Inversions – Better Not Done Than Done Poorly

The benefits of inverted yoga postures, specifically Headstand and Shoulderstand, are described in many yoga books. They are sometimes referred to as the “King and Queen” of the asanas. They are potent and powerful poses. They are also dangerous poses (you are weight bearing on your cervical spine). If they are practiced, they should be practiced with skill. If they are taught, they should be taught well. They are better not done than done poorly.

In this week of teacher training (Module 4 of YTT300 and in teacher track of my online course The Mazé Method101) we spent days getting very specific about how to introduce inversions to Beginners/Level 1.  Specifically we examined: Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrkshasana), Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana), Headstand (Sirsasana I), Plow Pose (Halasana) and Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana).

You may ask, “Why teach these challenging and difficult poses to beginners?”

I may reply, “When else would beginners be introduced to them?”  And I would expand further on my thoughts:

After students go to a Beginners Yoga Series, or take Level I classes for a while, they generally move into Mixed Level Classes.

In Mixed Level Classes, these poses might be offered as options and not taught. “If you want to practice an inversion, practice one now.” If they are taught, the lesson presented is probably not introductory.  The Mixed Level teacher likely has the expectation that many of the students know something about these poses and practice them already.  Neither of these strategies benefit the student in the Mixed Level class who does not know these poses.

In Level 2 (2/3, 3) Classes, these poses may make regular appearances.  And yet, when were they introduced?  When were students given the fundamental lessons on these poses in order to do them in intermediate and advanced classes?

Now let me get picky on a few of these poses and how they are often presented in classes:

Tripod Headstand (Sirsasana II) is often offered as an option from Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Stance Forward Bend) in Vinyasa Classes.  It is not instructed. It is not demonstrated. It is simply offered as an option with something like “If you want to go up into Tripod Headstand, go ahead.”  I think a few things about this: (1) This is an advanced entry into Tripod Headstand. It is harder and more dangerous. (2) The rounding of people’s thoracic and cervical spines in Prasarita Padottanasana is counter-indicated to practicing Tripod Headstand. (3) A tight student may really, really want to go up into Tripod Headstand. Other students seem to practice it gracefully and it looks cool. In pursuing the pose from this entry, the tight student will further misalign themselves and compound the possibilities of injury. This student may have all the motivation in the world for this pose, but they SHOULD NOT DO IT.

Plow Pose and/or Shoulderstand are often offered as options in the closing sequence in Mixed Level Classes and Vinyasa Classes.  All too often, they are not taught, and they are not demonstrated.  These poses warrant serious consideration, and generally require practicing with props (3 blankets, a wall, a chair).  Unless you already know how to do these poses well, AND you have sufficient props, AND you still have sufficient strength to hold the pose with integrity, IT IS BETTER NOT TO DO THEM.

In the past two weeks, I have heard of several worse case scenarios:

  • A young woman sustained a serious cervical spine injury in a class that included difficult variations of Shoulderstand without props or adequate instruction.  She was taken to the hospital later than night when she could not stop vomiting.  The paramedics told her that an ambulance should have been called immediately when this occurred.
  • A student was kicked in the eye by another student practicing handstand. That student permanently lost sight in that eye.
  • Another broke their arm when it was kicked by a student practicing Handstand after the teacher had told everyone to stop and rest.
  • An “Advanced Student” kicked right through the teacher’s inadequate assist and fell flat on their back.

As yoga teachers, we need to seriously weigh the risks and the benefits of these poses.   We need to think critically about them, and not include them in sequences just because it has become common place.  If we include them in our sequences, we must recognize that they are difficult and risky and pursue high quality training.  We must take these poses seriously, give them the respect they are due and invest in the props to support them.  We must train our students to practice them with skill, and that likely starts with basic, introductory lessons in Beginners/Level I classes.  We must take responsibility and hold ourselves to rigorous standards of accountability.

Otherwise, it is better to leave them out of the sequences and to not offer them as options.

8 Responses

  1. Great reminders here. Yes, indeed, beginners need to be taught yoga poses clearly and safely and consistently over time. However,students experienced in asana also benefit from detailed instructions in all poses to ensure safety and cultivate deeper awareness, especially in a public class where there are more distractions and often a desire to “push one’s self” that may not be there in one’s home practice. It is strange to have to say that a yoga teacher is one who actually teaches all the yoga poses he/she offers in the class safely and clearly; can you call yourself a teacher otherwise?

    I do wonder what the intention was of posting the first picture? The article encourages the use of props, though props being used in this first image are not being used well and many students seem unstable and in positions that cause concern for the students’ neck and shoulder. Is this meant as a “what not to do” photo? It is unclear from the article.

    1. Dear Heather,

      Thank you for your comments. There is such a diversity in yoga styles, lineages, goals and practices. I too think it is a strange thing to have to say that a yoga teacher actually teaches yoga poses… And, all of these terms are subjective (teaching, guiding, leading etc), and yoga works from the inside out (one’s own awakening intuition and inner teacher) and the outside in.

      You make a very good point about the first picture. It does look like a hot mess. Point taken.

      Best to you, Noah

  2. Thank you, Noah, for sharing this bitter-sweet article. I, too, believe these advanced inversions should be taught mindfully, with props (support), and in a workshop-style setting. I teach regular classes with peak poses in mind, but rarely actually teach the peak pose choosing rather to work on preliminary poses to build strength, stability (foundation), and flexibility (space). Again, thank you! I can’t wait to take another class with you!

  3. I took the yoga works teacher training and this too is how they teach the inversions because if the Iyengar piece. It’s invaluable to know these teaching methods. Is this on line? Would love to have a refresher. Please come to NY!

  4. I am overweight and 62 years old and I have been dropped by teachers and partners innumerable times in inversions. I don’t do partner work anymore.

  5. I was lucky to receive a couple modules of my teacher training with you here in Costa Rica. Thank you so much for this wisdom, I enjoy everything you post. I promised my quiropractor -who is also my student- years ago I wouldn’t teach this poses in public classes for the same reasons you mentioned. Pura Vida Noa!

  6. Thank you, Noah, for speaking this truth to power. There is an ongoing debate in the kids and teen yoga world about whether or not to introduce inversions like headstand and shoulderstand. On one side, folks argue that kids will “do these types of poses anyway.” They say we should go ahead and teach them the proper alignment. The other side says that most kids and teens do not yet have the attention skills to integrate the complex groupings of actions necessary to sustain a safe inversion practice. My view falls somewhere in the middle. While I would never dream of including such postures in one of our teen yoga dvd’s, I will teach these poses in specific cases where a student has displayed a commitment to ongoing safe practice. I don’t want students coming to yoga class a couple of times, learning headstand and then just practicing on their own. In the beginning of my teaching practice, I did teach headstand more often, even to children as young as 7, because it was so often requested. However, I stopped this as a general practice after hearing from several parents that their young ones were spending inordinate amounts of time in headstand. One mother told me her 8 year old was taking headstand pose for over 10 minutes at a time! No bueno. As a general rule, I stay away from shoulderstand altogether with kids and teens. Even very focused students are too easily distracted and it’s simply not worth the risk to their growing bodies. Some teachers argue that I am “robbing my students” of truly empowering opportunities. I believe there are many other developmentally appropriate yoga practices that are equally as empowering without the risk. As to the argument that kids will “do these poses anyway,” I take a RIE approach. So be it. Let them do what comes naturally and use their own physical intelligence as a guide. No need to encourage them to stay in those postures for extended periods. By the way, I feel the same way about many supine backbends for youth.

    1. Dear Abby,

      Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience. I can understand all sides of this, and personally weigh in somewhere in the middle, similar to you. It does amaze me how both of my kids gravitate to headstand so naturally, although I do not teach it to them and somewhat discourage their practice of this pose (and encourage handstand variations). Regardless, they love it. When they have the strength, coordination and focus for it, I certainly teach them some things about this pose. Until then, as with many aspects of parenting, I play referee at times, and try to actively encourage positive activities, and ignore (and actively discourage as needed) less positive activities.

      I hope our paths cross again soon. With love, Noah

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