Why we don’t teach headstand or shoulderstand

Modern Yoga is an interesting animal. In many ways it bears no resemblance to the ancient practices that bear the same name. But I’m inclined to believe that the outcome of the practice is similar. 

Peace. Feeling better. Finding it easier to be present.

I suspect yoga got so popular at least in part because of the feats of physical prowess that some of the early yogis who brought it to the West could do.

The arm balances. The shoulderstands.

Standing on their heads.

I die a bit inside whenever I see this photo because my alignment is just so BAD. All sorts of unfortunate pressure my neck. Argh. I didn't know better back when this was taken, but I do now.

I die a bit inside whenever I see this photo because my alignment is just so BAD. All sorts of unfortunate pressure my neck. Argh. I didn't know better back when this was taken, but I do now.

I mean c’mon. That’s pretty impressive stuff eh? Even IF the alignment is off - and it often is, see pic above.

Aspirational marketing, it’s called.

It totally works: in my twenties, I got hooked into yoga for the challenge of achieving ever-harder poses. I'm pretty glad I did, because it gave me a break from my crazy, for the first time in my life (I kid you not, I am actually crazy. I have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since I was a child. I need to do a lot of maintenance.)

As I've gotten older, and practiced and taught more yoga, the excitement of the fancy poses seems to have worn off, and in my teaching, I am MUCH more careful than I once was.

Back in the day, I was taught to teach people to kick up into headstand. So I did. I CRINGE when I think back on that.

I just knew so little about how bodies work.

But then, at the time, very few people in the yoga world knew anything much about modern biomechanics. Thank goodness we are learning! 

As I’ve learned more, I’ve become increasingly wary of inversions. 

Because: compressive force on our necks.

We are bipedal animals, did you notice? And the two limbs we are designed to stand on are our legs. To that end, our pelvis is marvellously engineered to transmit the weight and force from our upper upper bodies into our legs and thence the ground, and to do the same from the ground and legs into our upper bodies.

The system up top isn’t quite so elegant.

We aren’t designed to bear our full body weight in our arms - or our necks. That’s not to say we CAN’T do it, just that we are going against nature a little.

You can really see this in the comparative size of the vertebrae in our necks versus those in our lumbar spine (low back). Or the size and solidity of our pelvic halves vs our shoulderblades, which are designed to facilitate mobility rather than stability.

Then there’s the situation of vulture neck that many of us have because we sit a lot, work at computers, drive, and generally do things with our arms reached out in front of our bodies. 

If you are going to go against nature, it’s probably not a good idea to do it with poor alignment eh?

Especially if you’ve EVER had a neck trauma of any sort. Even a very minor car accident could have caused issues in your neck that you don’t know about.

In the old-fashioned yoga lexicon, headstand is the king of yoga poses and shoulder stand is queen. In some forms of yoga, long-held inversions are encouraged and are claimed to have all sorts of benefits, from fixing your thyroid function to brining oxygenated blood to your head (which is ridiculous - if you body if maintaining homeostasis as it should, you won’t get a particularly big increase of blood to your head, and if you DO get one, well, that’s a worry).

These days I don't forbid people to do inversions, but I won’t teach them.

I ask them not to perform them in my classes. If you are going upside down, it's not on my watch.

I’ve weighed the benefits (no greater than any other yoga poses done with breath awareness, in my opinion) versus the risks, and found the risks just too great.

I don’t want to be responsible for someone developing bone spurs in their neck, or compressed discs, or nerve damage of some sort.

And I don’t want anyone on my team to have that on their conscience either.

Besides, most of us can’t even stand up straight. Surely we should sort that out before we try to stand upside down?