The Benefits of Being Upside-Down

Originally published on LiveJournal, 9.23.08

The common wisdom repeated by many famous yoga teachers is that being upside-down is great because the rush of blood to your head feeds your brain with precious oxygen and helps you be more focused and smarter.

I’d be careful about listening to “ancient” “medical” “wisdom.” There’s no rush of blood — our circulatory system maintains itself remarkably well whatever its relationship to gravity. If that were not the case, astronauts at zero-G and fighter pilots at multiples of G would all be dead.

There are, however, many other benefits. Blood pressure to the head does increase a little, and in turn decreases in your lower body, if it’s also inverted. Lower blood pressure in your legs means swifter venous return. In the short term, it can provide a very nice and noticeable relief. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so refreshing to put your feet up when they hurt.

The real advantages of inversions have nothing directly to do with blood. They most importantly provide a welcome challenge to your breathing, which as I’ve mentioned before is the cornerstone of yoga. In a reverse relationship to gravity, your diaphragm has to work harder on the inhales, and gets a bit of a break for the exhales. That’s good training. Breath is further complicated by the rearrangement of your internal organs. Everything in the abdomen gets pushed against the ribcage, making it harder for the diaphragm to push through. You end up enlisting various auxiliary breathing muscles which don’t get much of a workout in more common breathing conditions. And, as the diaphragm does push through, it gives the organs, already stimulated by the motion, an extra squeeze. Voila: instant massage, and just by turning upside-down.

Another, more long-term benefit, is that being upside-down improves lymphatic drainage. Unlike the more robust circulatory system, the lymphatic system is strongly affected by external mechanical forces. In fact, it depends on them. It’s not just muscles, but the movement of our whole skeleton that keeps lymph moving. Being upside-down gives the whole drainage system a big push, and supposedly helps shake out some of the lymph that gets caught behind the valves (too much of which leads to edema and other nasty symptoms).

So, while being upside-down won’t make your brain smarter, it’s still smart to practice it regularly.

(Adapted from Leslie Kaminoff’s work on the Breathing Project