Yoga methods (mudras and bandhas during meditation) and Hatha Yoga methods. Ideally of course all three approaches are combined, there is not one better than the other. Hatha Yoga’s approach to pratyahara consists of arresting prana in the throat chakra (through shoulder-stand) and in the third-eye chakra (through headstand). The Hatha Yoga approach is obviously the easiest to implement. You will find little beneficial influence on your mind if you hold headstand or shoulder-stand for only one or two minutes. Longer inversions though have a beneficial effect on the mind and readiness for meditation that is so profound that I found it baffling.
With the stage now set with our investigation why we should extend inversions let’s look into how we can do so safely. Please treat this article only as an adjunct to my descriptions of the inversions in my books, where you find contraindications such as high blood pressure in which case inversions should not be practised and other aspects of the postures described. Here I want to focus only on a single aspect of the inversions and that is the strength aspect.
During shoulder stand students often wonder whether they should press the back of the head into the floor or the chin into the chest (as we would during Jalandhara Bandha). The answer is “both”. Both actions can be performed simultaneously by withdrawing the neck as far as possible into the thoracic cavity as a turtle does when withdrawing its head. This is akin to the movement you would perform if in an upright position you would try to hunch your shoulders around your ears. You can also think of it as trying to touch the ceiling with your toes in shoulder-stand. Alternatively, you can think of it as sucking your entire spine upwards and away from the floor. In all of these instances the effect is that the backs of the cervical vertebrae are lifted off the floor. If you cannot lift them off the floor you should use a blanket or two to place your shoulders on with your head on the floor. If you intend to hold shoulder stand for longer I would in all cases suggest to use blankets as a prop. The yardstick for holding shoulder stand should be our ability to simultaneously press the back of the head into the floor and the chin into the chest, being created by withdrawing the neck into the thoracic cavity and thus lifting the spine off the floor and pressing shoulders, elbows and back of the head into the floor. This needs to be a continuous effort and if at any point you are getting tired of it come out of the posture.
Let’s look at headstand next. Briefly visualize the difference in size of your cervical and lumbar vertebrae. The lumbar vertebrae are huge so that many large muscles can attach to them that support your low back. The vertebrae themselves have to be incredibly strong to withstand the many opposing forces of the muscles attached. Different to that the cervical vertebrae. Compared to the lumbar vertebrae they are minute and this is so because they are designed to hold and carry little beyond the actual weight of your head. The head makes up on average between 7 – 9% of the body’s weight. If you consider that during headstand the head does rest on the floor and does not need to be carried the arms and shoulders should carry about 80% of the body weight so that the normal, average load on the cervical vertebrae is not exceeded. This makes for a serious arm and shoulder work-out. You need to feel that these body parts are carrying the weight. Do not relax in the posture by simply balancing on your head. If at any point you feel that a lot of weight is bearing down through the head simply come out of the posture and rest in Balasana. The strength to hold your weight is only gradually improved over time. Improvement can be sped up by placing more emphasis on the vinyasa movement and other strength postures suck as forearm balance.
You will find that if you develop your strength and take the weight off your head and cervical discs in both inversions that their benefits can be enjoyed and demerit minimized.
Gregor, what then is your opinion of a headstand (shirsana) in which the yogi balances on his head alone?
There is also an intermediate form of shirsana in which the yogi balances just on his outstretched hands (namely, without using the elbows to anchor the position so as to offset the pressure on the cervicals). I have not tried the hands-free version (can’t do it), but I have found that when the alignment is truly plumb, and on the right day (when we are lucky enough to experience a sattvic flow of energy), there is an effortless lightness and ease in this asana, resulting in very little pressure on the cervicals.
The less support there is from the arms and shoulders the more the cervical vertebrae will be compromised. What helps with the Intermediate headstands is that they are held only for really short durations. I have described the method how to perform them in detail in my Intermediate Series book. I think that if you are young, strong and are using good technique you can probably get away with them because they are held for such a short time.
This article was written mainly from the view point what you need to do if you hold your headstand and shoulderstand for 5- ,10 or more minutes. The longer you hold it the better your technique needs to be.
I would, however, say that if somebody has already neck problems or has a neck that is not really strong (notice how the intermediate Leg-behind-head prepare you by making your neck strong) or has difficulty mastering the technique or is getting there age-wise then this should be taking as an indication to leave out some of the Mukta Hasta Shirshasanas, particularly c and potentially B.
Hope that helps
Vielen Dank! Yes, I see your point. I’ll check your description of headstand in your Intermediate Series Book. It is interesting that you remind me once again how the different asanas build on each other, preparing us sequentially for the next stage. That’s what I have always loved about this method. I also appreciate your mentioning the importance of integrating bandhas and pranayama, and more, because the more integrative our practice is the more each component can improve; they are finally all interrelated; that is why yoga is so much more than fancy gymnastics as some seem to think.
They are shoulder stands NOT NECK STANDS! 😉 In every class the teacher should yell that out so loud the wall shake 😉
Thanks for the great in-depth article. I practice yoga everyday but am very careful with inversions because I know I don’t have the perfect technique right now and don’t want to hurt my neck. What is your opinion on using an inversion table? Is it safe to use and if so, is it useful for pratyahara purposes? I’m trying to find a safe way to increase my inversion time, while I perfect my technique.
I don’t have any first hand experience with these devices. My gut feeling is that they would be somewhat less hazardous (compared to a headstand with poor technique) but also less beneficial than a headstand with good technique. Also, while they do safe your neck, they can still lead to an increase in intracranial pressure. You would still need to keep all muscles engaged so that the blood does not sag into the head. As long as you do that, they should be reasonably safe.
Hope this helps