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8 Ways to Modify Yoga Inversions
“I was pitched a curve ball recently. I love yoga but am advised that I should longer do inversions due to the pressure on my eyes, as I am at elevated risk for glaucoma. (There are a lot of yoga inversions in standard asana practice, including Standing Forward Bend Pose (Uttanasana) and Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana).)
“Inspired by one of my favorite yoga teachers who had a neck issue that forced her to change her lifelong practice when she was my age, I am going to look at this as an opportunity to practice my yoga, e.g., deal with this “bump in the road” with acceptance, adjustment, and equanimity.” —Sally
This week I saw the above posted on Facebook by a friend who is a reader of this blog. I commented that her approach to this news seemed like a good one. Of course, I believe that accepting change rather than fighting with reality is always a good place to start. But I also had lots of ideas for how she could adapt her poses and her practice to keep her eyes safe. So I told her that, and she was enthusiastic to hear my ideas.
Inversions Are Not for Everybody
Rather than letting her know privately, I decided to write a post about it. After all, even though yoga inversions can be wonderful additions to your practice because they can be very calming, there are also certain health conditions for which they are contraindicated. In addition to glaucoma, these include uncontrolled high blood pressure, detached retina, and recent oral surgery.
If you’re suffering from GERD (acid reflux), it seems like a good idea to avoid long-held inversions as well. So I thought there are probably quite a few of you out there who have been told you should no longer do inversions and that you, too, would like to see this information.
What is a Yoga Inversion?
First, let’s look at what counts as an “inversion” in yoga because these are all going to be poses that you should either modify or avoid.
In yoga, any pose where your head is below your heart is an “inversion.” This includes full inversions, such as Headstand (Sirsasana), Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana), and Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani), where your legs are higher than your heart and your heart is higher than your head.
This also includes partial inversions, where your legs are below your heart (typically because you’re standing on your feet), but your heart is above your head, such as Standing Forward Bend Pose and Downward-Facing Dog Pose. I’m going to include some backbends where your head is dropped back in this category, too, because your head is below your heart in these poses as well.
You will need to avoid both partial and full inversions because they all put pressure on your head and can raise your blood pressure. Fortunately, there are ways to modify many of these poses. And for those you can’t modify, there are some very good alternatives!
8 Ways to Modify Yoga Inversions
1. Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) & Standing Forward Bend Pose (Uttanasana): Practice Half Downward Facing Dog Pose at the wall or with hands on a table or the back of a chair. Keep your spine elongated and parallel with the floor, and keep your head between your arms and in line with your spine. This pose can be a great alternative to either Downward Facing Dog Pose or Standing Forward Bend Pose.
2. Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend Pose (Prasarita Padottanasana): Practice Half Standing Forward Bend pose with hands on the wall or on a table, or on the back of a chair. Keep your head between your arms and in line with your spine. Or place your hands on blocks high enough so you can keep your spine elongated and parallel with the floor, as shown here:
If you want to support your head the way you do in the classic pose, you can rest your forearms on a tabletop and rest your head on top of them like this:
3. Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana): Practice Half Pyramid Pose with hands on the wall or on a table, or on the back of a chair. Keep your spine elongated and parallel with the floor, and keep your head between your arms and in line with your spine.
4. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana): The only way to modify this would be to remove the backbend and to lie in Constructive Rest Pose. This is what I’d do if I was in a class and others were practicing Bridge Pose.
However, if you want to practice a similar backbend, Bow Pose (Dhanurasana) is the same shape, only upside down! You can do the classic pose for an active backbend or try a supported version with a bolster supporting your lower torso like this:
And if you want a gentle backbend as a restorative pose for calming, try Empress Pose (Savasana with support under the chest and head) or Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) or Reclined Crossed-Leg Pose (Supta Sukhasana) with the same support.
5. Camel Pose (Ustrasana) and Upward Plank Pose (Purvottanasana): Come into the backbend but keep your chin pointing toward your chest instead of dropping your head back.
6. Upward-Facing Bow pose (Urdva Dhanurasana): Practice Bow pose instead.
7. Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani): Simply eliminate the support under your pelvis. You can also add a thin blanket or folded towel under your head. Eliminating the support under the pelvis changes the pose into a partial inversion where there is no pressure on the eyes or head, but it can still be very relaxing. And inverting just your legs helps your circulation, among other things.
8. Headstand, Shoulderstand, and Plow Pose (Halasana): Practice letting go of these poses. For similar quieting effects, try seated forward bends with your arms and head supported on the seat of a chair. You can use any leg position that works for you. Hold for at least three minutes.
Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Times of Change.
Nina Zolotow, RYT500, MFA, is Editor-in-Chief and a contributing writer for the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog and is the author of the recently published book Yoga for Times of Change by Shambhala Publications. She is a long-time yoga writer, long-time yoga practitioner, and certified yoga teacher. Her special areas of expertise are yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and yoga for healthy aging. She completed the three-year teacher training program at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is significantly influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She has studied extensively with Rodney Yee and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. She has taught workshops and a series of classes on yoga for emotional well-being, yoga for stress, yoga for better sleep, home practice, cultivating equanimity, and yoga for healthy aging.
Nina is also the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance.