While this blog does not specifically focus on asana (yoga postures), I am trying to put more explanation of asana in as a way to ground the blog in some various ideas. Thus, I have talked about Vrksasana (tree pose) and Tadasana (mountain pose), and today I want to talk about inversions and being upside down.
Today is the Autumn Equinox in New Zealand, yet in the northern hemisphere, it is the Spring Equinox. This is the first change of seasons I have experienced on the underbelly of the Earth. What does this mean for yoga? For law? For life? It means that once again my life feels turned upside down.
Being upside down forces us to see the world from a different point of view. It helps us understand that our way of seeing the world is not necessarily right, but sometimes we have to “look right” to realize that. The other night, I took a walk to see the glorious full moon, and as I looked up at the sky, it looked slightly different – I could see the Southern Cross constellation, which is only visible from the southern hemisphere. This is really the only visual reminder of being in the southern hemisphere, but it is stark, and that is why it graces the flags of both New Zealand and Australia.
In a typical yoga class (aka not too advanced), teachers will often teach two different inversions – salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and sirshasana (headstand). Technically, though, an inversion is any pose where your head is below your heart, so even uttanasana (standing forward bend) is an inversion. Thus, inversion postures are not necessarily physically demanding, and their health benefits are almost too numerous to recite. By forcing blood to flow upstream, so to speak, we aid our immune systems, improve digestion, calm the nervous system, relieve back pain, improve circulation, and perhaps most important for lawyers and modern westerners – reduce dis-stress. To put it bluntly, inversions are good for the body.
Inversions are also good for the mind, and much more so than just relieving the chronic stress that runs so many of our lives. Inversions are one of the best paths to learning empathy, to learning to understand others and their points of view. As previously noted, empathy is “Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.” Contagious yawning occurs as a result of our ability to empathize, and a recent study found that children do not begin to yawn when others around them do until about age 4. Empathy, therefore, is something we learn, something that we can cultivate within us.
Inversions help us cultivate empathy by literally forcing us to see the world from a different perspective. We step out of our comfort zones and look at the world through a new set of eyes, often with blood rushing to our brains making us feel for a moment like we might lose our senses, but then realizing that we are safe, and we can just be there. When we breathe into inversions, they are calming, and we can learn that even when life seems like it is going to rush to our brains and kill our sense of understanding, we can be calm within it. We can breathe, and we can even find empathy.
Looking up at the night sky and seeing the Southern Cross is a great reminder that sometimes life throws you upside down without you expecting it, but cultivating the ability to hold that space, breathe, and then using the time to understand how others might react is a step toward increasing our mutual understanding and limiting the occurrences of the downward spiral of email.
What have inversions taught you? What is your favorite inversion?
© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved
This blog is not affiliated with Fulbright or Fulbright New Zealand, and all opinions expressed herein are my own.