IN LIGHT ON YOGA, B.K.S. Iyengar wrote that the importance of Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) cannot be over-emphasized. “Sarvangasana is the Mother of asanas,” he wrote. The pose is said to flush out the lymph nodes, help regulate blood pressure and heart rate, strengthen the diaphragm, and stretch the chest muscles. Yet despite these benefits, many practitioners steer clear of Shoulderstand.
The primary concern is that Shoulderstand puts too much pressure on the neck, or cervical spine, which can lead to injury. While there are situations in which Shoulderstand is expressly not indicated—say, if you have high blood pressure; a neck injury; glaucoma; or a cervical spine condition, such as arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or degenerative disc disease—many yogis can safely find comfort and ease in this inversion,
or a modified version of it.
Think about it this way: most of us can touch our chins to our chest, as in Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock), without discomfort or injury. However, when you’re in this flexed-neck position and then add the weight of your entire body, the pose can become dangerous. The key to staying safe is to ensure that you place your weight on the tops of your shoulders and the backs of your upper arms as you stack the shoulders, hips, and legs in a vertical line.
To do this, it helps to understand the anatomy of the neck. The cervical spine is comprised of seven vertebrae that move with each other to flex (forward, as well as side to side), extend, and rotate the neck. The uppermost cervical vertebra, C1, is called the atlas; it has the greatest mobility for flexion and extension, with about a 50-degree range of movement between it and the skull (occiput). Add to that the range of movement of the vertebrae under C1 (C2 through C7), each of which flexes and extends about 10 degrees, and you see how the neck is actually quite mobile.
While this mobility is fine when we’re sitting or standing—with only the weight of the head on the neck—imagine Shoulderstand, with all of the body’s weight resting on a neck in full flexion. You can see how that could strain the neck’s intervertebral ligaments. What’s more, a sudden slip or tumble could take the neck beyond its normal range of motion and result in injury. The trick to keeping the bulk of the weight on the shoulders (and off the cervical spine) is to have flexible, open shoulders. If the shoulder flexors and adductors are tight, you won’t be able to comfortably reach your arms behind you, which in turn will cause the spine to round, the chest to collapse, and your body weight to push into the back of your neck.
To prepare for Shoulderstand, you must first open the chest and front shoulders, including the pectorals, anterior deltoids, coracobrachiales (long, slender shoulder-joint muscles), and biceps. This allows the arms to extend more fully behind you during Shoulderstand—in turn enabling your hands and elbows to become like a doorstop, bolstering the back and distributing your weight over the tops of your shoulders and the backs of your upper arms, which lightens the load on your cervical spine.
Now a word about blankets, which many yoga teachers suggest using to safeguard the neck in Shoulderstand. In my opinion, the blanket-stacking method can actually increase pressure in the lower cervical spine, because it focuses the flexion of the cervical spine onto the C5 and C6 vertebrae, which are at shoulder level when in Shoulderstand. If the shoulders, hips, and legs can’t stack in a vertical line, your body weight will concentrate in the neck’s intervertebral ligaments from C5 down to the first vertebrae of the thoracic spine (T1), while C4 and higher drape over the edge of the blankets in an unnatural curve. To attempt to correct this, many practitioners move their shoulders closer to the edge of the blankets. However, this increases the chance that you’ll slip off, suddenly bringing your body weight onto your fully flexed cervical spine.
The solution: support the shoulders without over-flexing C5 through T1. Try using two folded blankets stacked on either side of the spine to support the shoulders, which creates a channel for the cervical spine and maintains a natural curve in the neck. Or practice with a chair supporting your lower back and legs, which reduces pressure on the cervical spine.
Preparing for Shoulderstand
Gomukhasana – Cow Face Pose
This arm position will begin to stretch the shoulder flexors. Find your seat, press the back of your lower hand into your back for 5 seconds, and then gently work your hands closer toward each other to deepen the stretch. Hold here for 30 seconds. Alternate sides; repeat for a total of 3 rounds.
Purvottanasana – Upward Plank Pose, prep
This pose stretches the shoulder flexors and pectorals. From a seated position, place the hands 12 inches behind you, fingers toward your buttocks. Bend your elbows slightly to protect your wrists. When you feel a stretch in the chest, fix the hands on the mat and attempt to isometrically drag them toward the buttocks. Hold for 30 seconds; release for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana – Bridge Pose
This posture increases flexibility and strength in the thoracic spine. From your back, bring the thighs toward parallel by pressing feet into the mat and attempting to drag them apart. Then, press into the feet to lift the hips, hold for two breaths, and come down. Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions each.
Salamba Sarvangasana – Supported Shoulderstand, with chair
This alternative provides many of the same benefits of the full inversion, but it leans the body weight on to the chair, not your cervical spine. Set up your blanket as shown (or use one folded blanket under each shoulder). Support your weight on the edge
of a chair that’s been placed against the wall. If it’s comfortable, enhance the shoulder-opener by reaching under the chair to grasp its back legs, or by letting your arms come out to the sides. To exit, press your feet against the wall to lift your pelvis off the chair, move the chair to the side, and come down.
About the author:
Teacher Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a website and book series dedicated to the anatomy of yoga.