It’s the first Monday of the month and that means it’s time to Ask a Yogini. Each month, I’ll answer a question about yoga – anything that you’re curious about. Chances are, if you have the question, someone else does too!
Disclaimer: While I am a certified yoga instructor, I am not your yoga instructor. Please exercise caution and honor your own body. These views are mine alone, based on my own experiences. Always consult a certified yoga instructor for additional guidance and assistance.
If you look at Instagram, it often seems like yoga is all about practicing inversions – handstands, headstands, forearm stands, etc. However, inversions are just one of several classes of postures in yoga – inversions, standing postures, balancing postures, forward bends, twists, backbends, seated postures, hip openers and arm balances.
And they are an important part of a well-rounded yoga practice.
Inversions like handstands and forearm stands can be exhilarating and heat building, and they can activate the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. your flight-or-fight response). Inversions like headstands and shoulderstands (especially when they are included in a closing sequence of a yoga practice) can be calming and can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. rest-and-digest response). Practicing inversions can bring up a lot of fear and anxiety. They can also build confidence.
Technically, an inversion in yoga is anything that brings your hips above your heart and your heart above your head. Downward-facing dog can be considered an inversion.
There are a number of benefits of practicing yoga inversions.
1. Gives your heart a break
When you are upright, gravity pulls the tissues and fluids in your body downwards, including blood. In order to return deoxygenated blood back to the heart, your heart has to work hard to help pump the fluid upwards and against gravity. When you are upside down, you reverse the blood flow in your body and it encourages venous return – the return of blood flow back to the heart. As a result, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
2. Helps your lymphatic system
In a similar way, inversions in yoga encourages the flow of lymph back to the heart. Your lymphatic system is a key part of your immune system. It’s like a big drainage system in your body, collecting extra lymph from body tissues and helping to fight infection. However, the lymph system relies on movement and pressure to move the lymph fluid. Inversions help encourage the flow of lymph back to the heart.
3. Energizes you and builds confidence
This reason is less biological and more psychological. When you hit a handstand for the first time, there’s no other feeling like it. It’s energizing and makes you feel confident.
4. Improves your balance
Inversions add another dimension to balance training. It also forces you to learn to sense your body in space in a different way (proprioception). For me, I have a really hard time sense up from down, left from right when I’m upside-down. Inversions help me create better body awareness.
5. Builds core strength
It seems like everything builds core strength these days but inversions in yoga really do. When we stand, we can get away with being lazy in our posture and let our core sag. You can’t really do that when you’re upside-down and you have to engage your core in order to stay upright.
6. Forces you to focus
It’s really hard not to focus when you are trying to balance your body while upside-down.
7. Releases your ego and helps you practice non-attachment
Because inversions are hard and humbling and tough, it’s a great way to practice non-attachment. It’s not about nailing the pose or doing some complicated variation of the pose. It’s about being in the moment and knowing that you can’t just muscle your way upside-down. I mean, you could but it’s wouldn’t be the best thing for you physically or mentally.
8. Provides a new perspective
Literally, flipping yourself on your head provides you with a new physical perspective that often bleeds into your every day life. Combined with #7, you can start to see things a bit more clearly and your priorities become clear.
But here’s the thing, inversions aren’t for everyone. I’ve definitely struggled with inversion aversion. Inversions aren’t a merit badge that you earn on your way to being a yogi. There is no rush to get upside-down.
Build up to it and work on the postures that will help you get there. Modify when necessary and use props if you need to. For example, I typically recommend using two blankets for shoulderstand.
Also? Please focus on alignment. Half expressions of inversions are a great place to work the pose, hone alignment and receive many of the benefits without being fully inverted. This includes downward-facing dog for handstand, dolphin pose for forearm stand and bridge pose for shoulderstand. Legs-Up-The-Wall pose is always a great option.
Know that your yoga inversion practice will change over time and even day-to-day.
Do you practice yoga inversions? Do you have other questions about yoga? Let me know!
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