As a teacher trainee studying power vinyasa based upon the Baptiste methodology, my classmates and I have been encouraged to work on mastering the inversion poses that students expect, especially in advanced classes. While many yoga poses such as Ragdoll and Downward Facing Dog are technically inversions because the head is below the heart, more advanced poses, such as Shoulder Stand require more core strength and and take time for some students to feel comfortable attempting. Personally, I find handstands and headstands very challenging and am practicing them daily to attempt to be more comfortable with these poses in a group class and to increase my strength so that someday I can do them unsupported.
In an attempt to strengthen my technical understanding of advanced inversions, I recently attended a workshop at Shakti Vinyasa Yoga in Bellevue, Washington. The two hour workshop was led by Gina Skene and covered the following poses: Handstand, Forearm Stand, Headstand and Shoulder Stand. I found this workshop extremely helpful as Gina broke down several ways to get into each pose as well as gave us plenty of time to explore each pose on our own or with assistance.
During the workshop, Gina discussed the physical benefits of inversions including positive impacts on the circulatory and adrenal systems. In The Science of Yoga, Broad discusses that inversions were studied for their cardiovascular impact in the 1920s. The limited study found that although Shoulder Stand and Headstand are physically challenging, they are very gentle on the heart, as measured by changes in blood pressure. Broad also discusses the more recent scientific evidence that supports that inversions, specifically Shoulder Stand, are beneficial to stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (which lowers overall stress).
For setting up the Shoulder Stand, Baptiste has great instructions in Journey Into Power. Baptiste believes that inversions are vital to prevent stiffness in the body as we age and he uses Shoulder Stand as an introductory pose into inversions in this book.
For instruction on practicing Handstand (see the first picture above), Iyengar covers this pose in depth in Light on Yoga, including instructions on how to enter the pose. Long has a great outline of the muscle groups used in Handstand in Key Poses of Yoga. The entire body, in front and back are engaged in this pose including: triceps, biceps and deltoids in the arms; infraspinatus and trapezius in the back; psoas and gluteus maximus in the pelvis; adductor group and quadriceps in the thighs; and peroneous longus and brevis in the lower legs.
The tripod headstand is often easier for beginners to learn (or at least I find it to be easier) because during the setup you can place your knees on your arms which allows time to move the hips over the shoulders for stabilization. In addition, the core doesn’t have to work as hard to raise the legs above the body.
The traditional Headstand is also discussed in Key Poses of Yoga and Light on Yoga. Iyengar demonstrates many variants of this pose in detail. This pose is considered to the the King of all asanas. Iyengar states that regular practice of Sirasana, “develops the body, disciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasures, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.”
No matter what level of yoga you are currently practicing, I would strongly encourage you to explore inversions. Take a workshop at your local studio, read about them from the masters and gurus, play around with them. Fear is the main reason many people do not attempt advanced inversions (especially in my case), but if you can overcome your fear and try them you will feel victorious!