Inversions and eye problems

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I had been teaching Salamba Sirsasana (supported head pose, or headstand) to one of my students. She had struggled hard to learn the pose, first conquering fear, then strength, then equipoise. Then another barrier came her way. Her ophthalmologist diagnosed her with low tension glaucoma. One of the first things we learn in Iyengar yoga when teaching Salamaba Sirasana is when not to teach it: in cases of high blood pressure, menstruation, and eye problems.

My wife who works as an opthalmic assistant directed me to an article (now deleted) where the author of this study painstakingly measured eye pressure in each of the inverted asanas in the Iyengar method. As expected, Salamba Sirsana is off the charts in terms of high ocular pressure. A major finding is that pressure increases the most during the first minute of the Salamba Sirsasana, then it stabilizes up to 13 minutes mark, then it increases again. This means for those who have eye problems and are wanting to try headstand “just for a little while,” that first minute can be the most damaging to the optic nerve. Here is an article with similar information to the deleted one.

So should people completely omit inversions in their yoga practice if they have eye problems? The answer is “no” as some inversions decrease eye pressure. Conversely, in Viparita Karani (inverted lake posture), the study showed eye pressure actually dropped to levels equal below that of the resting measurement.

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Viparita Karani

 

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11 thoughts on “Inversions and eye problems

  1. essbee14

    This is really interesting – bodies are fascinating in this way. I have not personally attained Salamaba Sirasana, but didn’t realize there were phases of life where it wouldn’t be a good fit. Great to know there are other poses that would work in lieu of.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and link cbto!

      That NASA study looks fascinating. It looks like there may be many unforeseen hazards of prolonged weightlessness.

      As far as blood pressure and headstands, we are taught at the Introductory II level to eschew them altogether for students with hyper or hypo tension. I had a student who would complain of headaches after doing Salamba Sirsasana. He was subsequently diagnosed with high blood pressure. He then switched of forward bends in lieu of headstand and had no headache complaints.

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  2. Steve Morris

    My mother suffers from low tension glaucoma so I am at risk (I am 46). I practise Salamba Sirsasana, but now I am worried! The study shows that pressures increase, but do you know of any studies that show whether this would cause optic nerve damage? I don’t hold the post for more than a minute or so.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks for your comment Steve. First of all, I would see an ophthalmologist and get checked. I would even bring a copy of the study in to show your doctor to help interpret the results and explain what you are doing. Secondly, as you see in the study, the most pressure comes in the first minute of the pose, then the pressure stabilizes. I spoke to an ophthalmologist about this study yesterday, and she said that there is no magic number for eye pressure, but with low tension glaucoma it would be wise to keep the pressure under 18 and possibly 20. Since you have not been diagnosed with glaucoma I would continue practicing with an okay from my doctor. Always practice Salamba Sarvangasana or variant after Salamba Sirsana. Best of luck to you!

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      1. Steve Morris

        Thanks for the detailed reply. I regularly get my eye pressures checked and all is OK for now, so I think I will continue with my yoga practice for now.

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