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Turning Upside Down: Judith Hanson Lasater on the ‘Other Side’ of Inversions

in Practice
Headstand at the rope wall via Iyengar Yoga Canada

Headstand at the rope wall via Iyengar Yoga Canada

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.

Cora Wen Sirsasan-ing

Cora Wen Sirsasan-ing

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.

chair-shoulderstand

Chair Shoulderstand | photo: Christie Hall

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.

JHLYes, 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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14 comments… add one

  • Robert Hoyle

    I posted this comment (below) on YD’s FB post about all this today, but thought it might also be useful here too.
    _______________________

    A very good article by Dr. Lasater. TKU so much YD (and Judith).

    But, IMO a simple “Legs up the Wall” pose will do most of what inversions do, w/o any risk of excessive IOP, nor virtually any chance of strokes (or other cervical spinal damage) that could possibly be caused by such inversions. Admittedly a very, very slight chance of this, but with potentially catastrophically harmful results. [Think "risk-weighted Expected Value" concepts.]

    [Not sure about the lymphatic/endocrine system "micro-changes" with inversions, though. Would like to see a citation on some evidence-based medicine supporting such a claim. Not saying it's not true, just unaware of a study on this. (A bit behind on my reading lately though. )]

    As to lowering heart rate, etc, Broad says (in his book) that this is caused by Shoulder Stand squeezing the carotid arteries of the neck in such a way that the body thinks there is too much blood in the brain, so it drops blood-pressure and heart rate. [Maybe a similar result in Head Stand (even w/o carotid squeezing)? Dunno.]

    And, the points on inversions being mentally calming are also probably true.

    But again, if you want those things — slower heart rate and tranquility — (which are, btw, largely inherent in most traditional yoga poses, due to the slow, deep meditative-state-inducing breathing styles of yoga) — just do more meditation (with or without yoga).

    I do not understand this (unhealthy, IMO) preoccupation of the yoga community with inversions. I’m sorry to have to say this, but it seems mostly a “look at me” thing, AFAIC. Or, in the alternative, a somewhat “blind” obedience to the “tradition” of yoga.

    Just sayin’.

  • Gail Fore

    I agree, thank you.

  • George Franklin

    I agree with Mr. Hoyle that the Lasater interview is very good. I am also curious as to where the science comes from on the micro-changes in the lymph system–and why, if these are micro-changes, they would have a significant effect. That said, it is sad that the William Broad canard on strokes is still carrying weight. See Timothy McCall’s article: http://drmccall.com/yoga/DoesYogaKill.pdf. It would be a great shame if worries based on Mr. Broad’s claims prevented people from practicing inversions.

  • Robert Hoyle

    George, thank you for the reply. Glad you too had a few questions on Judith’s (wonderful) article.

    But, I continue to defend Broad, and what he has published on yoga injury dangers — including the remote (but possible) risk of strokes, and their potentially, very severe consequences.

    [IMO, when one evaluates injury "risks," one has to look not only at the "probability" of the event happening (stroke -- very low chance), but also the "severity" of the event, should it occur (extremely high severity, bordering on catastrophic). So many people fail to fully recognize this "severity" issue in a thorough risk analysis of such dangers.]

    Long-time yoga practitioner/guru and MD, Loren Fishman, had this to say about Broad and his efforts:

    “It’s unfortunate that William Broad bringing up chilling examples of yoga injuries again and again has garnered accusations of sensationalism [that] I believe have honestly surprised him. The issue of sensationalism is a red herring. It seems to me that what Broad, a serious yoga practitioner himself, is really trying to do is promote a realistic evaluation of yoga.”

    http://yogadork.com/news/in-response-to-dangers-of-doing-yoga-and-the-great-yoga-scare/

    Finally, I am highly suspicious of statements that impugn Broad’s reputation and intent, when they come from sources that have a substantial “financial stake” in doing so.

  • I have low blood pressure and don’t really ‘like” inversions, possibly because of the low blood pressure. Any suggestions ? Legs up the Wall does makes me feel refreshed! I would like to do more chair inversions. Thanks for the photos. Do you hear comments from other folks who have low blood pressure?

  • Vision_Quest2

    I’ve got low blood pressure AND diabetes type 2–recent diagnosis for this double-whammy. But back in the day, maybe 3 short years ago, I’d had major insulin resistance (I had been underinsured on my way to being uninsured – again – so it had never been diagnosed), which had been mistaken for all-over strength …

    I could not hold that pose (had been ambushed into headstand and made to hold without support for nearly a minute) … ironically, a savvy but undiplomatic/biased/mean other senior instructor detected that something wasn’t working quite right.

    Really great way to have a continuing client (student??) …. NOT … well, at least in my case …

  • Turning Upside Down: Judith Hanson Lasater on the ‘Other Side’ of Inversions – YogaDork

  • stewart j. lawrence

    Attacking William Broad has become every yoga apologist’s favorite red herring. There are so many studies out there no documenting yoga injuries inherent in certain poses, including the inversions.

    Here is the latest (Feb 2013) study of how headstand creates chronic spinal damage. Consult the many website out there presenting the state of science of yoga in a balanced fashion.

    It’s important to get an alternative view outside the yoga marketing universe.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Here is the study, from February of this year –

    http://archneur.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1391076

    No one in the yoga blogosphere has reported on it.

    Why? Because it doesn’t reinforce the “yoga as miracle cure” meme.

    We need balanced assessments of these things — not special pleading from yoga marketers.

    This science in this study is basically no better than the yoga headstand will make you feel like 20 again pap.

    And that’s the point. We need sober assessments.

  • jacqueline

    I would be happy to read the article. However, millions of people in the world practice a true form of yoga that doesn’t include a “bikram” in it. The best testimony to the benefits of yoga are to find out for yourself how it works by truly embracing it. You seem very skeptical. The medical world is not based on one study. There are thousands of studies on the benefits of yoga. It has been around for thousands of years and I hope one day everyone will practice it. I wish you the best!

  • Robert Hoyle

    Jacqueline…staying on-point — we are discussing inversions, not yoga in general.

    Don’t think anyone would question the over-all benefits of yoga. But, there are definitely substantive questions on the benefits (and dangers) of inversions, IMO (Stewart’s too, apparently).

    And…I wish you the best, also.

  • Robert Hoyle

    Well put, Stewart.

    And the essence of the issue is summarized in your statement here:

    “It’s important to get an alternative view outside the yoga marketing universe.”

    Yoga has many, many positive things to recommend it. Yet, we must also be realistic about its dangers.

  • Stewart

    Very well said, dear Robert! Very well put indeed!

  • Robert Hoyle

    Tks Stewart. We’re kinda making a “team” on this stuff, huh. And liked your recent comments on Kathleen’s “Part 3″ article. Keep up the great work.

    Robert

    https://www.facebook.com/RobertHoyleSFe

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