In our daily life, we sit, we stand and we lie down. We sit at work, when we eat, read, watch television…We stand when we go from one place to another, when we wait... And we lie down when we sleep or relax. But when are we upside down? Only when we practise yoga. There are also some inverted exercises in gymnastics and in other sports, but in yoga a quarter of all the poses are upside down. In inverted asanas, the upper part of the body (head, shoulders, torso) is down, and the lower part of the body (legs, buttocks, stomach) is up, towards the ceiling. As such, body weight is on the upper part as opposed to the lower part. In other words, poses like Padottanasana (standing forwardbend) and Prasaritapadottanasana (standing forwardbend with feet apart) are not considered upside-down poses since the weight of the body is on the legs, not on the upper part.
The most practised upside-down asanas are headstand - Shirshasana; shoulderstand - Sarvangasana; handstand - Bhujasana; plow - Halasana; and forearmstand - Pinchamayurasana. Each of these asanas has countless variations since in all of them it is possible to place one's arms and one's legs, or both arms and legs, in many different positions. For example, headstand can be practised with legs straight up, with legs in lotus, with legs split, with legs to one side, with legs bent, with legs in eagle. Or with one arm on the floor, with both arms on the floor, with one arm up, with both arms up, etc. Some advanced poses like king locust - Rajashalabhasana, and scorpion - Vrischikasana, are upside-down asanas as well.
The five positions of the spine are found among the upside-down asanas. In Shirshasana, for example, the spine is neutral; in plow, the spine is forwardbending; in scorpion, backwardbending; Parivritasarvangasana is twisting; Parshvasarvangasana is sidebending. In other words, a complete stretching of the spine is possible. Along with this healthy stretching of the spine, inverted poses improve blood circulation. The head, throat and lungs are supplied with fresh oxygen. As a result, one feels refreshed and rejuvenated. In yoga classes, upside-down asanas are often placed at the end to ensure a deep relaxation or meditation.
A person who has difficulty sleeping or meditating would greatly benefit from practising these poses. I have met yogis who only practised headstand and shoulderstand for long periods of time every day (one to two hours). They told me that they didn't need meditation because headstand and shoulderstand bestowed the same fruits upon them. I noticed that they were peaceful and spoke words of wisdom. Personally, I find great solace in meditation. Meditation has been part of my life for the last 12 years and has made me a more joyful, responsible person. Practising headstand and shoulderstand myself for up to one hour, I have discovered that they help us to reach the state of meditation (dhyana). I therefore heartily advise meditators to dedicate some time to the practice of inverted poses. Handstand, however, doesn't facilitate meditation and practised before going to bed, it can actually prevent one from falling asleep.
Inverted poses are ideal to practise at home. Once the basic poses (headstand, shoulderstand…) have been mastered, one can easily practise them alone. They require only a few minutes, a limited space and bring an unparalleled sense of peace of mind. They also ensure robust health by promoting blood circulation and proper use of the lungs. When I was living in Europe, I had a flatmate from India. Every night, he practised inverted poses by himself. He first did headstand for about 10 minutes, and then shoulderstand and plow for the same amount of time. He usually finished with a seated forwardbend such as Paschimottanasana or Janushirshasana. Once or twice a week, he came to my public yoga classes for a longer practice. His health and mood, he told me, greatly benefited from this training. He said that upside-down asanas gave him a sense of peace and uncovered his natural cheerfulness. He was referring to the joyful, smiling heart that all children possess and that most of us have lost. If there was a physical practice that could purify our hearts and restore such a blessed state, why would we disregard it?
I must tell you though that upside-down asanas can be somewhat dangerous for those who suffer from high blood pressure and after a serious surgical operation. Anyone who does it must also learn to practise properly. If one practises headstand with the forehead on the floor, they might damage their neck. And certain poses like scorpion or king scorpion (scorpion in handstand) should not be attempted by people who do not practise under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
The Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, a well-known yoga book written in the 16th century, does not say anything else when it says that instructions for upside-down asanas (called 'viparita karani') should be obtained by a 'guru' (chapter 3, shloka 79). The word 'guru' means 'qualified teacher'. When it comes to headstand, the text says that "one should practise for just a moment on the first day. And then practise longer and longer, each time adding some seconds" (chapter 3, shloka 81). My first teacher, Andrey Vanlysebeth, wrote in his book 'Teach Yourself Yoga' that one should add one minute every week. The Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika then says that whichever mortal who practises headstand for three hours every day does not age. Modern masters such as Andrey Vanlysebeth illustrate that performing headstand daily slows down the aging process. And they say that we don't necessarily need to hold the asanas for three hours to slow down that aging process. If this is so, what are we waiting for? Let's get upside down!
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