Learn about the benefits of inversions and the all-round stress-reducing impact of yoga. If inversions are not for you then don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways to tap into the body’s relaxed state – read on to find out more!
Inversion postures shift our internal perspective, which makes sense when you’re quite literally looking at things from a different perspective to normal. Inversions can really boost your mood. I like to think of it as turning that frown upside down! Honestly, I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been feeling exhausted or low emotionally then have felt way better with more energy after some sun salutations to warm up followed by inversion practice and a relaxed savasana.
There are lots of benefits to inversions such as increased blood flow to the brain helping with concentration, memory and awareness. The increased and reverse blood flow of inversions from handstand to legs-up-the-wall energises the mind and body, inviting clarity and awareness. The improved circulation in the legs also means that any stagnant blood flow from the feet is restored with oxygen after being encouraged back to the heart. Having the feet above the heart and/or the heart above the head stimulates lymphatic cleansing and drainage which clears toxins and helps with circulation, boosting the immune system.
This is all fantastic of course, but what interests me the most about going upside down is how it is said to flush the adrenal glands, which are responsible for the body’s fight or flight response.
When we’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and adrenaline is released into the bloodstream leaving the body ready to fight or run for its life which also makes the mind hyper alert. This fight or flight response is meant to be activated to protect us in situations where there is a real threat to our lives, for example meeting a grizzly bear in the woods. However for many of us, this stress response doesn’t switch off properly and instead is over used leading to adrenal fatigue from the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline being secreted into the body. We might not be physically threatened by a life or death situation such as a bear in our path, but when the mind feels in real danger as a response to worry, fear and anxieties about the future or from past trauma (e.g. PTSD flashbacks), it can all lead to this feeling of being stressed which triggers our innate survival response.
This act of flushing the adrenal glands stimulates the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins that can leave you feeling uplifted right away. This can act as an pick me up, balancing out mood swings and soothing anxiety by activating the parasympathetic system which is the rest and digest response that restores balance to the body, counteracting the stressed response of fight or flight. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, for example when in fight or flight mode the heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, breathing becomes shallow and rapid and indigestion can occur. However in rest and digest mode, the heart rate drops, blood pressure falls, breathing becomes deeper and less rapid, and digestion is improved.
You don’t have to be able to do the more challenging inverted postures such as headstand or shoulder stand to tap into this calming and soothing parasympathetic system. The great thing is that an inversion in yoga can be anything that brings your heart above your head, meaning if going upside down isn’t for you (maybe due to high or low blood pressure, spinal injury or not feeling ready) then there are lots of ways to reap the benefits discussed in this article.
Simple inversions can be standing forward bend, child’s pose, downward-facing dog or dolphin pose and legs-up-the-wall pose. Legs-up-the-wall is a personal favourite of mine, especially after a long day on my feet! It has the benefits of inversions without putting any pressure on the neck and without using upper body strength, making it a great posture for beginners, those with neck issues or anyone wanting to do a restorative practice.
What’s more, you don’t even have to do inversions at all to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system. Many aspects of yoga practice, from breathing exercises to meditation or asana practice to yoga nidra all help the body to relax into rest and digest mode, inviting calm into the mind. This can be truly life changing.
Given the growing scientific evidence of the damaging impact of stress, which can lead to life-threatening diseases, the importance of relaxation and stress-reducing practices are becoming more and more apparent in Western medicine. But of course, Patanjali, the sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras in India’s ancient language of Sanskrit, already knew this nearly 2,000 years ago. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali outlines the importance of persistent and dedicated practice in order to cultivate and maintain this calm, stable state of being. It is noted that practice needs to be over a long period of time without break. Depending on your lifestyle that could mean committing to 1 hours practice of yoga postures every day or 10 minutes of meditation every day.
The way that these yoga practices encourage you to tune into the body and bring awareness to bodily sensations, as well as maintaining focus on the breath and the body moving away from attachment to thoughts, means that it can start to become easier to activate the parasympathetic nervous system off the mat too. The more we can learn to tap into this “rest and digest” mode in our yoga practice, the more likely we are going to be able to maintain this in our everyday lives.
Research has shown that some types of yoga like “power yoga” or more vigorous breath and body practices can activate the sympathetic nervous system but that followed by restorative postures, this activation can lead to a deeper relaxation than practicing relaxation on its own. So yoga can actually activate both responses of the nervous system but in doing so, the body is able to relax even deeper into the parasympathetic nervous system baseline.
I found learning all of this fascinating. It’s been great to feel the calming effects of yoga on the body and mind in my own practice but I now also have a whole new burst of inspiration and motivation after digging a little deeper into the “why” and “how” of it all!
To follow on instagram:
Yoga model Dora @dorarubinstein
Photographer Harry @instaharrygram
Writer Jasmine @jasminesarayoga