Does the world look better if you turn it upside down? Ask any kid. Or any break dancer. For that matter, ask any Yogi or bodywork practitioner. They all enthusiastically agree that there are considerable health benefits to putting your feet up now and then. Not just putting them up but up and over your head and heart! It’s called an “inversion,” medically and yogically.
You don’t need rose-colored glasses to turn your world upside down and experience a newly refreshed you. You just need to be heels over head – and not for long. Even a few minutes of upside-down does the trick.
So-called Inversions (think headstands, handstands, and Down Dog) are health-boosting and life-extending. Going against gravity encourages venous return (deoxygenated blood moving back to your heart via the veins) and improves circulation. Being upside-down helps the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, sensory organs, and the face as well as the lower body. According to David Coulter, Ph.D., a former anatomy instructor at the University of Minnesota, in an inversion, fluids of the lower extremities drain far more effectively than when you’re asleep. According to Coulter, being in an inverted posture for just 3 to 5 minutes will prompt the blood to drain quickly to the heart, and facilitate an optimal exchange of nutrients and waste between cells and capillaries.
According to Pat Layton, physiology teacher for the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco’s Advanced Studies Program, inversions are an even healthier way to send benefits to the circulatory system, (especially as you get older) than doing cardio.
Being inverted not only gives your heart a rest and positively affects heart rate and blood pressure, but it also helps clear the sinuses. Some upside-down enthusiasts swear that even scalp and hair growth is improved. That’s not so far-fetched since your lymph system — which is responsible for excreting toxins from the body — gets a big assist from inverting. Inversions feel both energizing and calming; spiritually, Inversions are believed to impact the 7th chakra (crown chakra) which is thought to be the seat of immortality.
And last, but definitely not least, being in a non-habitual position like an inversion, encourages us to let go, to get out of our comfort zones, and trust in the Universe.
An inversion is any position where your hips are higher than your heart and your heart is higher than your head. That covers a lot of real estate — from the simple Child’s Pose to the sometimes scary handstand. Shoulder Stand, with the head well below the legs and the lower body (sometimes called the queen of all yoga poses), is said to promote better memory and overall brain function. But if headstands and handstands are not your thing, there are simpler inversions to choose from. Yoga offers us countless options. There is the standby Downward Facing Dog which is calming for the nervous system and a great stretch for the back, to even simpler semi-inversions like Puppy Dog Pose and the standing Forward Fold.
Yogis who have earned their upside-down stripes say the more inversions you do the longer you’ll live. Again, being upside down is what the crown chakra, your heart, and your nervous system all thrive on. What’s not to love?
Important Note: Is upside down the right thing for everybody? No, inversions may be contraindicated if you have hypertension, a history of stroke, pregnancy, glaucoma, spinal or neck injuries, inner ear issues, diabetes, or vertigo tendencies. If this is you, it’s wise to get a thumbs up from your health care professional before rolling out your mat.
Here are five DIY inversions (with modifications) to help your mind-body find the health benefits of heels-over-head. Aim to hold each for 3 -5 minutes. Relax and breathe. They’re better done shoeless and in comfortable clothes.
Downward Facing Dog
From a standing position, bend the knees and roll down to your toes, bending knees as needed, then walk the hands forward until your body is making an upside-down “V.” You can rest your palms on yoga blocks or rolled up blankets to take the pressure off your wrists. Or modify by placing your palms or forearms on the seat of a chair or small table creating more of an L shape. Take nice long rhythmic breaths.
Start on all fours. Then lower to your forearms and lift your knees so that you are again creating an inverted “V” shape but from your elbows to your hips, not from your wrists to your hips. Bend your knees as much as needed. Modify by placing blankets or bolsters under the forearms.
Legs up the wall
Perhaps the easiest and most effortless of all the inversions. Start on your back, hips flush with the wall. Inch buttocks close to the wall then place legs to let them rest on the wall. Cushion your head, and/or buttocks with bolsters, blankets, blocks.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold
Start upright then walk feet out to each side so feet are wider than the hips, again creating that upside-down “V” shape. With hands on hips, extend the upper body forward and down until your hands find the floor (for tight hamstrings, place palms on stacked blocks or blankets or bolsters).
Start lying down (preferably on a carpet or exercise mat) with feet on the floor and knees bent. Feet hip-distance apart, arms along the body. Curl the tailbone up off the floor and keep lifting until you have shifted your weight to your upper back. Keep the knees aligned. To make this more restorative, place a yoga block (or bolster, or rolled-up blankets) under the small of the back to support the weight of the body.