Intense stretching, yoga and Pilates can all contort your body into positions you might previously have thought were impossible. Although you might feel a little silly with your head upside down, many upside-down stretches help to stretch your back, neck and shoulders. However, there's no benefit to simply flipping your head upside down during a stretch that doesn't otherwise require it, and upside-down stretches can pose some risks.
Flipping your head upside down can slightly alter your blood pressure, pulse and the way your heart pumps blood. When your head is flipped upside down, it's lowered below the level of your heart. Both gravity and the lower position of your head relative to your heart make it easier for blood to flow to your brain. This is why your face may turn red. Short periods upside down are generally harmless, but staying upside down for a longer period of time can be dangerous, particularly if you have a history of cardiovascular problems.
When your head naturally flips upside down during a stretch, you stretch and extend the muscles and joints surrounding your head and neck, and this can help alleviate tension and increase flexibility. A more extreme approach to upside-down stretching, inversion therapy, advises spending longer periods of time with your head upside down. The "Los Angeles Times" reports that some fitness experts and practitioners of alternative medicine emphasize that stretching upside down can improve circulation, improve immune function and reduce varicose veins, but there's little research to back up these claims. By contrast, British researchers did find that hanging upside down can loosen up the hip joint, reducing hip pain due to arthritis.
It can be more challenging to balance upside down, particularly if you're not used to the position, and this can increase your risk of falling during complex stretches. Hanging upside down can also be risky if you have high blood pressure or a history of heart problems. The position can slow your heart rate and increase blood pressure, which can tax a compromised cardiovascular system. Pregnancy can also alter cardiovascular functioning as well as balance, so consult your doctor before stretching upside down if you're pregnant.
Several basic yoga stretches flip your head upside down, and are generally safe. The Plow pose positions your back on the ground with your legs hanging up and over your torso and your head lower than your heart. The Bridge pose is a modified back bend with your shoulders on the ground and hips and chest elevated. The Wheel pose is a full back bend with your shoulders and hips fully elevated off of the ground as you balance on your hands and feet.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.