A Version of Inversion

by Jules Febre |
November, 2017
A Version of Inversion

What happens on the mat should be reflected in our vision of the world and our actions in it. When we think of inversions, those classic images of handstand (adho mukha vrkshāsana), forearm stand (pincha mayurāsana) and supported headstand (salamba śirsāsana) are most likely the first things that will pop into our imaginative eye. Rarely would one think of wealth redistribution, reduction of human waste or the abolishing of animal agriculture. If you think of inversions in a purely āsana sense, inside of a classroom at your local yoga school, this is a start but it is by no means an end unto itself. It is interesting to note that one of the most powerful inversions is not an āsana but a mudravīparita karani which is translated as “attitudes reversing” in the Bihar version of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Essentially, all of the āsanas that have a high degree of bodily inversion have the power to reflect back our attitude, disposition or feeling. It shines a spotlight on our tendencies and orientations, especially those manufactured by the mind. When upside down, our relationship with reality has flipped and can bring about fear or even a feeling of unworthiness or weakness. When inversions are practiced safely, and with clear guidance, fear dissipates and strength increases. We are immediately aware of a lack of proprioception when our bearings change. Through practice we can learn to get comfortable, firm and capable in the new world view.

The āsana practice helps to confront our ways of being, and we may begin to see where else we can replicate this process of inversion in the broader and deeper sense of the word. The strength and mental fortitude to meet a fear-inducing situation like a handstand in the middle of the room can, and should, transfer into daily life. It can be scary to speak up against what we see as wrong in the world. We may fear being ostracized from friends or family if we do. We may see that our lifestyle causes an unnecessary amount of harm in the world, but may not be sure how to adopt a lifestyle that is less toxic or harmful. It can all be scary and we can start to lose sense of where we belong or who we are. In those moments, the residual effect of the āsana practice can remind us of our resilience. With practice and patience, the right choices will present themselves, and we will have the courage to choose them. What once seemed impossible becomes possible, placing what seemed unreachable, within our grasp.

As in all shifts, preparation is of the upmost importance. Otherwise, we run the risk of not only draining ourselves but also those around us and devaluing the potential of any action. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika refers directly to the ordinary movement of consciousness beginning in the skull and eventually moving down and out, essentially being wasted in the process. We have all had this experience, when we are around a certain person, place or environment that we feel has a negative attitude or impact and it drains us. What we choose to eat, expose our minds to (movies, books, magazines, etc.) can add to or diminish our panic storehouse. Even a poorly planned āsana practice can leave us feeling more wiped out than before. We want our practice, food choices, friendships and jobs to help raise our energy and expand our consciousness. We want each practice to bring about a greater sense of being whole.

A yogic practice always begins with self and radiates outward into relationships with others. Use these precious moments inverted to see through new eyes. Be open to the effect that each āsana has, and be in dialogue with it through listening to what comes up. The goal is never to accumulate an ever-growing list of circus tricks; it is always to help wipe away the impurities in our vision and hesitation in our action.

Teaching Tips

  1. Emphasize that inversions such as vīparita karani, salamba sarvangāsana and salamba śirsāsana. can be held for longer times.
  2. Ensure that students are prepared for longer holding times by doing simple neck strengthening or providing additional padding.
  3. Look at inversions in new ways,  e.g. work on handstand facing against the wall, away from the wall, with the crown of the head on the wall rather than the feet, or with the hands turned backward.
  4. Work on āsanas that have several perspectives, e.g.  warrior 3, handstand or headstand with legs at 90 degrees on wall and lifting one leg at a time or  supta padangusthasana. Use the wall when possible after having done the asana in the middle of the room.
  5. Encourage questioning social or cultural beliefs. Examine personal habits rather than taking them for granted: what we eat, the time we wake up, the first thing we do in the morning, the last thing we do at night. Give thought to how much we do without being conscious and bring consciousness to it.
  6. Work with mudra and talk about differences between mudra and āsana.
  7. Ask students to set goals for the month. The goals can be to confront fears or try a 30-day inversion challenge of āsana or vegan meals, etc.
  8. Practice inversions yourself as much as you can. Set a challenge for yourself and let the students know you are also working on inversions of all kinds!