Looking to see the world from a new perspective? Going upside-down is one way to shift your point of view—literally.
Inverted yoga poses are perfect for cultivating fertile creative ground in the body/mind. In addition to their many physical benefits, inversions are said to allow us to see with new eyes. When we turn upside down, the world looks different. The world hasn’t fundamentally changed of course; it is our relationship with it that has changed. This shift opens us to new perspectives, the foundation of creative blossoming.
Translated literally as “good-for-all-of-you” pose, Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) is one of the fundamental asanas in yoga. Nicknamed the “Queen” of poses (Headstand is “King”), Shoulderstand improves balance, drains fluid from the lungs and legs, stretches the back of the neck and opens the heart. In the scale of heating to cooling poses—referring not only to temperature-raising or -lowering qualities, but also to the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic “fight or flight” vs. parasympathetic “rest and digest” response—Salamba Sarvangasana sits just to the cooling, relaxing side of the center. If you thumb through the appendix of BKS Iyengar’s classic book, Light on Yoga, you will see that Salamba Sarvangasana is listed first or second as a therapeutic pose for almost every category of physical imbalance.
As with anything, there’s controversy as to the safety of teaching inversions such as Shoulderstand, especially in large classes where it’s difficult for a teacher to keep track of everyone. I teach Shoulderstand pretty regularly, but only in situations where I have enough yoga blankets for everyone to practice safely, and I always offer other options to students who don’t feel comfortable inverting, have contraindications to inverting or who I can see are not ready.
Practice with Care
In order for Shoulderstand to live up to its promises, it must be practiced with patience, mindfulness and care. If you have never practiced it, I highly recommend that you learn from an experienced teacher. If you have neck problems, retinal problems, glaucoma or heart problems, it is better not to practice Shoulderstand. That said, with proper support and guidance, some individuals with neck problems can practice safely. I have suffered several whiplash injuries, and have learned how to practice comfortably. It is also advisable to avoid inversions during your menstrual period. If you have high blood pressure, an experienced teacher can guide you through the steps to safe practice.
I can’t stress adamantly enough the importance of practicing Shoulderstand with props. In his early years of teaching, Iyengar’s students began to experience neck issues such as arthritis and degenerative disc disease from practicing Shoulderstand on the floor. This prompted him to devise a new way of practicing with blankets that literally saved his students’ necks. Elevating your shoulders and arms on a stack of yoga blankets while your head rests on the floor accomplishes two things: It keeps the neck from flexing past 75 degrees, the maximum angle that most cervical spines are able to bend forward. It keeps the weight of the body off the fragile cervical vertebrae and intervertebral discs.
How to Practice Shoulderstand
I offer these instructions with several cautions: One, words are not nearly as effective as a good demo from a teacher. Two, it’s best if a teacher can watch what you’re doing to make sure you’re not collapsing into your neck. There are many adjustments—big and small—that a knowledgeable teacher can give you that can make a huge difference in your Shoulderstand.
So, if you already have an idea of how to practice Shoulderstand, the following instructions could be helpful. If not, I’d strongly suggest finding a teacher who knows how to set up Shoulderstand with blankets to guide you through the process.
Place a nonskid mat perpendicular to a bare wall. Fold three to five firm blankets so that they are approximately 18 to 24 inches by 24 to 36 inches. Stack the blankets on top of each other with all their main folds facing away from the wall on the nonskid mat, with the wide side parallel to the wall. Your stack should be four to six inches or more in height. Start with more height if you have neck issues or if your neck is long. Adjust the position of your blankets so that the folded edges are about 28 to 30 inches from the wall. Depending on your height, you may need to adjust this distance.
Lie on your blankets so that the tops of your shoulders are about three inches from the neatly folded edge of the blankets and your head is resting on the floor. Place your arms next to your sides, palms down. Place your feet on the wall at about knee level. Pressing your feet into the wall, curl your abdomen up and off the floor until your torso is vertical, or almost vertical and you are resting on the top of your shoulders.
Your shoulders should be close to but not over the edge of your blankets. Clasp your hands and stretch your arms out along your blankets, rocking side to side to situate yourself onto the tops of your shoulders. Then bend your elbows, taking care to keep your elbows no wider than shoulder-width apart, and place your hands on your back for support. You can walk your feet up the wall, but keep your knees bent in about a 90-degree angle. Now plant your base—your shoulders, upper arms and elbows—to lift higher onto your shoulders. Stay for five to ten deep breaths.
Very important: Do not turn your head while in Shoulderstand, as this may occlude your carotid artery and result in a blackout. Instead, lengthen your throat and the front of your cervical spine. Relax your throat, jaw, facial muscles and eyes.
To release the pose, exhale and lower your upper back, lower back and finally the pelvis down onto your blankets. Slide off the blankets toward your head so that your pelvis rests on your blankets and your shoulder blades and head rest flat on the floor. Place the soles of your feet together and relax your knees out to the sides. Relax here for three to five minutes to allow your body to integrate the effects of inverting. Observe what you feel. What shifted in Shoulderstand? How is your breathing? How is your heart rate?
I strongly suggest that beginners practice at a wall for at least a few months, if not longer, before straightening the legs to vertical. A teacher experienced in teaching Shoulderstand with blanket support can help you decide when you are ready to move away from the wall, and when to increase your time in the pose.
Geeta Iyengar’s book, Yoga: A Gem for Women, claims that Shoulderstand nourishes the throat, home of the thyroid and parathyroid glands by bringing fresh blood into the area. The throat is also the home of your vishuddha chakra, the chakra governing creativity and expression. In my experience, Salamba Sarvangasana, as its name says, is truly good for everything on all levels—physical, mental and emotional. Practiced with patience and care, Shoulderstand can relax and calm, as it opens you to fresh perspectives.
If you’re interested in seeing other ideas for using yoga blankets, you can visit Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s prop guide.