Neck Safety and Yoga Inversions
Turning the World Safely Upside Down — The Safe Practice of Headstand and Shoulderstand Yoga Poses
Yoga inversions can be a joyful, empowering, perspective-altering experience. They require us to do things with our body that we might not have experienced since childhood. What makes yoga inversions so exciting is the fact we are using our arms and heads in ways we do not normally do. We can also make them high risk, leaving us susceptible to injury. Our necks, in particular, can bear the brunt of injuries in certain inversions.
To understand how to practice yoga inversions safely, let’s first discuss the anatomy of the neck.
The neck, or cervical spine, is formed by seven vertebrae that stack on top of each other. The vertebrae form joints with the one above and below, and move by gliding on the joints. The neck has a forward curve known as lordosis. During development, the curve of the neck is formed when we started to lift our heads as infants.
The vertebrae are separated by a disc, which acts as a shock absorber and a pivot point for motion. The exception to this is there is no disc between the first and second vertebrae, which are shaped completely different than the other vertebrae of the spine. The second vertebra-also known as the axis vertebra-has a peg-like protrusion that fits into a hole in the first vertebra, also known as the atlas vertebra.
The cervical spine has a vast range of motion capable of rotation, flexion, extension, and side bending. It has the most motion of all the sections of the spine. This mobility means that stability is sacrificed. As the vertebrae move in relation to each other (gliding on the joints), the discs also move. As the cervical spine flexes forward, the discs move backward, and as the spine moves backward in extension the disc moves forward. The disc is full of a jelly like substance known as the nucleus pulposis, and if the outer fibers of the disc tear, the internal substance can be squished out resulting in what’s known as a disc herniation.
Top as Bottom
When we use our head as our foundation, instead of our feet, we need to recruit stability for an unstable surface. The architecture of our head and neck is such that it is made to float and move, not to bear weight. We need to support our neck and head when we go into poses like Sirsasana, or headstand.
Headstand can help us change our perspective, conquer the fear of inverting, and traditionally is thought to stimulate the pineal and pituitary glands, as well as tone the abdominal organs. There are many variations of headstand (tripod with head and palms on the floor; supported with head and forearms on the floor; and variations of head on the floor with finger tips out and arms extended).
The safest version of headstand is Salamba Sirsasana or supported headstand against a wall. Using the forearms on the mat allows us to recruit the strong muscles of the shoulder girdle and to create space for the neck. It also allows us to distribute our weight between the head and forearms.
Using a wall helps us to avoid awkwardly falling out of the posture. The most common way to injure our discs is when our neck is forced into flexion. This causes the disc to move backward, and if the fibers of the disc tear, the nucleus pulposis center can herniate out, causing irritation to the nearby nerves that exit the spine. These nerves supply the muscles and skin of the arms and hands, and, if injured, can result in months of painful recovery. Unsupported headstand, unfortunately, leaves us vulnerable to this type of injury.
Headstand is an advanced posture and should only be practiced under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Individuals with high blood pressure or ocular disorders should consult a health care practitioner familiar with yoga before proceeding.
Not a Neck Stand
Another common inversion is Sarvangasana or shoulder stand. Shoulderstand can be a great chest opener, a way to relieve swelling in the legs and is traditionally credited with stimulating the thyroid gland and abdominal organs.
Shoulderstand requires us to place the neck into a deep flexion. It is important that we support the cervical spine by allowing weight to rest on the fleshy part of our upper shoulders and back. We can improve this by rolling our shoulders under slightly to begin the pose, so that we are open across the collar bones and help maintain the lordotic curve of the neck.
To take some of the weight off of the neck and upper shoulders, we can practice Ardha Sarvangasana or half shoulderstand. In this version, we do not bring the feet all the way up to vertical, but allow the weight of the body to be well supported by the hands on the lower spine with the body and legs at approximately a 45 degree angle. It is important never to move the head around in the pose to avoid awkwardly weighting the neck.
Shoulderstand is an advanced posture and should only be practiced under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Like headstand, individuals with high blood pressure or ocular disorders should consult a health care practitioner familiar with yoga before proceeding.
The Joy of Limitation
Once we understand the anatomy and mechanics of our bodies, we are better able to practice yoga with respect for our limitations. Knowing what we are capable of and what our potential weaknesses are allows us to challenge ourselves in other ways and opens doors in our yoga practice we may never have thought to open. Embrace the many variations of yoga inversions and enjoy the view from down there.
What Really Happens in Hip Openers
One of the most common requests heard in a yoga class is hip openers today please. This request is usually followed by the other half of the class groaning. We love to hate hip openers yet our bodies crave them and often feel lighter and more open after — for good reason. The majority of us sit for most of our days, shortening the hip flexors at the front of the hip (psoas, rectus femoris, sartorius) and tightening the hip rotators (piriformis, obturator internus, gamellus, to name a few).
A Look Inside the Hip
The hip joint itself is a ball and socket type joint with the head of the femur (thigh bone) sitting in the acetabulum or socket of the pelvis. A variety of muscles attach into the femur starting from the pelvis itself, the lumbar spine, the sacrum, or other parts of the femur. Hip openers could affect any of the muscles surrounding the hip depending on the position of the joint at the time of the pose.
In general when we stretch or open a muscle we are lengthening its position, moving the two attachment points away from each other. This is easy to assess with linear muscles like the psoas which attaches from the front of the lumbar spine, crosses through the pelvis and attaches to the head of the femur. If we flex the hip forward we are shortening the psoas, bringing the two attachments of the muscle closer together. If we extend the hip backwards (such as in the back leg of Pigeon pose we are opening and lengthening the psoas. The effect becomes greater in King Pigeon pose if we assume an upright posture with our spine so that we lengthen the upper attachment more. In this example we can also rethink our definition of hip openers. Suddenly, poses with a bent knee where we rotate the hip are not the only way to open our hips. If the psoas attaches into the femur, and a shortened psoas tightens our hip (not to mention the affect it has on our low back) then poses like Warrior / Virabhadrasana or Half Moon / Ardha Chandrasana become hip openers too.
Rotate to Open a Rotator
The rule of how to open a muscle becomes less clear with the hip rotators where the angle of the joint actually affects the action of the muscle. For example, the piriformis muscle attaches from the front of the sacrum to the back of the femur. It acts as an external or outward rotator of the hip. Except if the hip is flexed, then it assists in abduction or sideways movement of the hip. So to follow the rule of opening we would want to internally rotate the femur, flex the hip and adduct or bring the femur towards midline. This can be achieved with the top leg in Marichyasana (sit with your left leg extended, bend your right knee and step the foot across your left thigh so that the femur is flexed, adducted toward midline, and gently internally rotated.) Other hip openers don’t seem to follow the rule of opening. We often externally rotate the hip to stretch the external rotators of the hip. Huh? The reason this works is because we typically flex the hip at the same time.
Use Your X-Ray Vision
To understand how hip openers work we have to picture the position of the muscle. Let’s picture the obturator internus muscle, a close friend of piriformis. It attaches from our sitting bone or ischial tuberosity to the greater trochanter of the femur, a bony outcropping on the side of the hip. We can feel both of these pieces of bony anatomy. Our ischial tuberosities can be felt when sitting, they are the bony bits under the flesh of our buttocks. Our greater trochanter can be felt by first finding the top of our pelvis by by placing our hands at our waist, firmly pressing in and down until we feel a ledge. This is our iliac crest. Slide your hands down and with your thumb you will feel a bony prominence that is the femur. You can feel it move by slowing rotating the hip in and out. So now we can feel the attachment points for the obturator internus, between the ischial tuberosity or sitting bone, and our femur. From this observation we can see that in a neutral position the muscle wraps around the hip. So if were to flex the hip, the ischial tuberosity scoops under thus increasing the space between the two attachment points and increasing the wrapping distance of the muscle – hence lengthening the muscle. This is why a simple squat (using the term simple lightly) can stretch our hip rotators and can be one of the reasons Westerners find it so challenging to achieve.
Opening Our Hips to Open to Possibility
Since there are many muscles in the hip with many functions depending on the demands we place on our body, keeping these muscles supple can help us in ways that may not seem obvious at first. Hip openers may help us attain a standing pose we’ve been struggling with, or they may help us get down on the ground easily to play with our kids or our kitten. Traditional yogic thought attributes many healing properties to hip openers from organ issues to sexual dysfunction. So if you are one of the groaners when hip openers are suggested, perhaps pause to wonder if they could be helping you in ways you weren’t even aware.