When Things Get Turned Upside Down: Yoga Inversions
You’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.
Whether misjudging a headstand and crashing to the floor, fired from our job just when we thought we were up for a promotion or dumped after posting “in a relationship” on our social media status for all to see, nothing gets our attention like being confronted by the unexpected. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a surprising new landscape for which we weren’t prepared. We’re staring down change and wrestling with the fear that we might fall again.
The truth is we’re guaranteed to fall again…and again. Like crashing waves, challenges will crest and crumble whether we’re talking about our headstands or our lives. Personally I’ve fallen many times, certainly out of my headstand, but ultimately into a new headspace.
Inversions in Yoga
To me, inversions are a fantastic living laboratory where we can embrace and move beyond things like fear, expectation, and impatience. All at once upside down needs to become right side up, and we have to surrender our tight grip on what we think we can control. We feel tangible postural balance merge with something deeper.
Inversions are an amazing reminder that how we do one thing is how we do everything. They reveal to us that often things are not going to go as we’d planned, but they just might turn out even better that way.
Making the Leap
Starting a new job or relationship is like the leap of faith it takes to turn upside down in a handstand. Though initially our jump may resemble a first handstand in an unfortunate bra, revealing things we had not hoped for…we learn as we go. Frankly, sometimes the catalysts for our evolution are pretty tits-out, upside down. But, if we move through our raw initiation and prove to ourselves a little at a time that we can do it, before you know it, whatever we were attempting becomes an important part of our personal fabric.
When we try too desperately to control the things we can’t, we become tightly wound in lopsided ways that stunt our growth and leave us miserable.
If we litter our inversions or our lives with expectation, we pin ourselves underneath frustration and impatience, which, in turn, erode the courage and humility it takes to try again.
Outcomes Are Not Guaranteed
The bottom line is we can’t control a guaranteed outcome. Even Kino MacGregor and Doug Swenson have days when they can’t balance in their handstand (albeit annoyingly infrequently). And for all of us, life can feel out of control and out of balance sometimes when it comes to work, deadlines, responsibilities, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds, time wasted down the rabbit hole of Facebook…you name it.
The Yoga Sutras
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, abhyasa (perseverant practice) and vairagya (surrendering without expectation of a particular outcome) demand that we resist the trappings of instant gratification our modern society seems to promote. And Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, stated,
Do your practice and all is coming.
He didn’t say, “Do your practice and kurmasana (flipping your feet behind your head) is coming instantly.” Nor did he promise results like millions of dollars and six-pack abs. We have to allow incremental progress to eclipse our need to accomplish the finished product. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously put it,
Life is a journey not a destination.
What We Can Control
There is one thing we can control, however, and that’s the accountability and integrity with which we show up — on our mat, at our job, for ourselves and for one another. Abhyasa and vairagya ask us to see balance and progress not as a single handstand, but as a part of a larger personal pilgrimage (sadhana). When we look at things through a wider lens, we can see every wobble, challenge and fall as an opportunity to learn and grow. Each time we glean a little bit more wisdom to bring to our next inversion or adventure. And as we do, we start to see that we’re never more alive than when things get turned upside down.
Top 10 Yoga Poses for Headaches
Yoga can be a beneficial therapeutic tool for relieving headaches brought on by muscle tension and stress. The majority of headaches originate from muscle stiffness and imbalances emanating from the neck and upper back. When headaches set in, using a series of restorative yoga exercises can greatly relieve both the cause and symptoms. Here are our top yoga poses and exercises that naturally treat headaches.
1. Cat Pose: The flowing motion of breath and spine helps release tension from the neck and upper back while also pouring refreshing energy through the body and mind.
2. Seated Twists: Besides increasing circulation throughout the entire length of the spine, the twisting motion in the upper spine (cervical region) often alleviates tension coming from the scalene muscles of the neck (anterior aspect).
3. Chest Openers: Much of the tension in the back body is a result of muscle dominance from the front body (called Upper Cross Syndrome). Expanding the chest and front shoulder muscles helps break down muscular imbalances and frees the tension coming from the neck.
4. Eagle Arms: This simple crossed arm pose can be done in Mountain Pose or any natural seated posture. This back expander can reach well into the mid and upper back targeting problematic muscles around the shoulder blades and the base of the neck. Take time in this arm pose to breath slow and full into the upper back and insure that you perform this arm pose on both sides.
5. Simple Neck Stretches: Gently move through the various muscle fiber lines by allowing your head to float down to one shoulder with gravity, down across the chest and into the other side – repeat with a natural, unforced motion. Avoid letting the head fall back-keep the motion in a half circle from one shoulder to the other. Pause where you find extra areas of resistance.
6. Child’s Pose: A perfect restorative yoga pose that slightly inverts the body. A gentle flow of extra blood circulates into the head helping relieve tension. With the legs slightly separated, you can easily settle into deep core and back breathing to encourage a flood of circulation to reach deep into the body. Note that the head and neck should be absolutely comfortable. If needed, keep you arms forward or bend the elbows and rest the forearms by your chest/under your shoulders so the palms face up-this will greatly unload any pressure from the neck.
7. Two Knee Reclining Twist: Unlike our seated twists, this reclining twist can be far more restorative and held longer to bring deeper focus into relaxing the nervous system while the chest expands and rejuvenates the spine. Give extra attention to releasing the shoulders into the mat to release dominance of the shoulder and chest muscles.
8. Legs Up The Wall Pose: This highly beneficial inverted pose is great for developing hamstring flexibility and for improving circulation in the lower limbs. For headaches, the extra flow of blood to the brain and the restorative support can be deeply relaxing and nourishing.
9. Alternate Nostril Breathing: The aim of alternate nostril breathing is to restore balance to the energy systems. With balance, we find release and calm. This yoga breathing exercise is easy to do for all levels and targets the nervous system by slowing brain waves, calming the mind, and purging stress.
10. Relaxation Pose: After doing a series of restorative yoga poses, take some time to simply relax and release in Savasana. Turn the focus away from the symptoms of your headache and settle into the sensation of mental and physical release. You may find a light eye pillow helpful in moving tension/pressure out of the eyes and forehead. Increase your comfort by placing a bolster under the knees and a thin pillow under the head. To complement the chest openers and reclining twists, lay with the arms open to the sides/palms facing the ceiling.