Practicing challenging inversions often becomes a goal in and of itself. But inversions aren’t just about ‘getting’ the pose, says yoga teacher and author Judith Hanson Lasater, P.T., Ph.D. in this interview with Eva Norlyk Smith of YogaUOnline.com. Inversions can reveal deeper aspects of our practice to us and open new dimensions of introspective experience.
Eva Norlyk Smith: You were trained in the yoga tradition of B.K.S. Iyengar, who puts special emphasis on inversions. Why did Mr. Iyengar ascribe such significance to inversions?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Well, inversions have so many important benefits. On a physiological level, inversions such as Shoulderstand, Headstand, and Plow pose slow the heart rate, because they increase cardiac return. They also have an effect on the lymph system drainage, causing micro-changes in lymph organs.
From an Eastern philosophical viewpoint, inversions are thought to effect the different Pranas in the body, especially Apana and Prana. Prana in the chest is very dominant during the day, when we’re upright all the time. When we turn upside down, we give prominence to Apana, the introspective, archetypal feminine, internalizing energy.
Inversions give a new perspective, literally and energetically. Unlike many poses that tend to be practiced today, where the emphasis is on movement, in inversions, you’re still. You just stand there on your head, on your shoulders; you’re being very still, and by necessity, you become very present. So inversions really engender more of a state of being. That’s one of the key effects of these postures. I think they’re very important poses for those reasons.
ENS: How did Mr. Iyengar approach the practice of inversions?
JHL: He taught us that the practice of inversions was about being still and not just about achieving more. That was always one of the main lessons I got from Mr. Iyengar.
With the restlessness minds of today, we need practices that root us. Shoulderstand and Halasana are often good to practice near the end of your yoga practice, because they are such internalizing postures, which powerfully settle the mind. Mr. Iyengar also encouraged us to stay in inversions for longer periods of time, according to our ability. That, of course, is not appropriate for everyone at every age.
ENS: Sirsasana and Sarvangasana, Headstand and Shoulderstand, are sometimes referred to as the King of Asana and the Queen of Asana respectively. Why do these particular poses have such a revered standing among yoga postures?
JHL: Because they are so powerful. Almost more than any other pose, they teach poise and strength without building up the ego, as can be the case for other (challenging) postures like dramatic back bends or arm balances. Inversions don’t build up the ego in the same way, because they encourage you to be more introspective.
And of course, as I already mentioned, they have wonderful benefits for your health, including the heart. A couple of months ago, I had one of those watches that monitor your heart rate, and I was playing around with it in my yoga practice. So I checked it out, when I went up in a supported Shoulderstand on a chair. I already have a pretty slow heart rate, but still, within a few minutes, my heart rate dropped to forty-eight beats a minute. It likely happened because inversions facilitate cardiac return. So inversions are very restful for the heart. But the bottom line really is that I feel better when I practice inversions. They make me feel more whole, more connected, more present.
Inversions can be almost meditative poses if you set yourself up so you can stay in the pose for a while by putting some blankets under the neck in Shoulderstand. With that, you can stay for five or ten minutes in the posture and really open the lungs, gaze upon the heart and surrender the brain.
ENS: You’re making reference to my favorite sleeping remedy these days: Spending five to ten minutes before bed in a supported Shoulderstand with just a couple of blocks stacked under my sacrum for support. It works like magic; I sleep like a baby.
JHL: Yes, I like to say that all yoga poses are magic. But of course, they don’t work if you don’t practice them. My students often ask me, “How often should I practice? Should I practice every day?” And I say, “No, no, no. Only on the days you want to feel better.”
ENS: Yes, I think we’ve all experienced that one. Now, of course, there’s a great range of inversions from simple to challenging. Are the more challenging postures just for the young, strong and fearless, and if so, does that mean that the benefits of inversions aren’t as accessible as we get older?
JHL: Well, it’s hard to limit and say “never” or “always”. Mr. Iyengar is in his nineties, and I’m sure he’s still practicing Headstands. If you know the proper precautions and can adapt your practice of inversions over time, there really shouldn’t be a problem.
My practice has gone to longer and supported inversions, like Supported Shoulderstand and Halasana, which I find are absolutely necessary for maintaining the health of my endocrine system. For me, inversions have been a wonderful help to create a substratum of calmness that is very noticeable. I just lay in a restorative inversion like Viparita Karani or supported Shoulderstand for 10-15 minutes, and really just listen to my body and let my nervous system cool off, metaphorically speaking. This effect is far more important than the increased flexibility inversions also create.
Giving space to just lie and notice what is going on in your body is such an important part of our practice. One of the areas where we often fall down in teaching yoga is failing to teach students to listen more to their body. We don’t teach them to allow awareness of sensations to come through and allow changes to happen in their body, instead of deciding from the brain down and telling the body what to do.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview with Judith Hanson Lasater. You can download the full interview here: Practicing Inversions: The Art of Creating Presence
FYI: Judith’s upcoming course on preparing for inversions on YogaUOnline.com May 14 and 15: Preparing for Inversions: Reversing the Aging Effects of Gravity
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