Inversions - the act of purposefully turning yourself upside down - is contrary to our physiological drive. But there a ton of benefits if you can get it done. And you don't even have to stand on your head to reap the rewards!
It's all about working against gravity. As we go about our day, gravity continuously works its magic. Among other things, gravity keeps the blood in the torso and legs as we walk, which keeps the heart rate down and increases bone density (since walking is a weight-bearing activity). And it keeps us from floating into space. However, gravity also has some physiological downsides. Our skin, and everything underneath it, starts to sag. Varicose veins appear. Don't even get me started on all the foot problems.
The human body is full of fluid. It is made of over 60 percent water. All of these fluids get moved around the body continuously, as they are cleansed, washed, and utilized to keep us alive and healthy. When fluids don't move properly, the body has some problems. Think of a stagnant pond, compared to a moving stream. Which looks cleaner to you? The tissue fluids of the lower body drain while we are asleep. But it appears to be more effective if we can invert ourselves every once in a while.
According to David Coulter, Ph.D, who taught anatomy at the University of Minnesota and wrote an article on Headstand and the circulatory system, "If you can remain in an inverted posture for just 3 to 5 minutes, the blood will not only drain quickly to the heart, but tissue fluids will flow more efficiently into the veins and lymph channels of the lower extremities and of the abdominal and pelvic organs, facilitating a healthier exchange of nutrients and wastes between cells and capillaries."
The lymphatic system also performs more efficiently when upside down. Lymph travels through the body and gathers toxins to be eliminated by the lymph nodes. It's basically your sewage system. The lymphatic system has one-way valves that keep lymph moving towards the heart, so that when you are upside down, the system is stimulated and you end up healthier.
Basically, everything moves easier through the body when it doesn't have to fight against gravity. Circulation is improved because the blood flows more easily to the heart, rather than having to work it's way upstream from the lower body. More oxygen is also said to flow to the lungs. Inverting builds strength in the core, shoulders and arms. Finally, according to a Yoga Journal article by Yoko Yoshikawa, "Inversions may also affect the movements of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the juice of the central nervous system which flows from the brain to the spinal cord. The top of the skull receives intense pressure in Headstand, which, when properly done, may promote elasticity in the cranial bones, thus stimulating the production of CSF in the ventricles of the brain."
Yes, being upside down is good for you. But not everyone can, or should perform a headstand, shoulderstand or handstand. Before you attempt headstand or handstand, please consult with an experienced yoga teacher. There could be a variety of reasons these poses are not good for you. If you have high blood pressure, chronic pain in your neck or shoulders, or any vulnerability in your spine, you should stay away from headstands. Or if you simply aren't experienced enough to try it, just don't. Work with a teacher if you really want to try it, and go slow. A year to learn headstand is not too long. However, there are a variety of poses you can do that will not cause any long-term damage and still reap the benefits of being upside down. Here is the best one:
Just put your feet up! - Viparita Karani (legs up the wall) is a mild inversion that one can enjoy for at least five minutes with no stress to the body if you are tired, your feet or back are achy, or you are feeling ill. First you need a wall.
- Sit with your left side against the wall. If you are using a pillow, your low back should rest against that.
- Turn your body to the left and bring your legs up against the wall. Use your hands for balance as you shift around so that your back is on the floor or the pillow. Rest your shoulders and head on the floor.
- Scoot that booty right up to the wall. Your sits bones don't have to touch the wall, but your legs should be relaxed. If you have tight hamstrings, and find you can't straighten your legs against the wall, simply scoot back so the legs release. Just find the most comfortable spot for you. This should feel effortless.
- Once you are comfy, rest your hands by your side, palms facing up.
- Think about your femur dropping into the hip socket
- Close your eyes and hold for 5-10 minutes
- To get out of this, push yourself away from the wall and slide your legs over to the side. Use your hands to push yourself back up.
Just work on getting your feet up above your heart once a day, for 5 or 10 minutes, and you'll be amazed at how you start to feel!