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Along with over 1000 of my yoga therapy colleagues, according to a Global Yoga Therapy Day survey, I believe these four poses – Handstand, Headstand and Plough should not be taught in group classes and maybe not even in private lessons depending on the client.

Handstand and Headstand

Both of these poses require great strength, stability and skill.  The risk of falling and injuring oneself is high (even if done against a wall).  It can take months and even years to develop the muscle strength and technique to truly come into either of these poses safely.  If you are in a class with other students you not only put yourself at risk but also your peers in class.

In addition, anyone with hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease or risk of stroke are at an even greater risk when practicing these poses.

Lastly, the average American regularly, if not chronically, suffers from cervical (neck), back and shoulder discomfort, pain or injury.  Both of these poses increase the risk of injuring any of these areas.  Anyone with eye issues like glaucoma, heartburn or indigestion, headaches, low blood pressure or osteoporosis are also at risk.

According to Erich Anderer, M.D., chief of neurosurgery at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, doing headstands without “very strong paraspinal and core musculature can cause unsafe stress on a portion of the body that was already not meant to bear weight.”  Consider what part of your body typically carries all of your body weight – your feet right?  Not your head.  And there are many other structures in place to better distribute the weight in the body when you are upright.  Not so when you stand on your head.  Your cervical spine is structured to carry the weight of your body.

In my mind the risks are far greater than the benefits.  I love inversions but you can get many of the same benefits by practicing downward facing dog, puppy dog, supported shoulder stand and even child’s pose.  You can even just “dangle” over your legs.  Handstand and headstand are also the most advanced postures and even seasoned teachers stay away from them.

If you want to practice handstand or headstand try ½ handstand on the wall or use an inversion chair to get the benefits of headstand.

Full Shoulder Stand & Plough

Just looking at this picture makes me cringe.  Look at that pressure on the cervical spine!!  However, you will regularly find teachers who lead students from shoulder stand into plough.  No wonder people don’t want to come to yoga.  This looks scary and it’s incredibly dangerous too.

In addition to the risk of a neck injury or strain, these are both intense inversions and as such carry the same risks as headstand and handstand for people with heart conditions, eye issues, low blood pressure, pregnancy etc.

The scary part is that in a group class rarely does a teacher have access to all of a students health history.  There might just be something in there that indicates a student shouldn’t do any of these poses.  

If you want to work with shoulderstand (there is no real alternative to plough in my mind unless you have access to a strap wall), try either of the following two options.

½ Shoulderstand keeps the weight of the body in the torso and legs.  When done properly (with or without the wall) there is very little weight in the neck or head.  Or an even more modified version without any pressure on the head and neck is to lift the arms and legs to the sky while in a supine position.

If you really want to learn any of these bigger inversions, I suggest you work privately with a teacher.  And, if the teacher gets you into the poses in just one or two lessons, be wary…it takes quite a bit of prep to develop the muscles strength, length and technique to do any of these poses.