A doctor weighs in on whether hanging upside down offers any added health perks.
It is well-documented that I'm a huge fan of Savasana, the final resting pose at the end of yoga class. So when I heard that aerial yoga classes offer particularly relaxing Savasana sessions, I signed up for what I thought was a restorative class at Christopher Harrison's AntiGravity Fitness Lab in New York City. Gently rocking back and forth in a hammock? That's a Savasana lover's dream.
Once the class started however, I quickly realized I'd accidentally registered for an open level session. In other words, I was going to have to do some pretty intimidating hanging-upside-down poses in order to earn that glorious Savasana. As someone who has never—not once, not even almost—done any kind of inversion in a regular yoga class, this was a big deal. Cue panic mode. Can I escape without the teacher noticing? I wondered frantically. (It was a six-person class, so that was a no.)
But after my initial fear, I found that moving into an aerial handstand with the support of the very encouraging instructor was surprisingly easy—and awesome. I left class feeling extra-stretchy and accomplished. I thought my skin even looked a little glowy, maybe thanks to all the blood that had rushed to my face. I was so impressed by my experience that I convinced the Health.com team to film a Facebook Live video at AntiGravity Fitness Lab a few weeks later. (You can check it out here.)
While yoga in general offers a slew of health benefits, I wondered if aerial yoga could provide its own unique perks. To find out whether hanging upside down is especially good for you, I called Allan Stewart, MD, director of aortic surgery and co-director of the Valve Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
The answer, he said, is yes and no. There are plenty of reasons to love yoga in general: It can increase flexibility, improve your blood pressure and cholesterol, even whittle your waist. You'll reap all these benefits during an aerial yoga class. And if you suffer from back spasms, scoliosis, or a herniated disc, hanging upside down may ease painful symptoms. "It can lengthen your ligaments, and at least temporarily relax your muscles," Dr. Stewart explains.
You may also notice temporary changes in your skin, such as an improvement in varicose veins, a subtle reduction in fine lines, and more color in your face, says Dr. Stewart. (Hence my #glow.) But the claim that hanging upside down can somehow improve overall circulation is simply untrue, he says.
That's because your circulation system knows how to direct the flow of blood; it doesn't need gravity to help it do its job. When you're upright, oxygenated blood gets pumped to your entire body (including your brain), and deoxygenated blood returns to your heart. Hanging upside down sends more blood to your head, but both oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood. "You're not increasing the amount of nutrients in the blood going to your brain," Dr. Stewart says, "and you're actually reducing the flow of 'good' blood." This explains that lightheaded feeling you get when you're inverted.
RELATED: How Yoga Can Relieve Back Pain
"I'm not saying that hanging upside down is necessarily bad," he says. But any positive effects, like a flushed face, are transient. If you're specifically hoping to ease back pain, you may be better off using an inversion table, which is designed for therapeutic use, says Dr. Stewart. "A few studies suggest [inversion tables] can reduce the need for back surgery if you have a herniated disc," he adds. But you should consult your doctor before using one, he cautions, "and make sure there's someone nearby who can help you get out of it should you become stuck."
It's also important to note that some people should skip aerial yoga and inversion tables (and avoid going upside down entirely), says Dr. Stewart, including "anyone with heart failure, defined spinal problems, or glaucoma."