Having completed a series on back bends in last month’s magazine, this month we begin a focus on inversions with a look at shoulder stand (salumbha sarvangasana). This posture is one of intermediate difficulty. It has some contraindications and, in the event that you experience these, this pose is not for you and you should take an alternative pose. Here is how to do the pose:
- Begin lying on your back. Stretch the back of your neck long and draw your lower jaw straight down towards the floor to engage stability in your neck. This is called jalandhara bandha. Do not turn your head or neck while in shoulder stand. To do so, with the degree of weight and force being channeled through this part of your body in shoulder stand, can be dangerous. Keep your neck straight and your gaze straight up at the sky.
- Brace your arms at the floor alongside you. Draw your knees up to your chest.
- Press through your arms into the floor and raise your knees up above your head.
- Bend your elbows and place the palms of your hands on your back. Draw your elbows in towards shoulder width. If your elbows are too wide your pose will tend to collapse downwards somewhat.
- Extend your legs up towards the ceiling.
- This is shoulder stand. Seek to carry the weight of your pose across the breadth of your shoulders.
- An alternative means of entry is to take plough pose/halasana first and then extend up into shoulder stand. To get into plough, follow the steps already given but instead of pausing with your knees bent and your knees above your head, reach your legs straight back over your head towards the floor. You can see this in Figure 4.
- It is not essential that your feet touch the floor in plough but that is the fuller expression. I do get my feet to the floor in plough. I then press my heels towards the back of the room, away from my body. This not only creates a good stretch for the back of my body but it also causes my hips to lift high over my shoulders. This is a good position to set up for shoulder stand. Compare the relationship of Hamish’s hips to his shoulders in Figure 2 with Figure 4. By taking plough, in Figure 4, Hamish has created more lift in his hips and has set his hips relative to his shoulders for a more ideal alignment in shoulder stand.
- From plough, hug your belly inward, and work the muscles of your low back, buttocks and hamstrings to raise your legs straight up over your hips to the sky.
- Shoulder stand creates a sharp angle of flexion between your thoracic spine and your cervical spine. Although the primary foundation for this pose is in your shoulders there may be pressure on the back of your neck and there is pressure on the back of your head. In the event that any of this pressure feels too much or causes you to feel at a point of strain, please desist with the pose and lower your back to the floor. There are other inversions that may be more suitable for you.
- When students first start practicing shoulder stand, they typically have a bend at their hips such that, while their feet may be aligned over their shoulders, their hips most certainly are not. This is not ideal alignment but I do not dogmatically insist on the ideal. Do what you can in the early days but intend to bring your body as much as you can into a vertical alignment. In Figure 5 Hamish is exaggerating the kink at his hips for the purpose of effect:
- To bring your body more into a neutral, vertical alignment, brace your elbows and upper arms firmly into your mat. Press your feet straight up towards the ceiling. Shift your hands carefully away from your hips closer towards your shoulders. As your hips go up you will naturally begin to straighten out into a more vertical alignment.
- If you boost your hips higher and shift your hands closer towards your shoulders but you can still see that your legs angle over your head towards the back of your mat you need to engage the extensors of your hips. Engage your hamstrings and your buttocks. Relax the front of your hips. Lengthen out in a vertical direction.
- A default we see in some students is a tendency to disengage their legs. This shows up as the students’ feet flopping limply and their legs drifting apart. The result is a pose that lacks stability. In this situation the students’ legs can drift in an unruly way. This is unsafe as every sway and shift in the orientation of your legs gets channeled through your body and into your neck!
- Firm your feet either in dorsi-flexion (with your feet drawn towards the front of your shins) or in a floint/demi-point where your feet are midway between dorsi-flexion and plantar flexion (in which you stretch the front of your ankle and point your toes away from you). You can see this demi-point in Figure 3. The important thing is to firm and engage from your feet through your ankles.
- As well, engage your inner thighs and draw your legs together. Stability comes from pulling your limbs in towards your centerline. Make this a priority in shoulder stand. Gently rotate your inner thighs towards the front end of your mat.
- The deep flexion of your head and neck relative to your torso may make breathing more difficult for you. Breathe calmly through your nose. Observe any feelings of claustrophobia or panic that may arise in you, and consciously relax and breathe into a state of inner peace. If you are unsuccessful in that and you do feel panicked, gently lower your back, hips and legs to the floor and take a rest. There is no need to go beyond what is sustainable for yourself.
- One is that the pressure on the upper thoracic spine and the back of your neck and head can result in headaches afterwards. The headache does not necessarily manifest straight away. Its advent is not a warning sign to come out. However, if you have done a practice including shoulder stand and you experienced a strong pressure in your upper back, neck and head, and later that day or overnight you developed a headache, there may be a correlation and it may be preferable for you to take some other type of inversion. This sort of outcome is more common for people with what used to be called a dowager’s hump or an excessive rounding of the upper back and neck.
- Another contraindication is for women with large breasts. In the inverted position women may experience their breasts dropping down towards their faces creating a stifling, claustrophobic experience. Again, if this applies to you, you may find it preferable to avoid shoulder stand.
- There is a variation of shoulder stand in which you do not use your hands at your back but, either, brace your arms at the floor or reach your arms up towards the sky. Take the same set up as for the previous shoulder stand, whether going through plough pose or not, but keep your arms at the floor.
- This is still shoulder stand. In Figure 6, notice how stacked Hamish’s joints are – shoulders, hips, knees and ankles all close to a vertical line. This is good. We have a student who is very rounded in their thoracic spine. This student favours this variation but the greatest weight is borne, not across their shoulders, but in their upper back in the thoracic region. The following image seeks to demonstrate this:
- You will observe from Figure 7 that the primary contact with the floor is the thoracic spine rather than Hamish’s shoulders. This is not desirable. Instead of trying to do this variation of the pose and just getting to the point that Hamish has demonstrated, spend more time with your hands supporting your back and work towards the form Hamish shows in Figure 3. Once you have that alignment, then you might consider trying to remove your hands from your back while still maintaining good form. Walk before you try to run. Do not get hung up on performing what you may perceive to be a more advanced variation where your alignment is less than ideal.
In shoulder stand, emulate from your shoulders to your feet, the alignment of tadasana/mountain pose. Create a neutral column through your body and turn your world upside down. Disrupt the drift of every day perceptions and see and experience your world from a new, enlightened vantage point.