A yoga teacher’s suggestion to invert has the power to elicit a range of emotions from students—bewilderment, fear, anxiety, aversion, rejection, excitement, butterflies, you fill in the blank.
Purposely turning ourselves upside down is contrary to our human physical locomotion-nature and yet the benefits of upending ourselves are many. Just as yoga gently encourages us to move away from any unconscious habitual patterns, the invitation to invert is simply another way by which to shake things up, step out of rut. Walking on our legs as opposed to our hands is perhaps the most glaring habit of humankind, and so inversions have the potential to be a valuable addition to the lives of all.
An inversion is most generally categorized as any asana in which the head is below the heart. And while headstand, handstand, forearm stand, and shoulder stand immediately come to mind, there are gentler variations that may be more accessible for students early on in their inversion relationship: Down dog, standing forward folds, legs up the wall, and happy baby are lovely ways in which to get things moving in new directions without jumping in the deep end.
Like all things in life, the suggestion to get upside down should not be universally prescribed. There are certain contraindications that should be observed so as not to cause or exacerbate previous injuries or illnesses: unmedicated high blood pressure, some heart conditions, neck injuries, recent stroke, detached retina, glaucoma, and epilepsy are common issues that should be addressed before inverting. Talk with your doctor and teacher if you are unsure about your status.
Additionally, the debate continues as to whether women on their “ladies holiday” should indeed take a vacation from inversions. I would suggest doing a little research for yourself, both in an academic as well as experiential sense—listen to your body and what feels appropriate as your move through your cycle. This might mean abstaining from or simply holding inversions for shorter periods of time—you are the ultimate judge.
Without further delay, ten compelling reasons you should finish reading this article and get upside down:
Inversions reverse the blood flow in the body and improve circulation:
Work smarter, not harder! Use gravity to provide the brain with more oxygen and blood thus increasing mental functioning, and improving concentration, memory, and processing abilities.
Increase immunity and prevent illness:
The lymphatic system is a key player in keeping the body healthy. As lymph moves through the body it picks up toxins and bacteria to be eliminated by the lymph nodes. Because lymph moves as a result of muscle contractions and gravity, getting upside down allows lymph to more easily travel into the respiratory system where much of the toxins enter the body.
Feeling that 3pm slump coming on? Get upside down! Heating inversions such as handstand, headstand, and forearm balance get more blood moving to the brain, which results not only in physical invigoration but mental revitalization as well.
While the heating inversions (handstand & headstand) energize, inversions of the cooling type (shoulder stand & legs up the wall) work to calm the nervous system, thereby activating the parasympathetic nervous system and producing feelings of balance and calm.
Up the anti! Once balancing on one or two legs has been mastered, the obvious next step is finding equanimity on hands and head.
Increase core strength:
Shoulders and arms—especially for women who tend to be stronger in the lower body, inversions create body balance by developing upper body strength.
While that first kick up into handstand might induce varying levels of trepidation, once we “get it”, that upcoming job interview suddenly doesn’t seem so daunting.
And before we “get it”, those many attempts remind us of how much more we have to learn, and how truly it is about the said “journey”, not simply the destination.
Literally give us a new perspective on life:
As we become accustomed to reacting to our world in a predictable way, inversions teach us through metaphor that there is always another way to approach the situation/person/problem.
Inversions are fun:
Inversions reintroduce us to our inner child and remind us that while yoga is a contemplative endeavor in many ways, the asana practice is also a time to be playful and light hearted!
Inversions are fantastic all year long, but in the winter months they may be especially beneficial. For many of us winter comes with it chilly days and more time spent indoors. There is a natural biological tendency to draw inwards, conserve energy, and move more slowly.
So while there is certainly validity to the idea of paying attention to one’s internal seasonal moods and following suite, for many, the world around them does not abide by the same clock. And so while it may be more of a challenge to incorporate inversions into one’s practice during the quiet months, doing so may serve as a natural-caffeine-free way to bust out of the wintertime doldrums and access hibernating stores of internal energy.
Now to balance out the cerebral work of reading this article, you may move to your mat and or a wall and get upside down!