Inversions are poses that involve you lifting your legs and feet above your head. There are a number of them and they can range from exceptionally simple, safe, restful and easy (like Viparita Karani), to ridiculously challenging (like Adho Mukha Vrksasana).
I have found that students are often intimidated by inversions and some even have a pronounced degree of fear when approaching them. However, many are surprisingly easy once you know how to safely and effectively approach them. This is especially the case given adequate focus on alignment, core strength, and a good deal of patience. In my own practice I have learnt that there is no way getting around the mantra of ‘try, and try again’ (and smile!). Inversions remind us to laugh at ourselves.
Once you do execute a couple of inversions with control and poise, it builds a tremendous amount of self-confidence, and many students in class seem to find their commitment and love for yoga most prominently through the joy of being upside down! Inversions provide a refreshed perspective of the world (and yourself). You emerge from them startlingly focused and awake. This could be due to the flood of freshly oxygenated blood that fills the brain.
There are four major systems in the body that the practice of inversions is considered to influence in a positive and healthy way: the cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine. This means that they do more than just detoxify the body, and if you are interested in a discussion on more benefits (and reasons to take caution) then refer to this superb article here. Or, if you can, get your hands on B.K.S Iyengar’s comprehensive book on yoga for healing and maintaining health. Iyengar was an advocate of holding inversions for lengthy periods of time on a daily basis. He called Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) the ‘king of asanas’. It is said that he maintained a headstand for 10 minutes every day right up until his death at 97 years.
Sump pump your internal sewage network
The lymphatic system manages waste removal, fluid balance, and immune system response in your body. Lymph vessels are active in the capillary beds of the circulatory system, yet they simultaneously comprise of a distinct system that transports and filters stray proteins, waste materials, and extra fluids. Yoko Yoshikawa, a renowned Iyengar teacher, compares the lymphatic system to a sewage system for a city: “an intricate, underground network tied to every house in town - that keeps the citizens healthy”.
To extend this analogy, inversions have the effect of a “sump pump in the basement, propelling sewage into the pipeline”. This is because the lymphatic system comprises of one-way valves that keep lymph fluid moving towards the heart via muscular movement, and then is dependent upon gravity to facilitate its return. When you are inverted, there is a charge of stimulation (flushing) throughout the system. This is powerful ‘detox-rush’. It also has the resultant effect of strengthening your immune system.
In a 1992 Yoga International article on the circulatory system, it was argued that if you remain in an inverted posture for just 3 to 5 minutes, blood will drain quickly to the heart in a process known as ‘venous return’ (like backwashing a water system). This is particularly important as you get older, and can only be replicated by running or exercising with extreme force, which is energy sapping, and often tough on the joints. If you perform ‘venous return’ whilst in a relaxed and calm state, however, you give the heart a break - the pumping of hard exercise is replaced by an oxygen-rich gravitational flushing.
Moreover, during this 3 to 5 minute inversion, the tissue fluids are able to flow more efficiently into the lymph canals and veins of the lower half of the body in particular. This includes the abdominal and pelvic organs, thus facilitating a robust and healthy exchange of nutrients and wastes between cells and capillaries.
This point is reiterated in traditional Indian medicine. Ayurvedic knowledge repositories have emphasised that many of the bodily impurities are processed in the lower abdominal area. When you are inverted, gravitation pulls dictate that the impurities move towards the ‘digestive fire’ (‘jahrta agni’), located in the central part of the digestive tract. This transition enables your body to effectively ‘burn off’ (metabolise) impurities and then expel them through the deep exhalations yoga practice promotes and the normal avenues of fluid/solid waste excretions.
It is therefore important to integrate inversions into your regular yoga practice. The more regularly you hang out upside down, the more sustained and palpable the benefit. I should add a word of caution however. If you suffer from hypertension, challenging inversions are dangerous. I would also caution women to avoid inversions altogether whilst they are menstruating. If you have osteoporosis of the spine, any focused weight baring on the spine is to be avoided, or only done with careful and sound instruction/guidance. The same should be said for anyone with a history of serious neck/back injuries.
There is one inversion that anyone can do at anytime (apart from women on their cycle - just for those few days) and that is Viparita Karani. This is a restorative pose that has all the health benefits of inversions, but involves no spinal/neck strain at all.
Lastly, in order to support and boost your lymphatic system naturally beyond the yoga mat, my mother who is a homeopath recommends ginseng and echinacea. Both are available widely. Dr Vogel’s Echinaforce is the tour de force of lymphatic system boosters - a daily dose of 30 drops in a little water an hour before breakfast is a sustainable preventative and safe for long term use.