Allegra Burton, MPH, RD
Santa Monica, CA
Come one, come all
Who knew that getting upside down could be so good for you? Inversions, the broad term for yoga poses that involve getting at least some part of your body upside down, are a key component of any yoga practice – and they’re not just for advanced yogis. Any pose that gets your head below your heart or your feet above your head can be considered an inversion and offers a number of benefits.
Whether you have been practicing for years or have never seen a yoga mat, there are inversions that you can – and should – do to stay healthy and active. Read on to learn about different inversion poses and what they can do for your mind, body, and spirit.
The benefits of inversions are many. Getting upside down has positive effects on four major body systems:
- Circulatory / cardiovascular systems – leads to increased blood flow and circulation and encourages venous return.
- Lymphatic system – strengthens the immune system by increasing circulation and drainage of lymphatic fluid.
- Nervous system – increases mental alertness and clarity.
- Endocrine system – stimulates the endocrine system, or the fast network of glands in your body that release hormones. Inversions positively influence gland secretion, enabling the system to withstand greater stress and strain.
In addition, inversions help strengthen the core and diaphragm, improve balance and body awareness, and counter the effects of gravity on the body. Plus, inversions can really change your world – getting upside down gives you a new perspective – literally and figuratively! Many of us haven’t gone upside down since we were kids — inversions require us to face our fears and enhance our ability to concentrate and stay focused.
There are a variety of inversions from which to pick and choose. Here are some examples, from basic to more advanced poses. Our list includes brief descriptions of each pose and links to more detailed explanations of how to correctly and safely get into each. Please refer to the links before trying any of these poses for the first time.
Legs up the wall. This is considered a restorative pose. Try it and you will see why. Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you and a wall to one side of you. Slowly lie down onto your back and bend your knees to your chest. Turn your body so that you are now lying on the floor with the wall in front of you and your tailbone up against – or close to – the wall. Straighten your legs so they lie against the wall with your feet up. (You may want to place a small towel under the small of your back and play around with supporting the natural arch in your lower back.) Rest your arms out at your sides perpendicular to your body, palms facing up. Ahhh…
Learn legs up the wall
Downward dog. One of the most basic of all yoga poses. Start on your hands and knees then straighten your arms and then your legs so that you are in an inverted “V” position. Keep arms and legs straight, hips lifted, legs and abdominals engaged, fingers and toes facing forward. Hands should be shoulder distance apart, feet hips distance apart. Make sure to keep your head low to relax tension in your neck and shoulders.
Learn downward dog
Dolphin. Start in downward dog – feet hips distance apart, hands shoulder distance apart and rooted firmly on the floor, fingers facing forward, hips up and body in an inverted “V” position. Engage core muscles and lower down onto your forearms, fingers facing forward and forearms in a straight line parallel to each other. (If this is too difficult, you can clasp your hands together in front of you, keeping elbows shoulder distance apart until you develop more strength and flexibility in your shoulders.) Focus on keeping your abdominal muscles engaged to hold your middle up and walk your feet in a little closer towards your arms.
Forearm balance. Start in dolphin pose. Until you are very comfortable balancing without a wall behind you, it is best to do this pose at the wall. With fingertips at the base of the wall, forearms parallel and shoulder distance apart, root palms and forearms into the floor, firm shoulder blades, engage your core, walk one foot in and kick up to bring your legs straight up against the wall. Try to keep your body in a straight line, core and legs stay active and engaged. Your head should remain off the floor.
Learn forearm balance
Headstand. This is another pose that is best done against the wall until you are comfortable balancing on your own. Kneeling on the floor, interlace your fingers and rest the outsides of your forearms on the floor, elbows shoulder distance apart. Place the crown of your head on the floor between your palms. Your palms should form a sort of cradle for the back of your head as the crown rests on the floor. Straighten your legs and walk your feet in so that you are in an inverted V position. Firm shoulder blades against your back, engage your abdominals and lift your feet off the floor. Try raising both legs together, even if this means bending your legs. While engaging your core, lift your legs straight up so that your body is in a straight line. It is important to be sure not to let the weight of your shoulders collapse onto your head and neck.
Shoulder stand. Until your body becomes more comfortable in this pose it is best to start with supported shoulder stand using folded blankets. Fold and stack two blankets. Lie on your back on the blankets with your shoulders supported on the blankets and your head resting on the floor. Bend your knees and bring them towards your chest. Press your arms against the floor and curl up and lift your feet skyward as you brace your back with your hands, walking your hands up your back towards your upper back (away from your tailbone). Try to keep your elbows shoulder width apart and your body in a straight line perpendicular to the floor. Keep your legs straight and core engaged. Make sure to relax your neck muscles and keep your legs active.
Learn shoulder stand
Handstand. This may be the inversion that generates the most fear of falling in those who are not comfortable being upside down. However, once you build up your strength, endurance, and courage and are able to get into a handstand, you will feel that you have accomplished something truly great. Be sure to do this pose against the wall until you have mastered the pose and can balance on your own. Start in downward facing dog with fingertips a couple of inches away from the wall. With hands planted firmly on the floor, firm shoulder blades, core and arms, step one foot in towards your hands and kick up and lift both legs straight up against the wall. Try not to arch your back and keep your body in a straight line, core engaged.
Whether you want a gentle, restorative pose or one that is more invigorating and challenging, inversions offer a wealth of benefits and should be a regular part of your yoga practice. It may be a good idea to have a yoga teacher or an experienced yoga student spot you and help you get into each pose safely and correctly until you feel comfortable doing the poses on your own. Be safe, be engaged, and live it up – upside down!