Your next edition of YogaDork Ed. has you flipped on your head! Sorta.
Inversions are coveted among yogis. Yoga is one of the few systems of health that suggest you regularly turn yourself upside down for extended periods of time. The health claims are astonishing: it reverses aging, increases blood flow to the brain, regulates pituitary and pineal glands, relieves constipation, tranquilizes and mellows the nervous system, and the list goes on. Responses vary from person to person, but a regular practice of turning upside down to one degree or another is soothing and balancing, and it can be a necessary step for many to stop their chattering minds before meditation.
Inversions can include a broad range of poses, both yoga and commonplace stretching positions. Simply hanging your body forward while sitting in a chair can be enough to reset your inner rhythm. Downward dog is an inversion, as is Legs Up the Wall Pose. And then there are some more intense inversion poses like headstand, shoulderstand, handstand and plow.
These poses are excellent for aiding in draining blood and lymph from the lower extremities and the abdominal and pelvic organs. They are also a great stretch for the diaphragm. All inverted poses significantly increase blood flow to the brain, heart and lungs. This extra flow helps to saturate the often neglected upper lobes of the lungs with a fresh wash of blood and stimulates action in its upper air sacs (arterioles).
Inversion poses turn off the “fight or flight” stress response
Inversions also directly trigger certain relaxation responses in our bodies. Whether the inversion is subtle or extreme, the pull of blood towards our hearts and heads toggles our nervous systems to turn off the sympathetic “flight or fight” stress response while turning on the parasympathetic “rest & digest” response. This happens in a complicated feedback loop that starts when blood pressure accumulates in the aortic arch above the heart and the carotid arteries in the neck. The final result is that they quiet the “chatterbox” centers within the brain itself so that we can have some peace and quiet.
Not everyone can or should do inversions
Students with high blood pressure are advised against aggressive inversions such as headstand, shoulderstand, or plow. Certain students who have lost their cervical curve are at serious risk when doing headstand or shoulderstand. Students with degenerative bone disease or detached retinas are also strongly discouraged. Functionally, we were not made to put all of our body’s weight on the neck bones, whether in flexion, extension or neutral. A healthy headstand or shoulderstand needs strong arms, shoulders, and core muscles to displace some of the body’s weight from the neck and skull. When settling in for an inversion, give yourself some time, make sure your practice space is quiet and warm, and dim the lights for an optimum result of calm.
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Inversions do not increase blood supply to the head or brain (or anywhere else). The body autoregulates both blood pressure and blood supply, particularly to the brain.
For those looking for a more “restful” inversion, try legs up the wall (viparita karani)… It’s heaven on earth! 🙂
Meanwhile, you can use the Sanskrit names for the Asanas, you are among Yogis now.
So, for instance, Halasana instead of the Plow-pose.
Thank you for the great article!
I had never heard that inversions turn off the fight or flight stress response, but it makes perfect sense.
I had always attributed the quiet mind of headstand to the need to keep my mind on what I’m doing or risk toppling over. 🙂
Right now I’m on day 76 of a commitment to 90 days of shoulder stand.
Early on I developed tinnitus, and a heavy feeling at the back of my neck.
I did some research, and found, in Donald Moyer’s book, Yoga: Awakening the Inner Body, a setup that not only banished those negative effects, but has been leading me into an increasingly clear understanding of the pose – which is good because I hope to keep doing it daily until I’m in my nineties.
(Yikes, I see in Rodmell Press ad below that Donald’s book shows up. Cool.)