The physical practice of yoga was created as a means to rejuvenate the body and prolong life, and each pose offers specific benefits to not only your musculoskeletal system, but also your internal organs. Going upside-down is no different.
Although very little about yoga postures has been scientifically studied, some of the potential benefits of inversions include strengthening and stretching the upper body, promoting blood flow and calming the nervous system.
Types of Inversions
One-arm Handstand and Scorpion Handstand, where you bend backward in a handstand and touch the soles of your feet to the top of your head, are some of the most challenging inversions -- the poses with WOW value. But there are many types of inversion poses ranging from WOW to simply relaxing.
Downward Dog is considered an inversion. Of course, Headstand is an inversion, as are Forearm Stand, Shoulderstand and Plow pose. The supported posture often taught in restorative classes, Legs-up-the-wall pose, is also an inversion, but certainly quite different from a handstand.
With such variety, the specific benefits of each posture will differ. While handstand is fun and energizing, legs-up-the-wall is meant to calm and soothe. Any discussion of inversion benefits must be specific to the pose, but here are a few general benefits you can expect to experience with a regular inversion practice.
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Downward Dog, Headstand, Handstand, Shoulderstand, and Forearm Balance all take a great deal of upper body strength to perform and hold for any length of time. The hands, wrists, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, back and abdominal muscles all have to work very hard to get you into the posture, and to support you while you hold the pose for five, 10 or 15 breaths. The more often you practice the poses, the stronger you'll get.
Downward Dog pose, Plow pose and Legs-up-the-wall pose are great options for lengthening the muscles of the back body -- the back muscles as well as the glutes and hamstrings. Clasping your hands behind you in Plow pose opens your chest and stretches your shoulders. Even Handstand, Forearm Balance and Headstand can be lengthening postures if performed correctly. With the emphasis on pushing up out of the ground, pulling your shoulders away from your head and reaching your toes toward the ceiling, every part of your neck, spine and legs are actively lengthening.
Energizing and/or Calming
The restorative pose Legs-up-the-wall is a calming pose. You can even finish your practice in that posture. Your heart rate and breathing all come back to normal, and the effects of a vigorous practice culminate in complete rest and relaxation of the limbs.
Handstand, Headstand and Forearm Balance are undeniably invigorating postures. The heart rate and breathing increase, blood flows toward the head and you likely need a short rest when you come out of the posture.
Paradoxically, yoga poses can be both energizing and calming at the same time. This is true for many inversion poses. Downward Dog is used as an active resting posture in vinyasa yoga, a place to breath and calm the heart rate before the next sequence of postures. But it's not like resting in child's pose; you're still holding a fairly challenging inversion, staying energized for the poses to follow.
Shoulderstand is very similar. Usually practiced toward the end of a class, Shoulderstand is meant to begin to calm the body and breath and prepare it for the final resting posture. Still, your legs are straight up over your head in what can feel like a pretty precarious set up, and you really have to work to lengthen your body from your shoulders to your toes.
Benefits for the Circulatory and Lymphatic Systems
Other potential benefits haven't been thoroughly studied or proven by scientific research. Still, many experts claim that inversions improve circulation and the flow of lymph, a fluid that helps remove toxins from the body.
Yoga teacher Esther Ekhart, co-founder of Ekhart Yoga, writes on her website that going upside down aids venous return, or blood flow back to the heart form the rest of the body. She also explains that inversions increase the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, sensory organs and face, which might help cognitive function and even your sense of smell.
In the same way that going upside down promotes better blood flow, it may help your lymphatic system fight off infection and disease by helping to remove blockages. A headstand a day to fight the flu? Sure, why not.
Okay, okay, it's not a real benefit, but the fact is that once you get through the struggling phase of trying to hold your handstand or headstand, these types of challenging inversions are really fun! They make you feel strong, empowered, weightless, carefree and like a kid again. There's just no denying that FUN is a benefit of inversions -- or at least it should be.
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