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Musings from the Mat: Yoga for the Heart...and Brain

April 2, 2017

Head and Shoulders Above The Rest
Compiled from the writings of Srivatsa Ramaswami

If the position of the sun (stomach) is above and the moon (the head) below, it is called an Inversion (viparita karani). You have turned your body upside down. Headstand and Shoulder Stand are also considered mudras, the viparita karani mudras.

Headstand (Sirasasana), and its better half, Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana), are called the King and Queen of yoga poses. These two head-fixed inversions are able to place the pelvic area above the gastric area. Now the gastric fire (jatara agni), figuratively speaking, flows towards the pelvic area (kandasthana). 

The pelvic area according to some yogis is a breeding ground for many ailments. So Headstand and Shoulder Stand, along with the root lock (mulabandha) they create, fans the intense gastric fire which helps to cleanse the network of nerves (nadis) through which the subtle energies of the body flow and the disease prone area (rogasthana) is cleaned and spruced up. This heat also arouses the instinctive force coiled at the base of the spine (kundalini), or serpent power.

Within the first few minutes of Headstand practice, the leg and thigh muscles as well as the gluteal muscles relax. It has been found that due to the relaxation of the leg muscles, the blood pressure in the legs drop to about 30mm. And the gravity helps to open up many capillaries in the brain, head and face which may otherwise remain partially closed. One’s pulse rate tends to reduce, thereby reducing the strain on the heart. Gradually there is a reduction in the blood pressure. 

In the inversions, the internal organs get positional correction (especially if they have been displaced by surgery or pregnancy). Practicing the inverted poses with the variety of modifications (vinyasas) gives a complete massage to all the muscles, organs and considerably increases the blood circulation.

Normally after Headstand the yogi is supposed to spend equal time in Shoulder Stand as well. Shoulder Stand, therefore, is considered good for the sense organs whereas the Headstand is good for the brain.  These twin poses are very good for health.

Inversions are also the best yoga postures to alleviate low back pain. They also help to open the hips by dragging the big pelvic girdle down a bit and giving more space for the femur to move and rotate nicely within the hip socket.  Perhaps most beneficial is the spine stretching and becoming more flexible. It is said one is as old as the condition of the spine..."You are only as old as your spine is flexible."

Yoga is particularly directed towards maintaining the integrity of the spine. The slightest displacement of the vertebrae will result in chronic or acute pain. Therefore, efforts are made to maintain the spinal column in proper position and mobility. This can be compared to ‘noise’ in the telephone transmission system. In such cases the signals do not properly reach the organs or the brain and spinal cord do not receive the signals properly resulting in the inefficiency of those organs. 

Yogis take special care to prevent any vertebral pressure on the nerves and to strengthening the back muscles so that the spinal column is well supported. The movements for the spine include side bending, forward bending, curving the back, back bending and of course twisting (vinyasas). 

The spine at the thoracic region does not stretch as the ribcage moves up and down as one unit and as a result there is generally less movement between the vertebrae of the thoracic spine. Yogic breathing, especially inhalation, is a unique way of stretching the thoracic spine. When we inhale deeply, the chest expands side to side, front to back, and also up and down, which will help stretch the spine and create intervertebral space for mobility and freedom for the nerves (nadis). Therefore, doing poses (asanas) with good breathing has this additional advantage. 

The Headstand and Shoulder Stand inversions and the variations (vinyasas) in them help to keep the spine supple and strong. These two regal poses stand “head and shoulders” above the rest in health benefits to the yogabhyasis.

Some of Yoga’s influence on the Heart may be considered here. The heart should not be strained. Even while you perform yoga asanas, the heart rate should not increase significantly, which is markedly different from the ‘aerobic’ approach. The heart is surrounded by the pericardium, a twin walled heart covering or muscular sac. These muscles, due to our upright position, tend to sag over time due to gravity, even though the heart sac (hrudaya kosa) is well supported. This “heart sag”, according to Yogis, has a progressively debilitating effect on the heart. 

If this ‘stroke volume’ is increased then the heart would be able to pump blood more efficiently. By doing a regimen of vinyasas and asanas, more blood is squeezed out of the cells and this also helps squeeze out ‘bad blood’ from every muscle and joint.  The synchronized slow breathing employed during the pose - especially the inhalation - helps to suck more blood to the heart. As the vinyasas and asanas help to squeeze out blood, the slow deeper inhalation maintains a negative pressure of the chest cavity for a much longer period of time which helps to return more blood to the heart, so much so that every time the heart beats it is able to pump more blood (stroke volume increases). 

This yoga method has a marked difference with aerobic workouts. When people do yoga as a workout without any reference to slow breathing, the blood circulation improves, however, the heart and lungs are working faster which strains the heart and the body creates more waste products.

When we breathe in, we do it by expanding the chest. The diaphragm descends and there is a partial vacuum created in the thoracic cavity. The air rushes into the lungs through the nostrils, trachea, etc. When the chest expands, the partial vacuum created also has an effect on the heart. The blood is sucked in by this partial vacuum and its suction has the effect of accelerating the flow of blood to the heart chamber. This is called the ‘respiratory pump’ effect. Thus a good breathing (pranayama) practice helps the venous return of the blood to the heart.

Deep inhalation done during pranayama pushes the diaphragm down and puts useful pressure on the abdominal and pelvic organs. Further some adept yogis also do root lock (mula bandha) and some upward abdominal lock (uddiyana bandha) after inhalation (and holding the breath) so that there is pressure on those internal organs from above, below and the anterior side, virtually wringing more blood out of these organs and muscles. Again after exhalation more powerful bandhas are employed by which the internal muscles and organs are exercised, squeezed and massaged. In uddiyana bandha while doing breath retention after exhale (bahya kumbhaka), the adept Yogi, is able to push the diaphragm pretty deep up into the thoracic cavity providing a healthy external pressure on the heart muscles to squeeze out blood even from the heart muscles and provide a gentle massage to the heart, thereby helping the elasticity of the heart muscles in the process.

There is another unique procedure for the venous return of blood to the heart. It is the inversion asanas (Headstand, Shoulder Stand and the various vinyasas in these poses). The heart is way up in the body in normal upright position so the return of the blood to the heart is somewhat hampered due to gravitational resistance. So the inversions like Shoulder Stand (sarvangasana) help to drain fluids, especially blood from the lower extremities and also visceral muscles. The combination of Vinyasas in inverted poses, synchronized breathing and employing the body locks (bandhas) helps to return more blood to the heart from the muscles and tissues below the heart.

Like the “heart sag”, all the internal organs get slowly displaced or tend to sag from their original positions and thus become less efficient/become diseased over a period of time due to partial loss of tone, age and gravity. For the heart, Shoulder Stand (sarvangasana) is ideal. In that position, the heart snuggly rests in the upper portion of the chest cavity, well supported and rested. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Shoulder Stand is referred to as the Heart of the Asanas.

Now what about the effect of these inversions on the brain?  

When beginning a Headstand practice, one might find their face flush as the blood rushes to the face, skull, and crown of the head. After some regular practice, however, the body adjusts to the new posture and auto regulates the flow of blood. In turn, the blood circulation in the brain improves considerably. The cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF), which is a clear and colorless liquid surrounding the brain and the spinal cord, drains and pools upon the top portion of the brain. This helps in the nourishment of the brain cells.   Because of the increased pressure in the brain due to this fluid, the pituitary gland secretes more of the hormones into the CSF which is said to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. (A weak sympathetic is considered to cause some ailments like bronchial asthma and the increased secretions help the dilatation of the bronchial tubes giving great relief to asthmatics.) Headstand could be useful for those who suffer from bronchial asthma and those with chronic chest congestion as well as its cousin eczema and distant relative, epilepsy.

Shoulder Stand is different from Headstand in that the back of the head (occipital) is on the floor, and the CSF pools into the midbrain and the back of the brain including the medulla. It is said the Vagas nerve nuclei are stimulated by this inversion which results in the activation of the parasympathetic system. Shoulder Stand is a good pose to help overcome insomnia and reduce anxiety as well as help normalize sexual functions. 

Therefore, a mix of Headstand and Shoulder Sand would help to bring about a healthy balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

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