The benefits of inverted yoga postures, specifically Headstand and Shoulderstand, are described in many yoga books. They are sometimes referred to as the “King and Queen” of the asanas. They are potent and powerful poses. They are also dangerous poses (you are weight bearing on your cervical spine). If they are practiced, they should be practiced with skill. If they are taught, they should be taught well. They are better not done than done poorly.
In this week of teacher training (Module 4 of YTT300 and in teacher track of my online course YOGA101) we spent days getting very specific about how to introduce inversions to Beginners/Level 1. Specifically we examined: Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrkshasana), Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana), Headstand (Sirsasana I), Plow Pose (Halasana) and Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana).
You may ask, “Why teach these challenging and difficult poses to beginners?”
I may reply, “When else would beginners be introduced to them?” And I would expand further on my thoughts:
After students go to a Beginners Yoga Series, or take Level I classes for a while, they generally move into Mixed Level Classes.
In Mixed Level Classes, these poses might be offered as options and not taught. “If you want to practice an inversion, practice one now.” If they are taught, the lesson presented is probably not introductory. The Mixed Level teacher likely has the expectation that many of the students know something about these poses and practice them already. Neither of these strategies benefit the student in the Mixed Level class who does not know these poses.
In Level 2 (2/3, 3) Classes, these poses may make regular appearances. And yet, when were they introduced? When were students given the fundamental lessons on these poses in order to do them in intermediate and advanced classes?
Now let me get picky on a few of these poses and how they are often presented in classes:
Tripod Headstand (Sirsasana II) is often offered as an option from Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Stance Forward Bend) in Vinyasa Classes. It is not instructed. It is not demonstrated. It is simply offered as an option with something like “If you want to go up into Tripod Headstand, go ahead.” I think a few things about this: (1) This is an advanced entry into Tripod Headstand. It is harder and more dangerous. (2) The rounding of people’s thoracic and cervical spines in Prasarita Padottanasana is counter-indicated to practicing Tripod Headstand. (3) A tight student may really, really want to go up into Tripod Headstand. Other students seem to practice it gracefully and it looks cool. In pursuing the pose from this entry, the tight student will further misalign themselves and compound the possibilities of injury. This student may have all the motivation in the world for this pose, but they SHOULD NOT DO IT.
Plow Pose and/or Shoulderstand are often offered as options in the closing sequence in Mixed Level Classes and Vinyasa Classes. All too often, they are not taught, and they are not demonstrated. These poses warrant serious consideration, and generally require practicing with props (3 blankets, a wall, a chair). Unless you already know how to do these poses well, AND you have sufficient props, AND you still have sufficient strength to hold the pose with integrity, IT IS BETTER NOT TO DO THEM.
In the past two weeks, I have heard of several worse case scenarios:
- A young woman sustained a serious cervical spine injury in a class that included difficult variations of Shoulderstand without props or adequate instruction. She was taken to the hospital later than night when she could not stop vomiting. The paramedics told her that an ambulance should have been called immediately when this occurred.
- A student was kicked in the eye by another student practicing handstand. That student permanently lost sight in that eye.
- Another broke their arm when it was kicked by a student practicing Handstand after the teacher had told everyone to stop and rest.
- An “Advanced Student” kicked right through the teacher’s inadequate assist and fell flat on their back.
As yoga teachers, we need to seriously weigh the risks and the benefits of these poses. We need to think critically about them, and not include them in sequences just because it has become common place. If we include them in our sequences, we must recognize that they are difficult and risky and pursue high quality training. We must take these poses seriously, give them the respect they are due and invest in the props to support them. We must train our students to practice them with skill, and that likely starts with basic, introductory lessons in Beginners/Level I classes. We must take responsibility and hold ourselves to rigorous standards of accountability.
Otherwise, it is better to leave them out of the sequences and to not offer them as options.