The power of weight-bearing

I taught a headstand class this week, and was reminded of a fundamental principle of yoga: weight-bearing actions in good alignment are good things.

Every time I teach headstand someone asks something like, “so, most of the weight is supposed to be on your arms, right?”  This is understandable.  I mean, taking weight on your head is absurd, right?  But nearly every time, I answer with something to the effect of, “it’s called headstand because you are supposed to stand on your head.  Yes, your head absolutely takes weight.”  The key addition to this answer is, of course, “in good alignment.”

I just read yet another article about how beneficial yoga is for osteoporosis.  Why?  Because it requires you to bear weight on your skeletal system without overly stressing your joints like other weight-bearing activities such as running or playing tennis.  In many yoga poses, you are asked to hold your body weight on individual bones or groups of bones.  Take handstand, for example; your arm bones (all 6 of them) are holding all 145 pounds (in my case) of you – upside down.  That pressure on the bones stresses them just enough to make them stronger, but not enough to cause any damage – the ideal combo for healthy growth and development.

In headstand, the same principles apply.  You are asked to bear weight through the head and neck so as to gently encourage strengthening of those areas.  The trick is making sure alignment is healthy before doing so, as the consequence of bearing weight on a misaligned neck is significant – often immediate and sharp pain.  As a result of this risk., so many folks I work with prefer not to do headstand at all.  What a shame!  Iyengar calls sirshasana (headstand) the “king of asanas.”  His description of the benefits of the pose is the longest in all of “Light on Yoga” – because there are SO MANY benefits.  Is there risk?  Sure, there always is in yoga and life.  But with well-trained instruction, headstand risks are significantly minimized.

It’s interesting to think that weight-bearing activities – even non-physical ones – can help us to be healthier as well.  I think of added responsibilities in the home or in my job as weight-bearing actions.  If the timing is right, and I am set up well to meet the challenges they offer, then these activities, like asanas, create just enough pressure to make me stronger.  When it’s not the right time for me to take on more weight, however, I get stressed, and my health suffers….just like it would doing a weight-bearing pose out of alignment.  It seems almost to be part of the human condition – we are offered weight continuously.  We train ourselves to be able to take it in style.  Sometimes we do, other times we choose not to, as the timing or alignment is off.  When we choose wisely, we grow stronger and avoid osteoporosis — or its mental/emotional equivalent, complacency.

Yet another example of yoga as a “laboratory” for life…

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~ by bridgetannlyons on March 30, 2011.

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