EFFECTS OF YOGA INVERSIONS

 

What is an inversion?

An inversion is categorized as any asana, or yoga pose, in which the head is below the heart and hips. The body is inverted from its normal upright position. Yoga inversions can vary in difficulty and should be selected based on experience, health conditions, and history of injury.

 

Examples of inversions include forward fold, downward-facing dog, legs-up-the-wall, headstand, and shoulderstand. Some inversions promote restoration and relaxation, while others are more challenging and invigorating. Higher level inversions can be modified with the use of blocks or walls to allow for beginners to still experience all the benefits.

 

Positioning the head below the heart and hips is thought to provide a variety of benefits to the nervous, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems. Some of these benefits are just theories while others have been studied through research. 

 

FORWARD FOLD

 

 

DOWNWARD-FACING DOG

 

 

LEGS UP THE WALL

 

 

HEADSTAND

 

Potential Benefits of Inversions

♦ Improve circulation

When performing inversions such as legs-up-the-wall or headstand, gravity promotes the flow of fluid from the lower extremities toward the heart via the lymphatic and venous systems. Improved lymphatic drainage can decrease pain, swelling, and discomfort in lower limbs. Legs up the wall is a gentle beginner inversion that can be used to promote the flow of fluid back to the heart and decrease fluid retention in the legs. Elevation is a widely used technique to help manage swelling in the legs and feet following injury and some surgeries. 

♦ Increase balance and strength

Some of the more challenging inversions, such as headstand and shoulder stand, require focus, core stabilization, and strength to hold the body in a steady position against gravity.

♦ Increase flexibility

Inversions such as legs up the wall and forward fold can help lengthen and stretch the hamstrings. Downward-facing dog stretches muscles along the entire body including lats, hamstrings, calves, ankles, and feet. 

♦ Spinal Decompression 

Inversions like forward fold, when the head is below the hips without the head being in contact with the floor, can promote spinal decompression. In theory, this inverted position takes gravitational pressure off the nerve roots and disks in your spine and increases the space between vertebrae. This may temporarily relieve back pain or radicular symptoms. 

♦ Gives you a different perspective of life

Literally. Sometimes flipping upside down and seeing things from a different angle can help the mind process and interpret life from a new perspective.  


Physiological Effects of Inversions 

A study by Pullen in 2020 looked at cardio-pulmonary physiology during yoga inversion practice. 12 yoga practitioners participated in 17 trials of a yoga flow involving standing, supine, and inversion postures. Blood pressure (BP) was recorded during the last 30 seconds of each posture using an AlphaMed fully automatic BP monitor. Heart rate (HR), oxygen consumption (VO2), and respiratory quotient were collected every 10 seconds using a portable metabolic device.

The yoga flow consisted of the following postures with various transitions:

  • Tadasana (standing mountain pose)
  • Utkatasana (chair pose)
  • Savasana (supine corpse pose)
  • Viparita Karani (legs up the wall)
  • Sirsasana (supported headstand)

 

Data analysis between yoga poses found a statistically significant increase in systolic BP, diastolic BP, VO2, and HR when transitioning from supine resting position to an inverted supported headstand. Conversely, diastolic BP, VO2, and HR all decreased when transitioning from standing mountain pose to legs up the wall inversion.

 

The data revealed an overall trend of decrease in BP, HR, VO2, and rate pressure product when transitioning from standing mountain pose to supine resting pose to legs up the wall inversion. These values were compared with a study by Boone which also looked at the physiologic affects of transitioning from standing to an inverted position. Decrease in HR was the only variable that agreed between the two studies. However, another study by Heng showed an increase in heart rate for the same transition. 


There is varying evidence regarding the physiology of inversions. However, there does seem to be benefits of practicing yoga inversions with few negative side effects. Contraindications for practicing inversions do include history of stroke or heart disease, glaucoma, high blood pressure, cardiopulmonary disorders, and history of head or neck injury. If you have a history of underlying conditions or injury, check with your doctor before experimenting with inversions. 

 

Written by Hannah Sweitzer, DPT, OCS, CSCS

 

References

  1. Baskaran M, Raman K, Ramani KK, Roy J, Vijaya L, Badrinath SS. Intraocular pressure changes and ocular biometry during Sirsasana (headstand posture) in yoga practitioners. Ophthalmology. 2006 Aug;113(8):1327-32. doi: 10.1016/j.ophtha.2006.02.063. Epub 2006 Jun 27. PMID: 16806478.
  2. Boone, T. & Johns, K. (1989). Cardiorespiratory and hemodynamic responses to inversion and inversion with sit-ups. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 29(4), 346-357.
  3. Heng MK, Bai JX, Talian NJ, Vincent WJ, Reese SS, Shaw S, Holland GJ. Changes in cardiovascular function during inversion. Int J Sports Med. 1992 Jan;13(1):69-73. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1021238. PMID: 1544738.
  4. LeMarr JD, Golding LA, Crehan KD. Cardiorespiratory Responses to Inversion. Phys Sportsmed. 1983 Nov;11(11):51-7. doi: 10.1080/00913847.1983.11708682. PMID: 27398663.
  5. Pullen P, Seffens W. Cardio-Pulmonary Physiology during Yoga Inversion Practice. Department of Kinesiology, University of North Georgia, Gainesville, GA USA. November 12, 2020. DOI: 10.35831/soyr/ps2020