I went shopping last week to pick up some essentials for my house…tissues, toilet paper,…you get the idea. Nothing very exciting, but I was at Costco where you never know what’s going to be around the next corner. As I was pushing my cart through the aisles, I came across an item I’ve been enamored with ever since I’ve been into yoga. I look at it from afar like someone might look at a pair of snazzy shoes or the latest electronic gadget. I know it’s not an essential, but I have an intangible certainty that it will improve my life.
A soundtrack is playing in my head. Coldplay’s ‘Rush of Blood To The Head’ followed by ‘God Put a Smile Upon Your Face’. What is this captivating find? It’s an inversion table. I want to be in it; I want that rush of blood and that smile. I want to be upside down.
For the most part, we spend our day upright or horizontal. Bringing our heart lower than our heads is generally a brief event - a quick forward fold to pick up a dropped item or tie a shoe. Many yoga styles literally turn this dynamic upside down with frequent use of inverted postures.
Yoga inversions can be gentle and passive as in Viparita Karani, legs up the wall pose. They can also be significantly more active as with Sirsasana, headstand. There is a wide range of poses in between that also qualify as inversions. Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog), Uttanasana (standing forward fold) and Halasana (plow) to name a few. Any time you put your head lower than your heart, you are in an inversion.
I use inversions to energize, quiet anxiety and ease headaches. I have seen these benefits in practice, but before I could confidently blog about them, I felt the need to find research to back up my experience. As a result it took me longer than usual to write this blog. It turns out there are a lot of claims, but only a small volume of scientific research to back them up. BKS Iyengar states that, “The practice of [inverted] asanas purges the body of its impurities, bringing strength, firmness, calm, and clarity of mind.” This sounds great, but how does this happen? To keep the topic manageably narrow, I chose to focus on the detoxifying and stress-reducing effects of inversions.
One means of detoxification is via our lymphatic systems. According to WebMD, the lymphatic system “carries lymph fluid, nutrients, and waste material between the body tissues and the bloodstream…The lymph nodes filter lymph fluid as it flows through them, trapping bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances, which are then destroyed by special white blood cells.” Dr. Andrew Weil says “Lymph fluid circulates as a result of muscular contraction, including the muscles used in breathing that support normal physical activity.” While standing yoga postures turn on the muscles of the lower body, yoga inversions activate the muscles of the upper body. The resulting muscle contractions help circulate upper body lymph fluid, encouraging detoxification.
Yoga also teaches us to become mindful non-judging observers of our experience. Desikachar, an authority on yoga, writes that “yoga attempts to create a state in which we are always present—really present—in every action, in every moment.” In an eight-week program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a blend of mindfulness meditation and yoga helps patients cope with stress and illness. Over 200 medical centers and clinics in the US and elsewhere now use this Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) method.
If any set of yoga postures requires moment-to-moment mindfulness, it has to be inversions. You might be able to get by letting your mind wandering when you are in Sukhasana (simple sitting pose), but try that in Sirsasana (headstand) and you most certainly risk collapsing out of the posture. Alternatively, stay tuned in to the internal cues you are getting in each moment and you are likely to develop a sense of relaxed ease in the inversion.
After all the research I did to find scientific evidence, I realized that none of the evidence is as important as how you feel about your yoga practice. Getting on your mat and experiencing inversions for yourself is the only research anyone really needs to do.