Take any yoga class and chances are you’ll be asked to turn upside down. Most yogis swear by such inversions, claiming they offer a slew of benefits, from calming the nervous system to stimulating the brain. But is upending yourself safe?
While inversions are typically defined as any pose (asana) in which your head is lower than your heart, they can vary in exerted effort and impact, says LivingHealthy expert Cora Wen, a yoga therapist whose clients include Mariel Hemingway and Ben Folds. Postures such as headstands (which Wen practices daily) or handstands—where body weight is balanced on the head or hands—are strengthening and energizing. Inversely, poses such as forward bend or downward dog—where the feet are grounded and the head hangs freely—are more restorative.
According to Wen, both types change the circulation pathway in the body. And that reversal of blood flow feels good. After three to five minutes in a headstand, you can feel the fluids start to drain out of the feet and legs. No wonder doctors recommend elevating the feet once a day (legs up-the-wall in the yoga world) to help relieve heaviness around the ankles and prevent varicose veins.
However, does all that blood flowing from your feet to your head really enhance mental clarity, as many yogis believe? The jury is still out, says physical medicine and rehabilitation and pelvic pain specialist Allyson Shrikhande, MD, of New York Bone and Joint Specialists. “Inverting does increase blood flow to the brain, but there is no medical proof that this really helps neurological function,” she says.
While people with high blood pressure should check with their doctors before doing inversions, there isn’t much risk of injury with these postures. “The bones and discs of the spine are rarely injured during inversions. More often, the injury is a muscle strain, leading to spasm and stiffness in your neck,” says Shrikhande, who does recommend that people with existing cervical injuries or issues be evaluated by a doctor first for clearance. “A patient who has instability in the spine should not do inversions, and those with arthritis and or degenerative disc disease should practice with caution,” she warns. “Listen to your body—if something is hurting, come down.”
If you’re scared to kick your feet up or fear flipping over, Wen suggests using a wall for support. “It’s a great safety net—both physically and psychologically,” she says. Good form is also critical. “In a headstand, for instance, you should be on the crown of your head, and you don’t want to just sink all of your weight onto your head—you should be ‘lifting’ up towards the ceiling with your legs, out of your torso,” Wen explains. “A shoulder stand shouldn’t be a neck stand,” she adds. “I see people putting all that weight on their necks when it should be on the shoulders.” If you find your neck tends to be flat on the mat, Wen recommends rolling a blanket under your shoulders to raise it up.
Whether you prefer to stay grounded in downward dog or attempt more challenging headstands and handstands, inverting comes with a bonus. “You’re seeing the world from a whole new perspective,” describes Wen. And that may be worth turning upside down for.