Inversions:- Should you be doing a Headstand

Inversions have become a popular by-word lately. An Inversion is a Yoga term for any position that results in the heart being above the head. Instagram is full of people modelling a Headstand and calling it “the King of all Yoga Poses”. They are right in a sense, it is rightly the King of all Yoga poses but the reason why and the benefits often get misunderstood. We are going to provide an in-depth look at inversions and tell you why the Headstand may not be the pose you want to practice.

People often list all the same benefits of Headstands. We disagree with most of them. We will tell you why and then tell you the real benefits you may gain from Headstands, if any. The most commonly and wrongly listed benefits include:

  1. Supply fresh blood to the face and brain
  2. Supply more blood and better oxygenated blood to the head
  3. Decompress the spine
  4. Flush your body of toxins in certain areas
  5. Get rid of back pain
  6. Relieves stress and increases focus

Inversions provide fresher and more blood to the brain

Blood is part of an intricate but simple circulatory system. Fresh blood is pumped away from the heart into aorta and then arteries. This blood flow is absorbed into numerous capillary beds which reduce the pressure, speed and volume of the blood flow and make it usable by tissue and organ cells. Blood moves out of those beds into venules and then veins, which lead to the heart. The used blood is then sent to the lungs and then back to the heart in a closed cycle. Since the pressure is vastly reduced in the capillary beds, used blood does not benefit from the pumping action of the heart. Instead, it relies on the movements of the walls of the vessels and the movement of the actual musculoskeletal system.

Nowhere in this system do you benefit from being upside down. Blood does not rely on gravity. Even the used blood in the veins is not transported any faster or better by being in an inversion. Also, the brain has a very sensitive layer called the Blood Brain Barrier, which does not like imbalances in blood flow and will act to smoothen them out.

So, we can see, that being inverted would do absolutely nothing significant to blood flow to the brain and head. You may get a flushed face, but most of that is the exercise and some it is due to the slowing of blood as it tries to pool in the head. Both good and bad blood, which sometimes leads to that “lightheaded” feeling. If you want a better circulatory system, you must exercise, especially because movement is the only thing that aids in used blood getting back to the heart.

Even if this claim was true, a simple Wide Leg Forward Fold(an Inversion pose), would produce the same “rush” of blood to the head. The weight placed on the head should not matter.

a girl performing the Wide Leg Forward Fold in yoga which is a great Inversion pose
Wide Leg Forward Fold is a great Inversion pose

Inversions decompress the spine

The only way for you to decompress your spine is to extend it. Sounds simple enough, but the act of resting your whole weight on your neck and skull in a headstand does not decompress the spine. Rather, it just compresses it the other way, in which, it is not meant to be load bearing. There are various Yoga asanas such as Cat-Cow that are much better at the job of decompressing your spine without exposing you to the dangers of a Headstand done incorrectly. Some more simple ones are Palm tree stretch and Child pose. You can also do various poses with bands to anchor one end of your body while you extend the other. However, a regular Yoga practice will keep your spine and back nice and supple , allowing you to avoid this issue. An Inversion that will truly stretch your back is the simple Forward Fold.

Cat - Cow is one of the easiest spinal decompression techniques
Cat – Cow is one of the easiest spinal decompression techniques
Forward Fold-An Inversion for stretching your back.
Forward Fold-An Inversion for stretching your back.

Flush toxins

This myth is probably the most confusing one as there seems to be zero basis for truth. Flushing toxins from your body is a complicated process involving the intestines, the Circulatory system, the Respiratory system, the Kidneys, the Liver, and Lymphatic system. All the toxins are processed and carried to the various organs by blood and lymph. The lymph vessels work with the veins and use movement to push fluid just like veins. As we already discussed, being inverted does little to help that. Exercise helps lymph fluid flow just like it helps venous blood flow. Exercise helps the walls of the intestines process waste better and clean themselves using Peristalsis(movement of the walls).

Inversions help with Back Pain

Back pain comes in numerous forms. To vaguely think that putting all of your weight on your neck will help back pain is just dangerous. If the back muscles are contracted the physical motions used to help are different than if the back muscles were over-stretched. Compressing your back the other way may help in some instances, but the relief would only be temporary. You cannot walk around upside down. If your back is in pain from standing up, then the cause needs to be figured out, and if decompression is required then try other Yoga poses discussed above. Not to mention anyone with defined spinal problems should stay away from putting weight on an inverted spine.

Relieve stress and increase focus

As we have mentioned in another post, meditation is the number one key to stress relief. Stress is a bodily reaction to stimulus. Putting the body in an unfamiliar situation is not the answer to relieving stress. Stress relief requires contemplation. If you want to practice an Inversion that allows for a more grounded, contemplative stage, try the Dolphin pose. Adding a Dolphin pose into your daily practice will mentally and physically prepare you for the full reversal that comes with a Forearm stand, because you’re, more or less, already halfway there in this asana.

Dolphin pose can let you take a moment to think in an inverted state
Dolphin pose can let you take a moment to think in an inverted state

Any real benefits to Inversions? and Why do Yogis do Headstands?

Take a moment to think of what might happen if you were to make your upper body hold the weight of your whole body. Forget the Headstand for now, we are discussing all Inversions. If you were to gradually train your upper body to hold such weight , it would result in a much stronger upper body. Which is why most people can kick harder than punch, most people have stronger lower bodies. So let’s say you did a Shoulder stand or a Hand stand or a Forearm stand. All of those are Inversions which would give you all the feelings of being inverted without straining your neck or head. They would also

  1. Improve upper body strength.
  2. Improve balance.
  3. Develop command over body.
  4. Develop all the small supporting muscles in your body by forcing them to work in another direction.
Shoulder stand- A Functional Inversion that allows movement of legs for further core development
Shoulder stand- A Functional Inversion that allows movement of legs for further core development

A Shoulder stand might be an awesome building block to get used to the feeling of your legs being above your head. Keep in mind, though, just because this pose is accessible for most beginners, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. While you’re in your Shoulder stand, you’ll need to engage your legs, arms, and core the entire time, so that your spine isn’t carrying all of your weight. Because of this, Shoulder stand will strengthen your muscles from head to toe, and become a great bridge toward more advanced inversions.

If you’re craving a solid handstand practice, but you want to build the strength to kick up to the wall, T-stands are the perfect inverted exercise for you. Make sure your hands are directly underneath your shoulders when you’re practicing wall T-stands, and keep those fingers spread out nice and wide, just like in your Downward Dog . Activate your core by pulling in your belly, and target your leg muscles by squeezing your glutes. Great thing about this is you can literally stop your legs at every point on the way up and allow your core time to feel and build on every step. You can work your way up to holding it for longer periods of time, when you’re more confident and stable in your T-stand.

wall t stand is an easy inversion that lets you work up to holding your full weight
Wall T-Stand is an easy Inversion that lets you work up to holding your full weight

As a yoga teacher, I can tell you that Inversions require tons of core activation, shoulder strength, mental focus, deep breathing, and practice. As to why Yogis do Headstands, why is it called the King of all poses? The reason for that is simple. It is a celebration of the fact that you have strengthened your body so much you can balance and control your whole weight on any angle and muscle. A whole humans weight on the neck is meant to show the strength of the human and should only be tried when it’s so easy that it poses no harm. It’s important to take it slow, and respect your body’s signals when you start advancing your practice, which is why I have included yoga inversion poses for beginners above, which will help you to develop the strength and confidence required to get upside down.

You must strengthen many muscles in your body before you attempt a Headstand safely. It is very easy to injure yourself.

Remember the benefits are there for you no matter what stage you are at. Once you master these moves, you’ll be standing on your hands with ease before you know it.