Monday when I walked into my intermediate class everyone was sprawled out on their mat about two minutes away from sleep. One sure sign we need to do inversions is seeing a room full of exhausted people. So I did an arm balance class. There is nothing that gets blood flowing to the brain faster than being a little afraid and being upside-down.
One of my favorite inversions to teach is handstand prep. It is incredibly challenging and really safe for newer practitioners who might hurt themselves trying to kick up into the full pose. Plus handstand prep is a rather brutal shoulder and hamstring opener. Which means it is a nice pose to practice as a check in to see how much you have progressed since the last time you tried.
If you are not a yoga practitioner or if you’ve never tried handstand prep here is the quick run down. You put your hands on the ground about 2½ feet away a wall. You then proceed to walk your feet up the wall and balance on your hands. Then you walk your feet down to the height of the hips and swing your hips forward over your hands, putting the body into a 90 degree angle. It requires a lot of mobility in the hamstrings, even more in the shoulders and as you would expect strengthens everything!
It is very safe because you are using the wall and allows practitioners who have never been upside down to play with having weight on their hands.
I talk a lot about shoulders and hamstrings. I talk a lot about core support and staying soft through the elbows, wrists and shoulders. AND I talk a lot about the nervous system!
If you haven’t done a cartwheel since you were a child you may not remember the terror of being upside down. But trust me when I say that something happens when you go hips over head. The body has a STRONG reaction.
What long-term yoga practitioners feel immediately is the thrill. Adrenaline is adrenaline. The world gets clearer, our hearts race and all that new blood flowing to the brain feels awesome! But adrenaline is a stress hormone. It is important to remember that when it is flowing we are not relaxed. Which is good, we need to be on when we are upside down. But that level of being on needs to end when you come back down, because you can’t go to work with that much adrenaline rushing through your blood stream. It will feel terrible.
My realization this week teaching inversions is that we have one other area of mobility that I never address. That is in the nervous system. If we get up into the pose successfully but we are a heartbeat away from a full out panic attack—we really don’t have the mobility to do the pose. It doesn’t matter how open the shoulders are, the nervous system is calling the shots.
Practicing inversions should not be the equivalent of riding a rollercoaster. I don’t want students screaming as they fear for their life. I want them to find a way to do the posture where they can have an internal dialogue that sounds like this “I am incredibly afraid. Wow, this is what full out fear feels like. Wow, listen to my heart pound in my ears. It is okay body, I’m taking care of you. Arms relax, legs relax. Everything is allowed to bend so that my muscles can stop trembling. I am strong and I can make this pose comfortable.” If that dialogue can’t happen because your mind goes blank and you can’t breath, you need to build up to the pose in a different way.
So why practice inversions if they cause the emotional response of riding a rollercoaster. Because this is what you learn. A few days after class this week a student shared exactly the reason why I teach inversions. The student reported being astonished at how afraid and shaky the inversions left them at the end of class. They said they were able to powerfully calm the fear only to discover that the exact same sensation arose at numerous points in the next few days. In fact the same technique of deliberately calming the body that we had used after coming down from handstand prep worked to calm this student down after stress at work, family stress, traffic and all the other very real stressors of every day life.
The sensation this student reported is existing in “fight or flight” or having the sympathetic nervous system be dominant. This level of activity and adrenaline is very healthy if you are being chased by a lion or being mugged at gunpoint, but may not be best for a committee meeting. Teaching the body to mindfully transition out of sympathetic dominance into the tamer and more productive parasympathic nervous system is priceless. A skill that will never be lost and will drastically change your life!
Photo credit: http://yogaimmunity.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/handstand-preparation/