caring for your spine in inversions

By: susi hately aldous

head and shoulders above the rest

head and shoulders above the rest

Over the past few years, inversions have become some of my favorite asanas. From sirsasana (headstand), salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand), and pincha mayurasana (forearm stand), to adho mukha vrksasana (handstand), I really enjoy them all. Perhaps it harkens back to my days hanging from the jungle gym in school – nothing quite beats the feeling of being upside down.

Being upside down has its risks, however. Just as there are safety concerns that prompt many communities to ban jungle gyms and monkey bars from their playgrounds, there are reasons why chiropractors, physiotherapists, and massage therapists among others would prefer that we not balance on our heads and necks. However, when the mechanics and function are understood, injury can be easily avoided. 

Basic Mechanics

The spine is inherently stable. Looking at the spine from the back, the vertebrae are large at the bottom and become progressively smaller as they move toward the head. In standing, the spine couples with large musculoskeletal structures – the pelvis, femurs, and their related myofascia (the membrane that surrounds and supports all of the body’s muscle tissues) – to enable a free and easy transfer of energy from upper to lower, top to bottom, and back again. 

When our bodies are inverted, the spine progresses in the opposite direction – from bottom to top, the vertebrae now move from small to large – and the weight-bearing function of the relatively large pelvis, legs, and feet becomes the function of the relatively smaller scapulae, arms, hands, and their surrounding myofascia. It makes sense that injury can easily occur.

So what to do?

Whether you are on your hands as in adho mukha vrksasana, on your forearms as in pincha mayurasana, on your head and forearms as in sirsasana, or using your neck in any way as with salamba sarvangasana, be sure to set your foundation well. 

Here is how: Keep the thoracic spine in mind and connect to the largest joints first.

There are many ways to teach each of these yoga asanas, and their common thread is how the thoracic (or middle) section of the spine connects with the shoulder joints via the scapulae, the shoulder blades. When balance is established here, strength and balance arise easily in the arms for a solid, stable, and safe inversion. When balance is not established, compensations occur – such as the ribs poking forward (banana-ing), or as is common in sirsasana, placing too much weight on the neck rather than on the shoulder girdles. 

Let’s explore this more deeply:

Stand about three foot lengths from the wall. Place your hands on the wall, about nose height, with your fingertips pointing up and the tips of the thumbs touching. With arms straight, move only your hips backward. Stay for ten breaths (keep those thumbtips touching). If you experience a “cuff of pain” around the upper arm(s) or in the shoulder joint(s), ease out a little. Bring your attention to the vertebrae at the tips of the shoulder blades. This is the area of the seventh and eighth thoracic vertebrae. Directly opposite is your sternum (breastbone). Without wiggling in your hips or torso, let the sternum drop toward the joint of the wall and floor. Stay here for ten breaths. Your armpits may feel as if they are “opening.” Don’t force – the thoracic spine doesn’t move much in this plane of motion, but the movement that you do enable will do wonders for your inversions. Be sure that your ribs aren’t jutting forward, your neck isn’t craning, and that your jaw is relaxed. 

Next, place your hands eight inches apart while keeping them at the same height, fingertips pointing up and the tips of the thumbs pointing toward each other. Move only your hips backward. Follow the directions above. Stay for ten to twenty breaths. 

Take the sensation you feel in your thoracic spine into your inversions and see what you notice.