This post was written by Leena Miller Cressman, director of Queen Street Yoga, about her current thinking and understanding of inversions.
We recently added the following statement to our “Studio Policy and Etiquette” document that we post around the studio and on our website. We are the first yoga studio community that we know of to make a public statement about this. We hope that this adds to important conversations about safety and risk in the wider yoga community.
Inversions at QSY: We choose not to teach full Headstand and full Shoulderstand (where weight is placed on the head and neck) due to safety concerns for the spine. We ask that students do not practice these poses before, after, or during public classes for the safety of all QSY members.
What’s an inversion anyway?
Different styles or traditions of yoga define inversions differently. Most generally, inversions can be any pose where the head is at a lower position than the heart and pelvis. This could include simple and common poses like downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) or standing forward bend (Uttansana), but also arm balancing poses like handstand or forearm stand. The two poses often called “full inversions” in yoga literature are headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) and shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana). Many teachers, such as BKS Iyengar, have gone as far as to say that headstand and shoulderstand are the King and Queen of all yoga poses.
I’m no expert in all styles of yoga, but here’s a bit about what I’ve gathered about approaches to full inversions in different styles of yoga. In Iyengar Yoga and Anusara Yoga (my former background) headstand and shoulderstand are typically taught only to intermediate and advanced students (students with at least 3 to 5 years of practice, primarily of standing poses, under their belts). In these two styles, the full inversions are taught gradually and progressively, and props are typically used to make the poses more accessible and safer. In my limited experience of Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Sivananda Yoga traditions, full inversions are more commonly taught to newer, less experienced students and props are not typically used. In Moksha Yoga no full inversions are taught.
Inversions are touted as having many benefits to the body and mind.
Many yoga teachers and yogic literature purport that a vast array of benefits come from inversions: Improved blood pressure and heart function, increased nutrients available to the brain and vital hormone-producing glands such as the thyroid and pituitary, strengthening for the upper body and core, improved balance, and mental clarity are just a few. However, of the factuality of many of these so-called benefits are questioned by medical professionals.
Full inversions also come with risks, that we believe may outweigh any benefits.
In headstand and shoulderstand the majority of the weight of the body is placed on the neck (the cervical spine). According to osteopaths and chiropractors that I’ve spoken with, placing that much weight on a perfectly healthy cervical spine is in itself risky, especially when that posture also requires balance. Any movement or a fall could be quite dangerous for the neck and spinal cord. (If you want to think worst case scenario, think spinal cord injury). Cervical bones are simply not designed for weight-bearing according to many health professionals.
Here’s another big caveat. The vast majority of North Americans have at least a slight, or often a significant forward head carriage, as well as restriction in the muscles of their chest and weakness in their neck and upper back due to too much sitting, poor computer posture, poor driving posture, etc. A lot of North Americans also suffer from TMJ and other head, neck, and shoulder injuries or chronic pain.
Forward head carriage posture creates misalignments and imbalances that can eventually lead to weakening and even degeneration of the intervertebral disks and the cervical bones themselves. If any of those misalignments or conditions are present, then placing the majority of the weight of the body becomes even more risky.
On a personal note, I have had an x-ray of my spine, and my upper spine is quite flat (probably a blend of genetics and poor alignment), which puts my cervical disks at greater risk for degeneration. So, based on this knowledge and the urging of my osteopath, in my personal practice I’ve chosen to only practice inversions in a supported way, where props are used to take all the weight off my cervical spine.
More on why we’re choosing not to teach full inversions in drop-in classes.
Earlier on in my teaching career, I did teach full inversions. I taught them to consistent and experienced students with an emphasis on safety. I taught them to small groups progressively, not to larger drop-in classes. Still, I regret that choice. Given the current environment that I teach in, my own journey with these poses and negative effects that I’ve experienced because of them, and because I am understanding a lot more about anatomy and physiology that I used to, I’ve changed my tune about these postures. I urge other yoga teachers to read, learn, and carefully reconsider conventional wisdom about these poses. Read what people are saying outside the yoga community, especially medical professionals. (Check out a list of resources at the end of this post.)
Given that our teachers are not trained medical professionals, osteopaths, or chiropractors, and that without looking at an x-ray the level of health in a person’s spine is difficult to evaluate, and due to the other risks involved, we have chosen to not teach full inversions at Queen Street Yoga in drop-in classes. The majority of our classes at QSY are “drop-in,” which means that people don’t necessarily attend the same class regularly, and there are often students who are new. We feel that it is irresponsible to teach advanced and risky poses in this environment. We believe that if full headstand or shoulderstand should be taught at all (which we are unsure of and are still thinking carefully about), it should only be done in a small group setting, with an experienced teacher who can take the group through a regular practice that builds up to the postures consistently over time. Given that these circumstances are quite uncommon in current yoga class cultures, we choose to teach less risky inversions, and variations of inversions that don’t put the neck at risk.
But inversions look so cool! #yogaselfie
Another aspect of modern yoga culture that might make inversions appealing is a widespread urge to “achieve” difficult poses. We can see this on yogis Instagram and Facebook feeds, where fancy and difficult poses are often put on display. While this can be fun and empowering at times, it can also turn yoga practice into something to be looked at, idealized and even idolized. We can become fixated on the idea that only being able to perform the hardest postures makes us accomplished yogis.
Our intention in teaching and practicing yoga at QSY is to grow as individuals, and deepen our sense of connectedness with the wider world. While practicing headstand and shoulderstand, or other “fancy” or extreme poses, may be fun and provide learning experiences, they do not necessarily bring us any closer to that aim.
What alternatives are there to full headstand and shoulderstand?
Many of the benefits of inversions can be experienced in poses like downward-facing dog and standing forward bends such as Uttanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana. Blocks can even be added beneath the head which can give a moderate and pleasant pressure to the skull, which I’ve found can be helpful if I have a tension headache. Handstand and forearm-stand also offer similar benefits as headstand in terms of building strength and cultivating balance. Supported bridge and legs-up-the-wall pose can be great alternatives to shoulderstand.
It is also possible to do a full headstand with the weight of the body placed on the shoulders between stacked blocks or 2 folding chairs, so that no weight is place on the head. Shoulderstand can be practiced with a chair and blankets so that most of the weight is in the pelvis and shoulders rather than on the neck. These versions require more set-up and lots of props and are therefore they are not always appropriate for a drop-in class, but I believe they are safe, and beneficial alternatives to the full postures.
This post is the start of a conversation, and we are still interested in thinking through and talking about these poses, and our approach to practice and teaching. If you’re interested in a course or workshop to learn what we believe are safer alternatives to these inversions, let us know. Maybe this is something we can offer to the community in the future.
RESOURCES TO LEARN MORE:
This is a great three part series written by a medical doctor who is also a yogi, discussing the history, benefits and risks of headstand.
Matthew Remski is a Toronto-based author, yoga teacher and Ayurvedic therapist. His current project “WAWADIA – What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?” looks at questions of yoga’s history and claims, and its current intersection with medical research and what we are learning about the body.
This article looks at the risks of practicing inversions during menstruation. It is also written by a medical doctor.
This New York Times article takes a critical look at the risks of modern yoga practice.
This article is geared to the beginner yogi, and encourages them to consider possible risks in approaching certain poses.
Leena Miller Cressman is the director of Queen Street Yoga. Right now she’s in love with practicing the Tensegrity Repair Series, handstands and doing gentle twists over her bolster. You’ll also find her cruising around on her rusty but trusty bike, and tending to her community garden plot full of arugula, kale, and basil.
HI, I totally agree with your decision to not teach inversions. Definitely, more and more information is out there as to the possible dangers inherent in shoulder and head stand.
Michealle Edwards, creator of YogAlign, has studied many aspects of yoga and the real benefits, or lack, of the poses. I recommend highly her book YogAlign, Pain-Free Yoga From Your Inner Core. Her book came out in 2011. It takes time for change to become effective, for the community to hear.
I am thrilled that other yoga teachers are starting to question the validity of some of the yoga postures. We must be discerning, detectives, always asking questions, continue to educate ourselves. As more and more is learned about the body, we, as teachers, must continue to make decisions as to what is safe for our students and for ourselves.
Thanks for the book recommendation Barbara. We will be sure to check it out.
Great post ! I dropped these poses decades ago and have urged my YogAlign students not to ever put the weight of the lower body on the cervical spine. There have been cases of students having bone growth block nerve pathways as the body attempts to thicken the cervical in response to the unnatural stress of headstands, shoulder stands and plow.
The plow is very dangerous as it stretches the necessary ligament tension of the entire spinal column. Plow stresses the sacral platform and also flattens the cervical curves flexing the neck with body weight on it. Please check out my book YogAlign as I have a list of dozens of poses that should be avoided if yogis want to maintain joint integrity as they age.
Here is one of my articles too that was mentioned in the NYTimes
I have worked with many yogis who have flat thoracic spines because the collagen bonding breaks down when we engage the spine in flexion as in forward bending with knees straight or extended. Whether you are slouching of trying to press your chest to straight knees, it will loosen the spinal and sacral ligaments.
Also there is a must read from Jon Burras on the myths of inversions,
Click to access EIGHT-MYTHS-OF-INVERSIONS.pdf
The supposed benefits of Inversions are steeped in pseudo medical science. The notion of increasing blood flow to the brain makes sense if the body is just some sort of plumbing system, and if gravity helps in this somewhat, just what the benefit would be is also just made up. The thyroid connection is better accessed in so many others ways, not the least of which is by way of one’s smile reaching the throat, compared to what all this would do… so much pseudo information on this and other stuff, made up on the spot.
People are moving into dangerous postures prematurely, without even knowing how to breathe properly first, such is the lack of knowledge currently existing. Well done to this Yoga studio for deeply considering all sorts of elements in this regard.
Dr. Pankaj Seth, ND
Thank you for posting this and starting what is sure to be a lively discussion! I don’t teach these poses in my drop in classes for the same reasons. I also don’t practice them myself. Supported bridge, forearm stand, and headstand with chairs are awesome alternatives. 🙂
In a properly taught headstand with forearms on the mat there is little weight on the head or neck. In shoulderstand most of the weight is on the upper back arms. I have heard seated forward fold is responsible for the most injuries in yoga.
Excellent article. Very well thought out and presented. As a new studio owner, and long time practiciner, I don’t teach head stand, but do allow people to do shoulder stand as an inversion. I am going to re-think this. I stopped doing head stands a long time ago in my personal practice, and am not sure why. It just didn’t feel right any more.
Thank you! I have a similar teaching philosophy and am grateful for your beautiful articulation on this important subject. The slow and steady unfolding of this beautiful practice can easily be disrupted by the grasping to accomplish seemingly advanced poses. Not only do we risk physical harm but also may miss the greater benefit of creating a clear and steady mind.
Reblogged this on The Radical Yogi and commented:
This is a fantastic article outlining the risks of headstand and shoulderstand. Personally, I use blocks under my shoulders to achieve a full inversion without placing any pressure on the head or neck. Inversions have many benefits, but must be approached thoughtfully!
My gosh I so agree, here at prema shanti retreat, no longer teach head and shoulderstand, its so nice to know that more of us are taking note and realizing that it not the be all and end all. It is great to see studios like yourselves stepping out of the norm and teaching what they belive is right for them.
Brava, Leena! I got certified to teach Sivananda Yoga in l970, when the pedagogy was less sophisticated to say the least. I taught in Toronto for years back then; it wasn’t until I did the Body Mind Centering training in the ’80s that it gradually dawned on me that had been very lucky not to have had someone seriously injured in my classes. My own chronically uncomfortable cervical spine is a sad example of 20-minute headstands, incorrectly rendered, all under the tutelage of some of the best teachers of the time. We cannot go wrong in listening to our own precious bodies. Good on you!
Nancy- Funny you should mention Sivananda training and headstands. I just finished their TTC 3 months ago and headstand is taught in the 4th session of the beginners course (and shoulderstand in the 3rd.) Lots of us weren’t so comfortable with the idea of teaching headstand to beginners or at all…
Great Article Leena
I think that in an individuals yoga practice, the temptation can be to involve one’s ego a little too much, and thereby push oneself into poses that may be unhealthy for you. My most blissful moments in my yoga practice come out of focusing on the flow of energy and breath occurring inside my body. When I think about my poses from the outside looking in, I make bad choices. Years ago I hurt my lower back in a twist this way. Pride came quite literally before the fall.
QSY is great at refocusing the student’s attention to what’s happening inside the body and explaining the anatomical aspects of poses.
Great article Leena! Thank you for bringing this insight to the community. I really enjoyed your writing and voice.
In its most basic sense, the ‘legs up against the wall’ pose is really one of the most significant practices in yoga. It helps you with your overall circulation and helps you correct your posture. If one is lucky and strong enough to do a handstand, then that would be much more helpful.