Inversion exercises: the fitness trend that has people head over heels

From handstands to swing yoga, there are an increasing number of workouts that turn the human body upside down. But are they any good for you?

Diana Azavedo, director of the yoga teacher training courses at Zen Yoga Dubai, performs a headstand. Courtesy Diana Azavedo
Diana Azavedo, director of the yoga teacher training courses at Zen Yoga Dubai, performs a headstand. Courtesy Diana Azavedo

While it’s safe to say the way we’ve been working out has changed over the years, there are some workouts that are completely turning things around – 180°, to be exact.

Inversion exercises, which require the human body to be upside down, aren’t new, but demand has certainly been on the rise. Simply swipe through social media and you’ll find images of trainers and fitness influencers in hard-to-fathom positions. From swing yoga, which allows the body to be suspended upside down mid-air, to headstand holds, workout poses that require the body to be in an inverted position are becoming popular as they elicit a sense of awe and make for Instagram-worthy photos.

Diana Azavedo, director of yoga teacher training courses at Zen Yoga Dubai, confirms this. “Yoga has become popular over the years and the inversion practice more so. Social media has contributed greatly to its vast spread,” she says.

A forearm stand helps build strength and requires concentration. Courtesy Diana Azavedo
A forearm stand helps build strength and requires concentration. Courtesy Diana Azavedo

“People are interested in activities that require skill, technique and dedication, and inversions fall in this category as they possess a mystic charm. The more elusive and difficult the pose, the more it grasps our attention and curiosity.”

But showmanship and visual appeal aside, are there any benefits to inverted exercise poses? Faisal Aasam, managing partner of Evolve Sports Solutions, believes so, because inverted positions “reverse the pull of gravity”.

“This is good for spinal health as it enables decompression, which is needed when you sit on a desk for long hours,” he says. “The decompression also eases muscle tension throughout the body.”

Exercises such as inverted wall push-ups, TRX inverted rows and inverted crunches can also enhance movement ability, and increase proprioception, our body’s ability to perceive its position and movement, he says.

Other physical benefits of inverted exercises include improved core strength and balance, better flexibility and posture and an improved lymphatic system, says Cornelia Gloor, head of the physiotherapy department at RAK Hospital.

But physical benefits aside, being upside down can also be good for mental health. “Reversing the effect of gravity increases the blood flow to the upper body parts, especially the brain, which can increase brain function,” says Gloor. Apart from increased focus, this translates to reduced stress, she says.

Benefits of inverted exercises include improved core strength and balance, better flexibility and posture and an improved lymphatic system, say experts. Courtesy Unsplash
Benefits of inverted exercises include improved core strength and balance, better flexibility and posture and an improved lymphatic system, say experts. Unsplash

Azavedo agrees. “Inversions encourage good core strength and upper body stability. But along the journey, there is much to benefit in terms of empowerment of the body and mind. This involves a sense of elevated concentration and a subtle calmness of mind.

“Being upside down involves overcoming fears emotionally and physically. The accomplishment of such advanced inversions gives a feeling of ‘I can do it’ and self-trust which has a trickle-down effect in our daily lives.”

While inversions are a big part of the physical practice of yoga, they are still considered in the advanced or challenging category. To be able to do them, both physical and mental effort is required, says Azavedo.

“One of the challenges is the lack of core and upper-body strength. To empower a student in an inversion practice, there is a lot of emphasis required in these highlighted areas. Another big aspect is our inability to overcome our fears – the fear of being upside down, having a different perspective and the fear of falling. To overcome this, it takes a fair amount of mental encouragement and plenty of practice,” she says.

Despite the many benefits, experts recommend weighing the pros against the potential risks. “Inversion exercises are not safe for everyone. While hanging upside down, blood pressure will increase and the heartbeat will slow down. There’s also increased blood pressure to the eyes,” says Gloor.

It’s the reason these exercises are not recommended to those with high blood pressure, any type of heart condition, glaucoma, osteoporosis, acid reflux and spinal instabilities. “It’s also not safe if obese or pregnant. In any case, it’s better to check with a doctor before attempting inversion exercises,” says Gloor.

If you’re tempted to turn your workouts upside down, Aasam says the best time to do it is after a light breakfast, leaving time to digest the food.

“Start slowly and let your body get used to it first,” advises Gloor. “Try a half inverted position first and make sure someone is with you to support if needed.

“It is best to begin with 30 seconds to one minute at a time and then slowly increase it by two to three minutes. Some people can stay in this position for 10 to 20 minutes, but not everyone will be able to do so, and we don’t advise hanging upside down for more than a few minutes at a time,” she says.

“As with any exercise, the body has to get used to it. And it’s important to listen to your body.”

Three inverted yoga poses to try

Diana Azavedo of Zen Yoga Dubai demonstrates a handstand. Courtesy Diana Azavedo
A handstand is more complicated than a headstand or a forearm stand. Courtesy Diana Azavedo

Azavedo explains three inverted yoga poses to try:

1. Headstand

This pose involves placing the crown of the head and arms on the floor, and reaching the legs up to the ceiling. The support here is gained by activating core and upper body strength and ensuring the weight of the body is not placed on the neck.

2. Forearm stand

This pose involves placing the forearms on the floor and reaching the legs up to the ceiling. This is a great pose that builds strength and needs a lot of focused concentration.

3. Handstand

This pose is the most advanced of the three. It involves supporting the entire bodyweight onto the hands, which are on the floor. The legs reach up to the ceiling. This pose requires great concentration, technique, strength and flexibility, all in one.

Updated: May 27, 2021 07:32 PM

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