Oftentimes when I tell folks I’m a yoga instructor they assume I spend the majority of my time upside down in a version of handstand that is simultaneously cirque-du-soleil-esque, and worthy of a Yoga Journal cover. And while I do enjoy a nice inversion from time to time, it is hardly my goal in life as an instructor OR a student of yoga.
If we were to rewind back to the very beginning of my yoga days, however, I did have a deep admiration (bordering on obsession) with handstands. I remember the first time I saw another student effortlessly kick their legs up and hold their body in Zen-like-stillness, toes pointed to the sky for what seemed to be a solid sixty seconds. Back then, my yoga practice was inadvertently much like everything else at the time - based on striving, achieving, goal-setting, pressuring and pushing myself. For what, I’m not altogether certain. I set my sights on crow, tripod headstand, the koundinyasana variations, sidecrow, dolphin, grasshopper, and of course - the ever-elusive full handstand. I chipped away at each posture much like I would a to-do list. Looking back, I never appreciated the journey much, just the final result. I’d snap a photo of the proof that I had in fact achieved what I set out to do, then I’d immediately head back to the next shape to “conquer.” I almost didn’t attend teacher training because in my mind I hadn’t “mastered” (again, in quotes because I’ve since learned there’s simply no such thing in yoga) a long hold in handstand.
It floored me to learn as I delved deeper into yoga philosophy that a solid inversion practice had absolutely nothing to do with being a seasoned yogi. One of the first discoveries I made while in training, was that Asana - the third limb on the eight limb path that we associate with our movement practice, means in essence to create A STEADY SEAT within oneself. I had to let that sink in a bit. If I’m being honest, it’s still crystalizing for me. The way I approached my own practice shifted quite a bit in the years that followed. I still practiced arm balances and inversions when they were offered in classes. But I wasn’t seeking them out, and/or grinding my teeth in frustration when my body wasn’t able to do one on cue. My work became finding my metaphorical seat, which I can tell you right here and now, is way way harder than going upside down.
After many more years; after a divorce; after illness, stress, + recovery; after teenagers; after the chaos and brilliance of life in all its forms… I’ve found inversions again (or they found me) and like a dynamic and spirited old friend, I’ve welcomed them back into my practice. The difference now versus then, is that I approach them in very much the same way I would finding my seat. With care, with respect, with patience, with intelligence. I no longer need to snap a photo of myself nailing a shape to feel like I somehow reached some imaginative mountain peak. I now celebrate the process every bit as much as the precious upside down float time.
Probably one of the most relevant things to ask oneself when working on inversions is, why am I doing this posture? There is no right or wrong answer, of course. It’s simply good to know. Another component we all might want to consider, is if we truly have the strength and anatomy to practice a particular shape. In other words, is it safe? If there are neck issues, then standing on your head probably isn’t a good choice. If you’re still building foundational strength in the shoulders and core, then it might be wise to practice safer inversions until your body is truly ready. And that is the fantastic news! There are plenty of safe and grounded inversions that offer the same benefit as the fancy ones (supported waterfall, legs up the wall, even downward facing dog).
When practiced safely and mindfully, inversions can be exhilarating. They shift our perspective, remind us of our strength and fortitude, and have the potential to energize and ground us. In some instances they can even deeply calm the nervous system. Whether you choose to practice energetically or restoratively is entirely up to you, which is one of the greatest offerings of your yoga practice. You and you alone get to listen and choose what works in your body.