One of the funniest things I hear from students on a semi-regular basis is that they really want to “do the fun poses.” I’ve stopped asking them to define “fun” for me as the answers are always the same: headstand, handstand, crow, etc…The balancing postures, especially the inversions, hold a shiny allure for newcomers and experienced yogis alike. I am no exception, as one of the postures that encouraged me to explore yoga as a physical practice was Sirsasana. Standing on my head was a commonplace occurrence when I was a child, so when I discovered that there was a spiritual practice that incorporated what I already was familiar with, I began to dig deeper.
Having the “fun” postures bring people to yoga is a definite asset as a yoga teacher. Whatever draws us closer to the truth, closer to a place where we can begin to ask questions and move closer to reconnecting with the source of everything within and around us, innately ends up proving its worth. What starts as an ego-driven desire to succeed and accomplish leads us to a place where we learn to strip ourselves of the ego and get drawn to a place where we find liberation from Samsara. Where my role as a responsible yoga teacher enters into the equation is when I have to determine when the “fun” postures aren’t appropriate for some students. And I hate being the bad guy, the bearer of bad news…
On a physical level, I continually bring my students’ awareness back to the structure of their frames, mainly to the spinal column as their vertical axis and the pelvis as the horizontal axis. As all of our bodies and physical capabilities are different, I also encourage students to take my instruction as a guideline, while tapping into their own intuition and listening to what their bodies are telling them throughout the practice. What’s right for one student will be antithetical to another’s development, and my main objective is to guide them all towards the mind-body connection where their awareness is in the body, conscious of the subtle movements that open up energy channels and those that block them off. Often, weight-bearing inversions can put an unnecessary (and sometimes dangerous) amount of strain on the body’s frame, which after years of practice can result in life-long injuries and ailments.
The benefits of inversions are many: fresh, oxygenated blood gets directed to the brain through a facilitation of the veins’ low-pressure pumping of blood back up to the carotid arteries in the neck…with the increase of this blood, the receptors that regulate the flow of blood to the brain detect the increased amount and then slow down the flow, which lowers the heart rate and blood pressure; the body’s lymphatic system (which works to remove waste from the body as well as maintain proper immune system levels and fluid levels) gets stimulated; the slight pressure of the top of the head on the ground in Sirsasana is thought to promote elasticity in the bones of the cranium, which in turn stimulates the cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles of the brain (the cerebrospinal fluid is the liquid of the central nervous system which runs down the spinal cord)…and the list goes on and on. There’s nothing like scientific proof to justify our desire to push ourselves into a posture that is deemed “fun.” What is less often discussed, however, are the possible harmful effects that we can be inviting into the equation when we ignore our bodies’ parameters and limits and simply feed the ego.
Upper spine injuries due to misalignment or pre-existing weaknesses in the cervical spine are becoming more and more common in yoga practitioners. These injuries can affect everything from neck mobility to the functionality of the arms and hands, even the overall mobility of the entire body. When the real compressive force of inversions is not properly conveyed to those practising, and the proper amount of upper body strength is not used to take the weight out of the head and the spine, then injuries can appear within weeks, even days, especially for those practising these postures once or twice a week.
All this information exists so that we can make the proper adjustments to our practice to ensure we reap the multitude of benefits while eliminating the possibility of hurting ourselves. I encourage everyone to move towards inversions carefully and responsibly, staying alert and attentive in the presence of a trustworthy teacher, all the while staying completely tuned into what their bodies’ are telling them. Let’s be real about it – Ahimsa may be a restriction in how we treat others, but if we’re not treating ourselves with non-aggression and non-harming, then how can we genuinely treat others that way?
Inspiring and informative post, Bram! Thanks.