The Benefits of Sirsasana: Why you should (and shouldnt) go upside down

Inversions are some of the most important yoga poses. If I have only 15 minutes to get on my mat, headstand and shoulderstand are what I’m practicing. Iyengar calls headstand “the basic posture” – it is essentially tadasana, upside-down. The effects of headstand and shoulderstand are extremely beneficial, not only physically, but psychologically and emotionally as well. However, all inversions should be practiced with extreme care, patience, and proper alignment. They are advanced asanas. The first part of this article will deal with sirsasana exclusively. There are many reasons to not practice this pose, which will be discussed later in “Contraindications for Practicing Sirsasana”.

Standing on Your Head: the Benefits:
Salamba Sirsasana, the headstand, is traditionally known as the king of all asanas. Swami Sivananda called sirsasana “A blessing and a nectar” in his book, Yoga Asanas. The brain is the control center of the human body, supporting the nervous system and all bodily and sensory functions. Standing on our heads effectively reverses the normal pressure of the blood, which is naturally higher towards our lower extremities below the level of the heart, and naturally lower above the level of the heart. Sirsasana directs the blood that is pumping out of the heart towards the brain, allowing oxygen-rich blood to flow freely through the blood vessels that surround it. The pressure in the feet reduces to nearly zero as the pressure in the head increases. (The pressure at the level of the heart should remain at about 120/80) This is logically extremely beneficial for anyone suffering from swelling in the ankles or legs. In addition to blood circulation, tissue fluids benefit from sirsasana as well. H. David Coulter’s phenomenal book, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, cites that “tissue fluids will flow more effectively into the veins and lymph channels, and this will make for a healthier exchange of nutrients and wastes between cells and capillaries.” This is an important indication that no matter how clean of a diet you consume, you still need to support the system that absorbs the nutrients in the food you consume.

While the cardiovascular benefits may be the most obvious, there are other physiological benefits which may or may not be discussed in your average yoga class. Standing on your head increases the blood-flow to the pituitary and pineal glands, both important members of the endocrine system. The pituitary gland is responsible for secreting nine different hormones into the body, among them growth hormone, and thyroid-stimulating hormone, both vital to maintaining homeostasis in the body. The pineal gland is of equal importance: it produces melatonin, a hormone that is involved in regulating our sleep patterns and elevating mood. Being inverted challenges the lungs in breathing, ultimately making them stronger and capable of a maintaining higher vital capacity. It also makes it nearly impossible to breathe shallowly: because of the increased pressure, “chest” breathing is difficult, and one finds it almost automatic to engage diaphragmatic breathing with a low-belly release.

Balance increases through a regular practice of sirsasana, as one learns to maintain stillness when the wall no longer becomes involved in the pose. The neck muscles that support the skull are strengthened as are are the muscles in the core of the body and all those that attach to the spine.

Psychologically and emotionally, sirsasana is one of the most powerful and beneficial poses you can do. Iyengar describes under his effects of sirsasana the brain as “the seat of intelligence, knowledge, discrimination, wisdom and power…It is the seat of the Brahman, the soul…the human body cannot prosper without a healthy brain.” Sirsasana improves mental concentration and focus and allows for greater ease when practicing seated in meditation. Practicing headstand has been frequently cited as a pose to counteract the symptoms of depression. Headstand elevates your mood, and there are many, many people who can attest to this, myself included. It is as if someone is lifting a great weight off your chest – that wonderful feeling of being suspended simply increases the spirits! More and more scientific evidence is being published that would support the correlation of a regular sirsasana practice and lower levels of depression.

Contraindications for Practicing Sirsasana:

1.) The first, and most obvious contraindication to practicing headstand is high blood pressure. A normal blood pressure at the level of the head is 100/60 (Coulter). But someone suffering from high blood pressure will already have a level higher than that while standing. Sirsasana increases the pressure in the head to about 150/110, but in those students who have high blood pressure, going upside down can increase it to a dangerously high level. It is advised that the teacher mention this prior to instructing sirsasana if there are new students in the room.

2.) Another obvious reason to abstain from practicing sirsasana is if the student has suffered a recent neck or back injury. If the structures of the cervical spine have gone through a trauma, there can be no advisable reason to invert into sirsasana. Even though the forearms are on the ground, they are primarily used for support, and considerable weight is placed in the head. If the muscles and structures in neck are weakened or compromised due to injury, sirsasana becomes a risk.

3.) Excess weight: this is something that is often not discussed in yoga classes. Unfortunately, it has become somewhat of a taboo for people to express concern for overweight individuals, even if they are our friends and family. It is a yoga teacher’s duty, however, to advise a student that is struggling with being overweight not to practice headstand. First of all, excessive weight increases the risk for high blood pressure, so that alone would prevent you from doing the pose. It also increases the pressure on the muscles and structures of the neck, increasing risk of injury. There is also more weight on the spine, which can compress the vertebrae and take the integrity out of the pose. A much better recommendation for a student who is overweight but wants to invert would be dolphin pose. Encouraging the student to strengthen the shoulders and arms is a more positive way to discourage sirsasana. Ultimately, the yoga classroom should be a safe environment for all students, and even if a teacher feels uncomfortable, as though they are “singling out” an overweight student when the rest of the class is practicing headstand, it is ultimately more beneficial to that student to get the proper assistance they need as opposed to ignoring the issue.

4.) Fear: for me, this is the BIGGEST contraindication to practicing headstand in those students who are otherwise physically ready for the pose (meaning they do not suffer from the above three conditions). I think fear is not addressed enough in yoga classes, and students that are fearful of inverting may not be willing to speak up in front of the class and let the instructor know. When fear takes over the body, sympathetic nervous system takes over and the “fight-or-flight” response is activated. Heart rate can increase, blood vessels can constrict (bad for a pose that increases blood pressure), and the body can involuntarily shake. All of these are bad news for going up into headstand. Fear therefore becomes a huge risk for injury and should be genuinely discussed in the class. Instructors can offer techniques to minimize a student’s anxiety about inversions, such as seated meditation or pranayama before inverting, sustaining the preparatory posture without actually lifting the legs, asking them to visualize the pose instead. This can help the student get used to the feeling of being inverted, while still being grounded.

5.) Menstruation: I will not discuss at length about this, mainly because there is a wealth of conflicting information out there and very little scientific evidence that either confidently supports, or firmly cautions practicing headstand while menstruating. I myself feel comfortable doing it, whereas many women do not. I think this is ultimately a personal decision, and many traditional views on why not to practice are not rooted in scientific reasoning.

6) Pregnancy: My opinion is to err on the side of caution and don’t practice sirsasana. Many sources will tell you to consult your doctor, but not all doctors are experienced yogis. I have known a women, who had a very strong practice prior to her pregnancy, who continued to practice headstand well into her second trimester without complications. I have also have known pregnant women in one of my classes who said inverting was uncomfortable even in her first trimester. Again, I say go with caution: there are plenty of other phenomenal asanas out there that are perfectly safe to practice during pregnancy.

Author: gopoweryoga


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