Inversions 101: How to go Upside Down with Grace

A young woman in a headstand yoga pose

You’re 45 minutes into a great class, you’re in your vinyasa groove, or you’re grateful to be resting in child’s pose, and then the teacher utters the dreaded words, “Alright, let’s move into an inversion practice, time to go upside down!”

Immediately your heart sinks, your stomach drops, and you do everything you can to avoid eye contact with the teacher as quickly as possible. You think, “I’m supposed to put my feet, where?” Or you shut down completely and stay frozen in child’s pose hoping no one notices you haven’t moved for 10 minutes. Or maybe you’ve been flipping around since you were three years old and you’re in the Woohoo I Love Inversions Club (#inversionjunkie).

If the idea of balancing on your head/hands/arms/shoulders simply lights your fire, you may hop right up. If you have fears surrounding inversions, you may need more encouragement. But whether inverting excites you or terrifies you, there is a heap of benefits available at your white-knuckled finger-tips when you go upside down. Here are a few:

  • Gives you an energy boost
  • Allows for a complete focus on the present moment
  • Provides a change of perspective
  • Is healthy for the heart
  • Sends a rush of blood to the brain
  • Builds core strength
  • Builds upper body strength
  • Requires spine stabilization
  • Is really fun!

In my own experience, going upside down can be refreshing, playful, and invigorating. Once you’re up there, the world drops away and all that is left is your breath. That is the power of now, friends.

The main benefits come from the process of learning to invert. Ah, yes, the old journey-not-the-destination adage. Well, it’s true. Headstand, handstand, forearm stand, and shoulder stand are the classic inversions in the Hatha yoga asana practice. However, even when you arrive at your so-called destination—the elusive balance-breathe-smile combo—there’s always another variation to try. The journey never ends. And that’s where the fun begins.

Here are some tips to start you on your way, on the mat (and in life).

1. InquireA young woman preparing for yoga tripod pose

Get curious, and face your fears. Are you fearful of going upside down? What is the reason behind the fear? Are you worried about getting injured? Are you afraid of looking silly? Are you just not sure how to get into the pose?

Remember, fear is an important emotion! It is what keeps you safe. Some things are worth doing, even with fear present: speaking out for what you believe in, standing up for justice, taking that leap of faith and asking someone out. Ask the tough questions and get to the root of your fear. You may be surprised by what you discover. As long as you’re working with a trained teacher and using necessary safety precautions, inversions are safe to practice.

2. Reset ExpectationsA young woman preparing for tripod yoga pose

Choose an alternative pose. Partial inversions (where your head is below your heart and/or your hips are above your heart) can provide similar benefits to traditional inversions and are good preparation before going all the way upside down. Poses such as Downward-Facing Dog, Standing Wide-Legged Forward Fold, Legs Up the Wall, and Supported Shoulder Stand with a block under your lower back are good places to start. Remember, even when you “get” an inversion, balance is different every day and it’s important to check your expectations each time you prepare to practice.

3. PlayA young woman preparing for tripod yoga pose

This is the key! Kick up. Fall down. Give it a try. Laugh. Don’t take inverting too seriously. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Sometimes in a moment of spontaneity, when the expectations and the ego have fallen away, your mind may allow your body to have some fun—that’s when you’ll find yourself suspended in the air.

4. Set Goals and Write Them DownA young woman preparing for tripod yoga pose

Do you truly wish to learn how to balance in a headstand? Hold a handstand for five seconds? You’ve inquired and played and prepared? Then it’s time to set some goals and work toward achieving them.

5. Practice

A young woman in tripod yoga poseBKS Iyengar, paraphrased, says if you want to learn how to do headstands, you need to practice them every day. Not just once in a while. Not just in class. Every day!

Make it a morning routine to get your legs over your head before you step out of the door. Or kick your feet up on a lunchtime break at work. Set your goals in motion by showing up to practice. You’re sure to be rewarded with at least a change of perspective, some insights about yourself, and a burst of energy.

6. Find Support

Use props like blocks, straps, and blankets for support. Ask a good friend to hold your foot in the air. Find a teacher you trust and request inversions in class. You don’t have to do it alone. We’re all in this together and we all must hold each other up.

Tripod Handstand (Salamba Sirsasana 2)

Here’s a short tutorial for working toward a Tripod Headstand, one of the foundations for many other inverted poses. It’s a good one to get started with and gives a taste of being upside down each step of the way.

  • Come down to your hands and knees.
  • Place your hands about as wide as your shoulders and spread your fingers wide.
  • Tuck your chin into your chest and place your head down in front of your hands. There should be an equilateral triangle between your hands and your head. If you can see your hands and your elbows are bent at 90 degrees, your base will be most stable. Make sure you’re on the true top of your head, not your forehead.
  • Tuck your toes under and lift your knees up off the mat.
  • Walk your toes in toward your hands, sending your tailbone up toward the ceiling.
  • Roll your shoulders up and away from your ears. Press into your fingers for stability.
  • Lift your right foot and bring your knee to your elbow or triceps muscle. Set that foot down and repeat on the left side.
  • Bring both knees to your arms and hold there. Press into your hands and find strength in your arms. If you feel steady, try lifting one leg up off your arm and bringing it back down. Try on the other side. Then try lifting both legs up.
  • Squeeze your legs together, press into your hands, and breathe.

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About the Author
woman smiling in yoga pose

Lena Schmidt

Certified Yoga Instructor
Whether it’s exploring the local trails, playing pretzel on the yoga mat, or diving into a book on inner peace, Lena loves an adventure. You can find her teaching yoga in San Diego, leading retreats near and far, and empowering others to be the change they wish to see in the world. Learn more about Lena at www.yoginilena.com The spiritual aspects of yoga have aided Lena in the never-ending search for peace, calm, and positivity within, and she’s passionate about sharing these tools with others. She is intentional about taking yoga off the mat and loves finding the bridges between the heart and mind, the individual and community, and mindfulness and expression...Read more