Want to try inversions but aren’t ready to do a headstand? I have good news for you: An inversion is simply any position where the legs are above your heart or the heart is above the head! Your feet leaving the floor doesn’t really have anything to do with it so keep them grounded safely until you feel more comfortable.
There are so many wonderful benefits to going upside down. It has the ability to both energize and relax you, depending on your needs at the moment. The reversal of blood flow impacts the brain as it increases the delivery of oxygen and glucose, which stimulates the production of the neurotransmitters that make life more enjoyable (like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine).
But that’s not all! Inversions increase the flow of CSF, cerebral spinal fluid, which removes waste products from the brain and supplies nutrients to nervous systems tissues. They increase lymphatic drainage to the respiratory system so you can say hello to a stronger immune system or even fight off illness with more restorative inversions. Inversions are thought to be “anti-aging” because they allow your heart to rest.
Other more obvious effects include increased balance and circulation, confidence, strength and total body control. Who doesn’t want that?! Let’s dive into some of the most do-able inversions:
1. Plow Pose/Halasana: If this one hurts your neck, try it on a bed or put a folded blanket under your shoulders. Stiff muscles in the neck and shoulders actually cause lower back pain so this will help so much more than just the neck! If your feet don’t reach the floor just lie with the crown of your head facing the wall so you can put your feet on the wall instead of the floor. If you have big boobies you might feel like you are suffocating, so try not to get frustrated and back off a little! Take deep breaths as you squeeze your quads, lifting the legs up towards the ceiling. This is not ideal for pregnancy once the belly is pronounced.
2. Shoulderstand/Salamba Sarvangasana: This is an extension of #1, and if your boobies suffocated you in Halasana you might struggle here too. Again, modify by using the same wall to help the feet lift! This is a very deep stretch in the neck. This inversion is incredibly difficult to hold, yet stable, so it is perfect for those not ready to headstand. It is not ideal for pregnancy once the belly is pronounced.
3. Bridge pose/Setu Bandha Sarvangasana: Strengthen your booty, deepen your backbend and correct bad posture all while reaping the benefits of inversions. For a more restorative variation you can rest the sacrum on a block, or go without one to build strength. Feel your shoulders and head melt into the mat as you drive down through the balls of your feet. During pregnancy I couldn’t live without this one!
4. Rabbit Pose/Sasangasana: This is the first way I like to introduce putting pressure on the head to newer students who are afraid to headstand. It gives you the feeling of butterflies without the danger of falling or getting hurt. Just be sure that you don’t dump your body weight into the head. The shoulders lift away from the floor to keep the neck safe. If you feel light-headed wiggle your toes and always come up very slowly. This is not ideal for pregnancy once the belly is pronounced—never restrict blood flow to your sweet baby.
5. Legs up the Wall/Viparita Karani: This is the ultimate restorative inversion! If I’m taking a yoga class and I’m too stressed or fatigued I will retreat to this asana. If you have edema in your legs from pregnancy or blood pressure issues, try to do this for 30 minutes per day (split up into 5-10 min intervals if needed). Sitting at a desk, riding in a car, standing all day— the legs are always neglected! If your legs are restless try having someone put a sandbag on them. Most yoga studios will have them! If straight legs are too much, put your mat by the couch and prop the legs up with bent knees instead. Let. Go.
6. Standing Forward Bend/Uttanasana: Bring your big toes together with heels slightly apart (so kneecaps face straight ahead) and fold forward. Bend your knees until your lower ribs touch your thighs. Do not straighten your legs unless you can keep this connection! I like to grab onto my neck and give it a little pull to elongate my spine. Breathe deeply and tip your body weight forward into the balls of your feet. Spread your toes out and lighten up your heels as if someone is sliding a piece of paper under them. This is great for pregnancy as long as you widen your legs to keep the baby free from compression.
7. Down Dog/Adho Mukha Svanasana: It doesn’t matter if your legs are straight or bent as long as the spine is sloping and not hunched up. The same goes for the heels—let them lift if they need to! I like to tuck my chin because it gives me a deep stretch in the neck and shoulders. If it feels too heavy, put your hands on a higher surface, like your kitchen counter or coffee table, to modify. This is great for pregnancy!
8. Dolphin/Ardha Pincha Mayurasana: If your shoulders are as tight as mine were when I started yoga this is challenging but beneficial. As a new student I couldn’t even attempt forearm balance with a wall because I was so weak and rigid! For those like me you want to keep your thumbs touching. If your shoulder girdle is more flexible you can keep the wrists in line with the elbows, but I still prefer thumbs together for a V-shape with the forearms. Try to hold this and walk the feet in closely. Lift the heels, then press them down, even lift one leg! Also try it with your head lifted, looking forward at your thumbs, and with your head hanging as you look at your feet. This one is the perfect pick-me-up for the 3pm slump. It’s great for pregnancy to keep those arms lean and strong (you will need them to carry that baby)!
9. Headstand prep/Ardha Baddha Sirsasana: Who said you had to lift your feet in headstand? You won’t hear it from me! Try putting light pressure on your head with no intention of going up so you can completely focus on building arm and core strength. The arms should press down as the shoulders pull away from the floor—really exaggerate this shoulder movement! You can alternate between slightly hovering the head and setting it down. While it takes time to get used to pressure on your head, remember that your arms are supposed to carry a substantial amount of weight. I never teach tripod headstands to beginners for this reason! Use a yoga mat that is firm and thick, or double up thin mats for more support. If you feel queasy or dizzy wiggle your toes to remind your body to wake up and don’t forget to breathe! This is okay for pregnancy as long as you have strength and control.
At the end of the day, inversions are accessible for everyone as long as you respect your limitations and move intentionally. Lead with the breath and move your body in slow motion. The second you lose that deep breath STOP—injuries happen when we throw ourselves around carelessly. Anyone can jump into a headstand or handstand, but is the destination a place of control and growth? When we don’t honor our bodies we tend to stop breathing correctly or hold the breath entirely, and when you don’t breathe you die (seriously though). Please don’t die on me! Let’s become stronger and more intuitive beings who are hopefully happier, nicer and more in control of our physical and spiritual beings. Namaste.
**If you have any preexisting conditions please consult your physician before attempting these asanas!