UPSIDE DOWN: A FRESH PERSPECTIVE ON YOGA INVERSIONS
Headstand, Handstand, Crow Pose—oh my! Instructor Meagan Whitfield shares the tips and benefits of hanging out with your hips over your heart.
Spending a few minutes in forearm stand is no small feat. Other than the usual alignment cues—tighten the core, get hips over shoulders, squeeze the inner thighs together, support the head and neck—yoga inversions require a mastering of the mind as much as, if not more than, physical aptitude. Studio Instructor Meagan Whitfield is here to help turn worlds upside down with a new perspective on yoga inversions. With eleven years of practice under her yoga mat, Whitfield chalks up her mastering of inversions to patience, confidence and zero expectations as well as a staunch no-comparisons policy.
“The key for me is being patient with myself, confident in my own body and practice versus comparing myself to others and where they are in their practice. Also, I focus on having no expectations and being okay with the possibility of not being able to successfully come into every inversion I attempt,” shares Whitfield.
The Fear Factor
Easier said than done, right? So, what are the first steps to overcoming any apprehensions of hanging upside down? While there’s an obvious fear factor in applying pressure and bodyweight on or toward the head risking the neck and face, Whitfield suggests the success is in trying and not actually getting into a pose. Though certain medical conditions are a limitation like coronary diseases, Whitfield encourages everyone to make sure their restrictions aren’t self-imposed.
“There is so much to experience when we challenge ourselves to come out of our comfort zones. Typically, people experience fear when they do not understand something or when something is unfamiliar, which is why it is quite common for students to feel intimidated or nervous at the mention of inversions,” says Whitfield. “Those same emotions could become a source of great strength once you explore and figure out how to use them productively rather than letting the emotions remain a barrier.”
The Benefits of Being Upside Down
Now for all of the naysayers, skeptics or curious minds out there wondering why to try risking it all—there are many verifiable and assumed health benefits of yoga poses that involve the head under and the hips over the heart. Aside from the more fashionable poses like handstands and other upside down balances, inversions also technically include downward-facing dog, extended puppy pose and dolphin pose. So you don’t have to balance for hours on your head to enjoy these physical and mental benefits.
When the blood is rushing to the head providing the brain with more oxygen and blood, it improves overall circulation throughout the body, increases mental func- tion such as memory and concentration, and can be the equivalent of that jolt of energy after a cup of coffee. Instructor Whitfield also notes that blood pressure and breathing tend to slow down eliciting the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, relaxation and feelings of calm are also common side effects post-inversion.
Additionally, the lymphatic system in charge of elimi- nating toxins and bacteria is impacted. In short, lymph moves as a result of gravity and muscle contractions. When we flip the pull of gravity in the body, lymph can travel more easily to the harder-to-reach places like the respiratory system helping to increase immunity and prevent illness.
Then, there are the musculoskeletal benefits like increased core and upper-body strength and reduction of back pain as well as Whitfield’s personal favorites which have less to do with immediate physical health.
“One of my favorite listed benefits of inversions is experiencing a fresh point of view. When you turn upside down, everything looks different. The world has not changed, you have changed your relationship with it,” says Whitfield. “Personally, my inversion practice has given me a newfound confidence, knowing that I am able to stay in control of my body and mind even when everything is turned upside down.”
Leave the Ego Off the Mat
Instructor Meagan also implores those looking to try inversions to check in with the intention behind the desire to get into a pose. “Is it because you want to post it to social media and show others? If so, that is an intention of the ego,” says Whitfield. Ego might show up on the mat as getting frustrated or embarrassed and unsafely attempting poses quickly and without self-awareness. Whitfield cautions keeping your ego with you on the mat is more likely to lead to injuries and other issues.
“However, if we are coming from a genuine place of curiosity to explore what our bodies and minds are capable of, this is a sign we are in a healthy place and ready to begin our journey into inversions with an intention of self-improvement as a noble pursuit,” says Whitfield.
Slow Down and Take a Breath
Say it with us, now! Reminding yourself to take your time and breathe is the safest and most-likely-to- succeed route. Honestly, we all could probably heed this advice in many areas of our lives. It’s especially important when hanging around in headstand or kicking your legs up overhead. In fact, Whitfield shares rushing the process is the most common mistake with inversions. “Yoga is all about the journey to the destination not the destination itself. When you devote the time, effort and patience into your practice, the payoff is greater than you can ever imagine,” says Whitfield.
Whitfield also suggests using cork blocks over foam blocks to practice inversions safely, because cork is heavier and more supportive. If you are a true beginner, she recommends practicing near a wall for an added safety net and more so to know something is there to catch you with the goal to trust your own abilities enough to move away from the wall.
Again, it’s worth repeating—slow down and take a breath. We hope to see you upside down at the next Hips Over Heart Workshop, if you dare, on February 12th.
My specialties are new lifters, nutrition and habit building.
“When you turn upside down, everything looks different. The world has not changed, you havechanged your relationship with it.”