Inversions in yoga improve balance and strengthen the core. They also stimulate the lymphatic system to pick up toxins and release them, which helps the body stay healthy.
However, inversions can be challenging to those with heart conditions, neck injuries or high blood pressure. If you have any of these conditions, it is best to start with partial inversions and build your way up to full poses.
1. Supported Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana)
If the idea of going upside down is intimidating, it’s a good idea to start with basic inversions like Supported Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana) or Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani). By incorporating these poses into your regular yoga practice, you can gradually build the strength and stability needed to progress to more advanced inversions. Always practice with a qualified instructor and follow detailed step-by-step instructions to ensure proper alignment and safety.
Inversions can have a powerful effect on the body and mind. They strengthen the core and shoulder girdle, improve circulation, reduce stress and fatigue, and increase focus. However, there are some contraindications to inversions that should be considered before attempting them. These include unmedicated high blood pressure, neck injuries, some heart conditions, recent stroke, detached retina or glaucoma, and epilepsy. If you are unsure whether or not inversions are safe for you, talk to your doctor and yoga teacher.
Beginners can learn Shoulder Stand with the help of props such as blankets, bolsters or the wall. They can also explore variations of the pose by scissoring the legs forward and backward, or by bringing the legs into Lotus Pose (Padmasana). If you’re an experienced student, you may want to experiment with different upper arm positions as well.
Once mastered, Shoulder Stand is an invigorating yet soothing pose that can be enjoyed by anyone who is willing to challenge themselves. This is a classic pose that yoga practitioners never graduate from; it’s one of the most important postures to master in a yoga practice and is an essential part of every balanced yoga sequence. For an in-depth exploration of Shoulder Stand, check out Cameron Shayne’s 13-part workshop Build Towards Handstand or Mathieu Boldron’s 8-part workshop Inversions for All Levels.
2. Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani)
Many people aren’t naturally inclined to flip their bodies upside-down, even in a safe, controlled yoga practice. And that’s fine! Having some fear around inversions is normal, and it’s important to take time exploring them with care so that they feel accessible. It’s also helpful to remind yourself of the benefits that come from inversions — it’s more than just flipping your body over; these poses cleanse and nourish the body, rebalance hormones, increase lung capacity, stimulate acupressure points, improve memory, and reduce stress.
The Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani) posture is a wonderful way to relax after a long day or a strenuous yoga class, and it’s often included near the end of an active or restorative yoga practice. It is a passive inversion that relieves fatigue in the legs and feet, and can help with swollen ankles and calves caused by heat, travel or extended periods of standing. It also stretches the backs of the legs, hip flexors and abdomen and can be a good alternative to Headstand or Shoulder Stand for people with neck and shoulder problems.
If you’re not ready to try Legs Up the Wall yet, or if your body feels unstable or uncomfortable, consider using props like blankets, bolsters or blocks to support your body. It’s also best to practice this pose under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher or with detailed, step-by-step instructions so that you can learn how to move through the posture safely and with proper alignment.
It’s important to note that you should avoid inversions if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma or any eye condition, a detached retina, back and/or neck injury, recent heart surgery, or pregnancy. If you are unsure whether you are able to practice inversions, check in with your doctor and always work within your own range of limits and abilities.
3. Dolphin Pose (Purvottanasana)
Dolphin Pose opens and strengthens the upper body and can be used as a preparation for inversions like Headstand and Forearm Balance. It is also a restorative pose that can be taken in the middle of a flow or as a final inversion at the end of a practice. It also helps you build confidence in balancing forward-facing poses because it is a half inversion, and therefore less intimidating than other upside-down postures that require the entire body to be supported by the hands and feet.
For those with lower back issues, this variation is helpful because it allows you to maintain the length of the spine and lift your pelvis. It is important to keep the shoulders wide across your back and track them alongside the biceps to prevent the rib cage from sinking toward the ground. It is also a good idea to take Dolphin Pose with your feet on the floor and your knees bent to support your back.
The Dolphin Pose can be made more challenging by pressing the palms of your hands together or by clasping all ten fingers together, which is called ardh pinca mayurasana (are-dah pin-cha-may-UR-uhs-anna) in Sanskrit. It is also possible to add a twisting movement by pushing the floor away with your forearms. This helps to open the shoulders even more and is particularly beneficial for pregnant women who find Dolphin Pose soothing for their neck and shoulder pain.
The Dolphin Pose is a wonderful foundation for many other poses, including Plank Pose, Forearm Side Plank, One-Legged Dolphin, and Dolphin Handstand. Practicing these poses in combination with Dolphin Pose will help you build the strength and confidence to hold your face in Dolphin Pose.
4. Downward-Facing Dog (Purvottanasana)
Inverting from Downward-Facing Dog (Purvottanasana) strengthens the arms and legs, opens the chest and stretches the front of the body. It also helps improve the heart rate and circulation, while calming the mind. This posture is part of the Primary Series of yoga poses in the Ashtanga Yoga system.
The first thing to remember in this pose is to keep the hands and feet active to support the weight of the body, rather than allowing the hips to sink back and create a hunch in the back. This is challenging for students and can be difficult to correct. It is important to guide students to place their hands a little wider than the shoulders to create a long, straight line from the center of the shoulders to the heels. In this way, the back can be elongated to avoid creating tension in the neck and shoulder area. Students may also need to be encouraged to move their gaze forward to help lengthen the neck and spine and to lift their hips toward the thighs for a more grounded, centered feeling.
Students should also be reminded that their goal in this pose is not to push the heels to the floor, but to create an anterior pelvic tilt, which will open the hamstrings and gluteus muscles. A common mistake is to push the heels down, which can result in a deep strain in the wrists and lower back. For students with a bad shoulder injury, it is important to be careful when attempting this pose, but with consistent practice, this posture can be safely achieved by most. This posture is also contraindicated for students with high blood pressure or wrist injuries.
5. Warrior II (Virasana)
Named after Virabhadra, a Hindu mythological warrior who fought with his thousand arms, this standing pose enhances strength and stability. It also stretches and strengthens the back, shoulders, hips, and thighs. Warrior II is an intense poses since it aligns the entire body and requires the active engagement of many muscles.
The front leg flexes, and the back leg straightens. The hip flexors and quadriceps muscles of the front leg are stretching, while the external oblique of the back leg and the internal thigh muscle are contracting. The erector spinae muscles of the spine are straightening the spine and providing side-to-side rotation, which decreases the likelihood of back injuries.
For yogis with knee injuries or who have a tendency to slouch in Hero Pose, adding height under the hips (such as with a block, blanket or bolster) can be helpful for getting into Warrior II safely and comfortably. This will prevent the front knee from drifting inward and overcompensating for the weakening quadriceps muscles of the leg.
To do this, come out of Mountain Pose and stand with feet parallel to each other in a wide stance facing the long edge of the mat. If you are unable to hold the pose for five breaths, try moving in and out of the position several times, increasing your time spent in the pose as you build strength. Then, bring a strong sense of resolve and a centered awareness to the pose as you bend the right knee and stack it over the ankle. Reach the left arm forward and cast your gaze to the right hand. Breathe deeply and keep the breath flowing steadily. Release the gaze when you are ready to move out of the pose.