Most people spend their entire waking lives walking and sitting upright, their hearts always below their heads and pumping hard to send oxygenated blood throughout the body. While this is certainly how our bodies were designed to function, inversion yoga poses are used to ease the burden on our hearts as well as offering many other benefits you might not expect.
Gravity takes its toll on our bodies, and, over the years, we begin to see the effects taking hold. We see fluid retention in our tissue, poor circulation, spinal pain and more. Inversions quite literally turn the force of gravity upside down, allowing your tissues to drain, congestion to clear, and your heart to pump more easily and efficiently as blood makes its way through your vital organs. When done correctly and consistently, inversions can have a positive effect on your lymphatic system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, and more.
Benefits of practicing inversions in yoga
Inversion poses have many health benefits, yet the ability to receive those benefits depends as much on one’s capacity to comfortably hold and deeply breathe in these sometimes challenging postures. If you find these postures uncomfortable or difficult, you will likely be better off practicing modifications or merely working on other yoga poses that strengthen these areas. There are five significant benefits you can expect to experience from practicing inversions.
- Lower blood pressure. Because inversions increase the fluids moving toward the heart, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to circulate oxygenated blood properly throughout the body. With the flow of blood within your body reversed, you’ll experience lower blood pressure, a slower heart rate, and a sense of calm and well-being. This can be especially helpful for those with a history of high blood pressure, but you will need to practice very mild and gentle inversions if your blood pressure is elevated.
- Relief from back pain. Spinal pain is often exacerbated by the pressure of gravity, which is why so many people who suffer from back pain have to spend a significant amount of time laying down. Inversions relieve the pressure on the spine by reversing gravity’s force, allowing it to gently pull the spine in the other direction. This can improve your posture and alleviate back pain, giving you an alternative to laying flat on your back to relieve the discomfort.
- Improved lymphatic drainage. When the lymphatic system isn’t working as well as it should, we experience inefficient circulation, fluid retention and a buildup of waste materials. It’s no surprise that gravity can cause fluids to pool in our lower extremities, but it might surprise you to learn how sluggish and uncomfortable that can feel. Inversions help your lymphatic system work properly, helping fluids drain correctly and ensuring your body filters to properly to remove waste. Your stimulated lymphatic system can improve your immune response, minimize fluid retention, alleviate congestion and help with problems caused by an inefficient lymphatic function like varicose veins and edema.
- Energize the body and mind. If you are feeling tired, dull or depressed, practice an inversion for a few minutes to help turn your mood upside down. Strong inversions like Handstand, Headstand, and Forearm Balance move blood, energy and oxygen to the brain, giving it a boost of revitalization
- Build confidence. Full inversions require a lot of core strength, focus, and balance. The determination and grit needed to master the advanced inversions will transfer off your yoga mat as increased self-esteem and confidence.
Common beginner inversion poses
There are several mild and easy poses that bring the head below the heart and the legs above the heart. Practicing these beginner inversions will give you many of the benefits without any of the cautions that more advanced poses can create. Several of these will also build up the upper body and core strength that is needed for full inversions.
- Legs up the Wall Pose or Half Shoulderstand (Viparita Karani)
- Forward Fold Pose (Uttanasana)
- Prasarita Padottanasana or Wide-Legged Forward Bend
- Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
- Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
- Headstand Prep Pose (Sirshasana)
- Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)
- Dolphin Pose (Ardha Pincha Mayurasana)
Traditional inversion poses
There are several traditional inversion poses that should only be learned from a qualified yoga instructor. We have listed these poses from intermediate to advanced level of difficulty.
- Knee to Ear Pose (Karnapidasana)
- Plow Pose (Halasana)
- Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana)
- Wheel Pose (Chakrasana)
- Crow Pose (Kakasana)
- Headstand (Salamba Shirshasana)
- Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
- Feathered Peacock Pose (Pincha Mayurasana)
- Scorpion Pose (Vrischikasana)
Tips for practicing inversions in yoga
Many of the Inverted yoga poses are challenging and considered advanced asanas. Be aware that inversions require patience and careful attention to your abilities and to how your body feels.
- Check for medical conditions. Make sure your instructors are aware of any injuries or conditions you may have so they can tell you which poses are right for you. Previous neck injuries or especially high blood pressure may mean you cannot practice specific inversions.
- Be gentle. Never force an inversion, or any other pose, if it doesn’t feel right. Ask your instructor to help you make sure you move into each inverted posture with care, comfort, and ease to avoid injury.
- Study up. Research the prerequisite postures for the inversions you want to learn and practice those to build strength, flexibility, and alignment awareness.
- Move slowly and mindfully. Resist the temptation to jump into inverted poses. Moving into them slowly will build core strength and provide the awareness and mindfulness to achieve proper alignment.
- Protect the neck. Many inversions will require you to use your upper arm and core strength to prevent excess weight and pressure on the cervical spine. Do not move the neck in any asana where there is weight or pressure on it–instead, come out of the pose to readjust.
- Be present. Challenging poses require 100% of your focus and concentration. If you are feeling distracted and scattered, skip inversions until your mind is more centered and still. Use a Drishti to cultivate focus and concentration.
- Find support. Practice inversions against a wall for support as you start learning the pose. You can alternatively work with a partner to support you as you practice these poses.
- Try an inversion workshop. If you want more detailed instructions on how to properly execute inversions, try taking a workshop on inversions. Many studios offer short two-hour yoga workshops to help you explore proper alignment and receive personal instruction for a safe progression into inversion poses.