Get upside-down!

‘Can you stand on your head?’ must be one of the most frequently asked questions when people discover I do yoga. Inversions possess an iconic quality and speak to the imagination. And yes. Yes, I do stand on my head. And my hands, forearms and shoulders. Almost daily. I love inversions, they are fun to do and they make me feel really good. But why?

scientific evidence

Looking at scientific research is not very helpful at this time – there have not been many studies to the physiological and physical, let alone to the mental or psychological effects of a regular inversion practice, and the few studies that have been conducted often lack in significant results. Does that mean, then, that inversions are nonsensical? Or is it just an indication of how little research has been done in this field? With some educated reasoning and expert opinions, I have tried to outline the possible benefits of a practice of inversions here.

A word of caution though: it is always best to learn inversions under the guidance of an expert teacher. And when you are new to yoga, don’t be in a hurry! Inversions take time to learn – and being able to get up into a headstand, for example, doesn’t mean you can immediately *do* the pose; it mainly means you have reached your starting point to learn the pose. If you start doing too much, too soon, chances of injury are very real.

Zero gravity

In the Netherlands, we’ve recently been flooded with news about Dutch astronaut André Kuipers who spent 6 months in the International Space Station. The devastating effects of zero gravity were clearly visible in the footage of the return of the astronauts in July 2012: the strong, fit astronauts had to be carried out of their vessel, and had trouble walking even weeks later. Loss of muscle mass and strength, and decreased bone density are the most eye-catching results of prolonged exposure to a zero-gravity situation. But since our cardiovascular circulation is also dependant on gravity, being in a zero-gravity environment will lead to blood-pooling in the chest and head and the extremities will have poor circulation. This goes to show that our circulatory system has evolved to work with gravity and has trouble functioning without it.

defying gravity – improved cardiovascular circulation

Some side-effects of gravity, however, are not so beneficial. It takes a lot of work from the vascular system to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the parts of the system that are above the pump (the heart) and also to retrieve blood from the lower parts of the body (think: varicose veins). Being upright for most of the day does take its toll. This is also one of the reasons why people with diseases or injuries are often encouraged to lie down – it reduces stress on the vascular system. It’s not a huge stretch to think that turning upside-down could also mitigate the effects of gravity on your circulatory system.

The cardio-vascular system might benefit from short periods of inversion, since circulation towards the head, heart and lungs is more efficient that way. It may temporarily lower your blood pressure and heart rate. David Coulter, author of Anatomy of Hatha Yoga writes in a 1992 Yoga International article on Headstand and the circulatory system “If you can remain in an inverted posture for just 3 to 5 minutes, the blood will not only drain quickly to the heart, but tissue fluids will flow more efficiently into the veins and lymph channels of the lower extremities and of the abdominal and pelvic organs, facilitating a healthier exchange of nutrients and wastes between cells and capillaries.”

Inversions also may improve circulation within your lungs. Being upright for lengthy periods saturates the lower parts of the lungs with blood, but inverting will ventilate the upper parts of the lungs, thereby promoting a more even oxygen-to-blood exchange and improving the quality of your lung tissue.

lymphatic system benefits

The lymphatic system could be positively influenced by inversions. This system is responsible for waste removal, fluid balance and immune system response. Lymph vessels transport proteins, fats, waste materials and extra fluids from tissues through lymph nodes and to the bloodstream. The lymph nodes produce immune cells to help the body combat infection, and filter the lymph fluid, removing foreign material such as bacteria and cancer cells. The lymphatic system does not have a pump, like the vascular system. It is dependant on muscular movement and gravity to move the lymph through the system. s a closed pressure system that has one-way valves (like the vascular system) that keeps lymph moving towards the heart. And when one turns upside down the pull of gravity helps to stimulate the lymph system. This is for instance why swollen ankles benefit from taking your feet up.

relieve stress on spine and muscles

There is some much quoted evidence from a study by L.J. Nosse indicating that spinal length increases and tension in superficial lumbar area musculature decreases with inversions. The pull of gravity will not only affect your circulatory systems, but also compresses the spine and taxes the muscles responsible for maintaining your upright posture into rigidity. Inversions, and in particular assisted inversions such as hanging upside down with ropes around your pelvis, will help your spine to decompress and the muscles surrounding the spine to let go.

calm the nervous system

Many people report on feeling a sense of calm and clarity when they come out of an inverted pose, especially headstand. This might have something to do with the increase of blood flow to the brain. Assumptions on how inversions create a base-line opening of blood vessels, making them more efficient at dilating and constricting to efficiently shunt blood to the active areas of the brain, have been made since the 1970′s and have since neither been proven nor invalidated.

endocrine system

Often, claims are made about the effect of inversions, shoulderstand in particular, on the hormonal system (especially through stimulation of the pituitary gland and thyroid by increasing the blood flow to those glands). There is not much scientific evidence for these claims, however on a case-by-case basis  yoga teachers report great progress in their work with women who suffer from problems around their menstrual cycle, menopause or fertility. Geeta Iyengar especially has done ground-breaking work on the application of yoga-asanas for women in different states of their life and a growing number of scientists are researching these subjects. However, so far none are focusing on the subject of inversions in relation to the hormonal system.

improve balance

In general, most of the claims above pertain to a form of balance, or homeostasis, in the various systems of the human body. Simply the act of balancing upside-down requires strength in the core muscles, great body awareness, and a fine-tuning of the way muscles are working together to stabilise all the joints. So to say, in general, that inversions improve balance is not too much of a gamble.

finally

While all the effects above might be scientifically likely benefits of inversions, many practitioners report other benefits, like better sleep and strong effects on the digestive system. Also, any activity that requires mindfulness and concentration, like balancing for a number of minutes in headstand, can improve your focus, and brighten up your mood. Doing things that give you the thrill of conquering your own fears, like jumping up into handstand, will give you a feeling of strength that transcends the physical level.

Plus, it’s fun ;-)

caution

People suffering from high blood pressure, detached retina, glaucoma, hernias, cardiovascular disease, cervical spondylitis, slipped discs, trombosis, arteriosclerosis, and kidney problems should refrain from practicing headstand and shoulderstand. Those suffering from neck injuries should seek advice from an experienced yoga teacher before beginning to practice headstand. It is advisable for women during menstruation to avoid inversions.

resources

  • Light on Yoga - BKS Iyengar
  • Yoga: A Gem for Women - Geeta S. Iyengar
  • Iyengar Yoga for Motherhood – Geeta S. Iyengar, Rita Keller & Kerstin Khattab
  • Yoga: a Path To Holistic Health - BKS Iyengar
  • Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness - Erich Schiffmann
  • Anatomy of Hatha Yoga – David Coulter

 

Adjusting the brain

“If your body can do more and you do not do it, that is unethical practice. Ethical discipline of the asana is when you extend correctly, evenly and to the maximum. The brain is the hardest part of the body to adjust in asanas. If the brain is silent but attentive while performing asanas, your practice is nonviolent.” -B.K.S. Iyengar

This is an interesting quote, isn’t it? Doing asana isn’t the hardest part. But doing your best and knowing and seeing yourself for what you are, knowing your own potential and your limits, that’s the hurdle to take. Listening to the ‘chatter’ that goes on inside and not letting it lead you away from your full potential (“this pose is so hard, I can’t do it. And I’m pretty tired actually. Or do I need to work harder? Pushpushpush… wait. Ouch. Is that a ‘good pain’ or a ‘bad pain’? This pose is so hard…”).

Finding that balance between practice and ‘letting go of the results’ is a key passage in one of the central texts in yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali says ‘practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of the mind’. Practice is the serious and steady repeated effort towards a goal. Practice can also refer to the first four limbs of the ‘ashtanga’, the eightfold path of yoga: yama (how to relate yourself to the world), niyama (how to relate to yourself), asana and pranayama.

Detachment refers to the process of disengaging oneself from the results of practice. The brain often wants to identify with what comes out of your practice – it has a need to feel either successful or unsuccessful, to compare itself to others, or to live either in the past or in the future. If you identify yourself too much with what comes out of your practice, it will only lead you away from true insight into who you really are. The last four limbs of the ‘ashtanga’ will lead you to this consolidation: turning inward of the senses, concentration, meditation and finally enlightenment.

But of course, the two need to be balanced. You need to discern the right actions from the wrong ones. Too much detachment can leave you paralysed and lethargic, unable to do anything. Too much practice will leave you tired, injured, empty and frustrated. The ability to see the truth in your process, to adjust the brain instead of just the body, is the real challenge.

Make time for yoga

When your schedule is full, is when you need yoga the most. You need clarity in your mind and relaxation in your body. But… people and tasks are pulling at you from all directions. Choosing for your yoga practice might seem like a selfish choice. However, if you choose to be for a few minutes, instead of just do, and to live instead of just work, it might make the rest of your day much easier. It’s just a question of priorities!

Having a few minutes of practice at home might make it easier to choose for your ‘reset-time’, if coming to a class is hard to work into your schedule. You can use what you’ve learned at your classes for your own practice, or take a book, dvd or youtube-video to inspire you. But remember that your own practice doesn’t necessarily need to be a copy of a group class – it can be shorter or longer, you can focus on a specific pose or group of poses or do a general sequence… do an active practice or relax in restorative poses. You can practice alone, with a friend or surrounded by your family, pets or kids. It can be the same thing every day or something completely different each time you hit your mat.

It’s yours, own it!

10 reasons to practice yoga

The relationship between the mind and the body is a complicated interaction between thoughts and emotions, the body and the outside world.  The integration of scientific medicine, psychology, nutrition, exercise physiology and the self-healing capacities of body and mind are not only part of many old cultures, but also a rapidly growing object of scientific studies.

We love yoga and think people should practice it just for the love of it as well… but we realise that the cynics amongst us might need some extra incentive, found in science.

So here are 10 great reasons to practice yoga, and some scientific evidence to back it up – and more and more work is being done!

  1. yoga diminishes the physical effects of stress: it can elicit the ‘Relaxation Response‘, lower levels of stress-hormone cortisollower blood pressure and slow down your heart rate;
  2. yoga helps to improve your mood and relieve depression;
  3. yoga can help you relieve and manage pain (different studies show promising results of using yoga in the management and improvement of lower back painosteoarthritis in the hands and the kneesjoint pain in cancer survivorsgeneral improvement of rheumatoid arthritis, );
  4. yoga improves your balance and reduces fear of falling;
  5. yoga improves your posture – and good posture is shown to have positive effects on your confidence, self-image and mental well-being;
  6. yoga improves 4 of the major components of physical fitness: strength, flexibility, endurance and coordination;
  7. the breathing techniques you learn in yoga improve your respiratory and cardio-vascular function;
  8. practicing yoga sometimes is good, but more often is better: there’s a correlation between practicing often and general health and well-being.
  9. physical well-being through exercise has proven to drastically improve work floor productivity and lessen the costs of health care.
  10. And, it’s fun! No scientific backing for that, just experiential evidence…

So: get away from your desk and start!

P.S Here’s an article about the physiological, psychological and biochemical benefits of yoga that sums it all up…

Why Iyengar Yoga?

There are many different styles of yoga nowadays. Here are some points that make Iyengar yoga different from other types of Hatha yoga classes:

  • props: we use blocks, belts, blankets, bolsters, ropes, chairs, walls or even other students to facilitate learning and to adjust asanas to individual needs. In this way we make asanas more accessible to every body, to challenge the student more, or to improve understanding.
  • alignment: correct alignment in asanas will develop strength, stamina, flexibility and balance, as well as concentration and meditation. Accuracy in the performance of asanas is not a goal in itself, but a tool, aiming to unite the body, mind and spirit for health and well-being. Everybody tends to overstretch in their more flexible areas and rely on better-developed muscles for strength. This will reinforce existing habits, and make you end up exactly where you started. In Iyengar yoga we aim to strengthen weak parts and release stiff areas, and hope to awaken and align the entire body.
  • timing: Iyengar yoga classes will give you generally more time in a pose to explore its effects and work on detailed alignment.
  • sequencing: in Iyengar yoga there is not one set sequence, but poses can be practiced in various orders for different effects or benefits. A sequence is a safe and systematic progression of yoga postures to develop each students ability and skill, both within each class and from class to class. It can be used to develop strength, flexibility, stamina, concentration and body alignment.
  • training of the teachers: there’s a well-regulated program one has to follow in order to be certified as an Iyengar yoga teacher. Instructors are evaluated on precise use of language, demonstration and teaching of specific points to develop understanding and intelligent action, and individual correction and adjustment of students when necessary.
  • therapeutic use of asana: the Iyengars have done, and are still doing, groundbreaking work in this area.