Lori Kirwan is a Toronto fitness instructor and trainer with a Ph.D in Exercise Physiology from University of Toronto. In her current work at the Madonna-owned Hardcandyfitness.com in Toronto, Kirwan has developed her own signature classes including high-intensity training (Tornado), athletic reformer training (Transformer) and a fun, challenging power yoga to the heavy beats of electronic music (Electric Yoga). You can follow her on Twitter at @lorihardcandy
Did you know that you are shrinking right now? Every day because of gravity, we are up to one inch shorter at night than we were when we got up in the morning. In addition to a decrease in height the effect of gravity can be harmful for your spine.
For many people, adding some gravity-defying moves into their workout can give crunched spines some relief.
Your spinal column is made of 26 vertebra that are separated by cushion-y discs. The disc absorbs shock from the things we do every day like walking, bending and lifting and protects the bones from rubbing together. The disc is kind of like a jelly doughnut with a soft, gelatinous inner part and a tougher outer ring.
When the discs are compressed due to gravity we are more likely to injure them during the things we do. Compare bending over first thing in the morning when the spine is longer to later at night when there is less space between the vertebrae. Slipped or herniated discs occur when the inner gel part protrudes through the outer ring and compresses one of the spinal nerves. This situation may also cause numbness and pain along the path of the affected nerve.
Sleeping at night gives the spine a long chance to lengthen again because we're horizontal. But another great way to counter gravity is to turn your body completely upside down and hang from your hips or feet for a period of time every day. Doesn't that sound like fun? Brings back memories of our childhood romps to the playground! (Who shouldn't hang? Inversions should be avoided in people with unmedicated high blood pressure, previous history or risk of stroke, glaucoma, detached retina, or any serious neck issues.)
While in theory, creating space between vertebrae with inversions can help improve back pain, the actual research to prove it is lacking. This is likely because inversions for the spine are but one piece of a larger picture regarding back health and prevention of back injury. In my work, I have seen that hanging upside-down in conjunction with other interventions that treat the cause of pain or injury may help speed recovery. If you have any back problems, consult with your doctor before beginning any fitness program.
And no one's asking you to dust off your 1980s gravity boots. Instead, we focus on the hips as a stronger joint that can safely hold a bit more than half a person's body weight.
One of the latest offerings I'm involved in is "off the wall yoga," in which participants hang upside down off of a modified climbing wall while wearing a harness. A trained instructor guides them through their practice. Most of the poses we do involve being secured by the lower hips, butt and sacral area while letting the spine relax and decompress towards the floor.
Upside-down moves should be gradually introduced into an individual's routine. Starter moves include inversions without hanging such as the yoga poses downward dog, shoulder stand and fish pose – in which a person lying on their back opens up their chest, curves their back and places the crown of their head on the floor. Eventually, we get used to doing more and more. My personal theory is that being upside down like we were in our youth is healthy and if we keep doing it every day we will never grow old.