Salamba Sarvangasana (“salamba” means “supported”; there are other forms of shoulderstand practiced without arm support)
- Begin by lying flat on your back on the mat. Bend your knees and walk your feet close to your sitting bones.
- Pressing your arms into the mat, lift your legs, curling your thighs in to your chest and your knees toward your face, lifting your pelvis and back off the floor.
- Shimmy your shoulders together underneath you. Place your palms against your back for support. Press your upper arms into the floor and lift the pelvis to be over the shoulders, so that the torso is perpendicular to the floor.
- Try to work the elbows closer together so that the upper arms are parallel. As you lift, walk the hands up your back (towards the floor) – this will give you more support as you lift your hips. (It may help to put your palms against the skin of your back; if you find your hands slipping, try lifting your shirt and placing the hands against your skin.)
- Begin to lift the legs into the air. Bring the thighs and finally the lower legs in line with the torso, so the whole body is a long, straight line perpendicular to the floor.
- Find your balance here. Your weight should be in your upper arms, your shoulders, and a little on the back of your head – there should be no weight or pressure on the neck.
- Press the legs together. Press the balls of the feet toward the ceiling. Activate your thighs, buttocks, and abdominal muscles to help hold you up.
- Keep breathing. Keep the body active throughout the pose; press through the upper arms and keep the shoulders engaged.
- To come down, gently lower the legs, bringing the knees down to rest on the forehead.
- If you wish, take plow pose: lower your toes to the floor above and beyond your head, extending the legs and keeping the torso perpendicular to the floor. Clasp the hands behind your back and press the arms into the floor.
- Coming out, keep your head resting on the floor and press your fingertips into the floor while you gradually roll out on a curved spine. Follow shoulderstand with fish pose as a counterpose.
Shoulderstand is known as the queen of yoga postures (headstand is the king). Inversions alter the flow of blood in the body; this can calm the mind, help with depression, and stimulate the thyroid gland. The muscle control needed to hold the body in an inverted pose works the internal organs and the abdomen, aiding digestion, and builds strength, toning the legs and buttocks. Shoulderstand, when done properly, stretches the neck (when not done properly, it can turn into neckstand, which hurts the neck, so care is needed!).
Those with serious neck injuries should not practice shoulderstand, or should do so only under the supervision of an experienced instructor. Using a stack of folded blankets to support the shoulders will help those with neck problems to practice the pose.
Shoulderstand is contraindicated for headache and high blood pressure. Some sources say not to practice inversions while menstruating. If the student is experienced, shoulderstand can be practiced until late in pregnancy, but if you don’t already practice the pose, you shouldn’t begin practicing shoulderstand after becoming pregnant.
My Experience of Shoulderstand:
When I was a teenager, I didn’t have a phone in my room, so I always used the one in my parents’ room. The second floor of the house had been converted from an attic into bedrooms, so on one side of my parents’ room the ceiling slanted all the down to about two feet off the floor. As a teenage girl spending long hours on the phone, I sometimes got bored and would lie on the bed and walk my feet up the ceiling. So, when I attended my first yoga class years later, I had no trouble doing shoulderstand – it was just like talking on the phone in my mom’s room! Being a silly teenager had paid off for once; I’d been doing a supported shoulderstand for years and was comfortable with both the mechanics of the pose and with being upside down in general.
As I progressed through my yoga practice, my shoulderstand has improved even more, especially recently as I began paying close attention to the logistics of each pose with an eye to teaching. Now my husband says that my shoulderstand looks kind of freakish, like my head isn’t attached to my body, which I think means that I’m doing it right.
Unfortunately, not everyone grew up in my parents’ house, and for many people shoulderstand is really challenging. I’m discovering this firsthand by teaching a small weekly class at my home. Teaching shoulderstand for the first time was hard for me, and a few of my beginning students just couldn’t do it. One person will need to work on her core strength to make this pose achievable. I want to try teaching the pose with blankets for additional support, and I also want to teach some other inversions so that students who can’t manage shoulderstand yet will have some other options.
Back to my own practice, I really enjoy shoulderstand: how strong I feel in the pose, and the feeling of being upside down. For right now I am taking a break from doing headstand because of neck pain, so coming back to shoulderstand feels good and helpful.