Everyday gives me the opportunity to be amazed about the deep connection between our mind, our emotions and our body. We often tend to think that we are very rational beings, that we are not that affected by what’s going on outside. However, we do know that neglecting to notice those precious signals our body sends us might cause some harm eventually. This is why yoga is so precious to me, as it gives me every other day the chance to acknowledge how I feel and my reaction to life events.
Which brings me back to the present. For most of us, fall is a time of change. As temperature goes down, our activity level often goes up. Through this creative chaos brought by the change of the season and the promise of all the interesting knowledge to be learned with the back-to-school, I often find myself on the fly.
And even without thinking about it much, I find myself upside down. Literally. In those chaotic times, shoulderstand is the posture that I take instinctively to bring stability back into my life.
How to get into the pose
First things first. I do recommend taking some time to choose the appropriate version of Shoulderstand for you and your body one that day. There are some alternatives to the full version of Salamba Sarvangasana that might be better for you to practice on that given day based on your experience. Starting with Viparita Karani than working towards Salamba Sarvangasana is a great way to develop the right alignment and feel the strength and support you will need to get to the full version of the pose.
Then how do you set up to get into Shoulderstand? Here again, you have to choose the variation that works for you. When not practiced safely, shoulderstand might created some neck overstretching, which could come along with some pain, and we never ever want pain to be part of the game. We practice inversions to help us relieve some of the effects gravity has on us, we practice inversions for the benefits they bring to us, so be careful about not putting too much pressure in the neck area.
To avoid that overload in the neck area, some teachers recommend using a variety of props (folded blankets, strap, chair) to practice the pose. Here’s how to get into Supported Salamba Sarvangasana if you choose to practice with props, which I do recommend at the beginning to help us get the right alignment. However, always remember that you are your very own best teacher, and that if practicing without props is what feels right for you, go ahead. My only advice is always to practice safely.
You will need two to three blankets (maybe more, maybe less, depending on the opening of your shoulders: usually the more you are open, the less you will need blankets, but that is very personal) and one strap.
- Make a strap in the loop and adjust the length in order for it to go from one inner armpit to the other.
- Properly fold your blankets so that they take about the tier of your mat and will be able to support you the length that goes from your shoulders to your hips. Stack them one on top of the other, with the proper fold on the side where you will put your head, leaving a small gap between each on the proper folded-side so that they stack not exactly over each other. You want it to create a smoother line between where your shoulders will be positioned and where your head will lie.
- Place your blankets approximately at the tier end of your mat, and fold over the end of your sticky mat on top so that your elbows won’t slide.
- Bring your whole setting closer to the wall, approximately at the length of one of your chin, since we will get up with our legs at the 90-degree angle first before going into Shoulderstand.
- Put your strap in one of your arm, then lie down on your back, buttocks close to the wall, legs up. Make sure your head rests on the mat, and that your neck is comfortable. The weight will be mostly on your shoulders, so you should be able to move your head freely from one side to the other at this point.
- Bend your knees, and place your feet into the wall. Your legs are at a 90-degree angle.
- Roll your shoulders back, top of the shoulders reaching towards the blankets.
- On your next exhalation, press your feet firmly into the wall, and raise your hips towards the sky. Insert your second arm into the strap in your back, and place both hands on your kidneys, fingers towards the buttocks. You are forming a 90-degree angle with the wall.
- Roll on the top of the shoulders, and readjust your hands again if needed. Use your hands as guidelines to keep your alignment, as we often tend to let the back lower ribs pop out and round. The gentle pressure of the hands will make sure we keep our whole core in line.
- Verify the alignment of your tailbone, making sure you are neither untucking, creating a banana back, or tucking too much, creating a cat back.
- Once you feel stable, try to feel the lift. Using your legs firmly pressing into the wall, feel the weight coming off of your head, and not even resting that much on your shoulders either. It is as if you were about to stand upside down. Your legs and abdomen are engaged and strong, but not overworking to the point that shaking appears. With the proper alignment, and the proper use of energy, see if you can find the way to feel as if you could maintain the pose for a long time.
- Once you get that feel, you are ready to move on to the next stage. Make sure you are on the top of your shoulders, not lying towards the shoulderblades, and that you have little pressure on your head and neck. Slowly, on your next exhalation, keeping a strong core and firm legs, bend one leg, then reach it up. Push your foot towards the sky, toes spreading, big toe mount reaching up. You want to feel the lift, the leg is very active, bringing you even more up.
- After a few breaths, on your next exhalation, bend the knee of the extended leg and bring your foot next to the other one. Take a couple of breaths, then move on to the second leg, repeating the same sequence.
- When you are ready, on your next exhalation, bend the second leg and bring the foot back to the wall.
- If you felt that you were able to maintain the alignment with one leg up, not sinking into the mat, feeling instead uplifted, you can try to lift both legs at a time in the full version of Supported Salamba Sarvangasana. On your next exhalation, bend one knee, reach the leg up to the sky, pushing into the big toe mount, spreading the toes. Take one or two breathes here, readjust your shoulders and your hands if they moved as you were transitioning. On your next exhalation, keeping your alignment, slowly bring your second leg up, big toe mounts touching and reaching for the sky. Feel as if someone was pulling you up towards the sky, releasing the weight from your shoulders. Lengthen your tailbone, and extend the back of your legs even more.
- Breathe, and enjoy Salamba Sarvangasana.
What to focus your attention on once in the pose
As I mentioned in the instructions, alignment is key in this posture. We want to work with the intelligence of the body, stacking one bone structure on top of the other, so that there is very little weight that needs to be supported only through muscle strength. Of course, the legs are very active, and the abdomen is working to keep everything together and in position, but once I get the proper alignment, the pose demands very little effort to maintain, which gives you the possibility to stay for a longer time in it, and get as many benefits as you can.
Breath, as in every yoga posture, is the indicator that the pose is properly performed and can be kept. Look for any place of tension, and bring in the breathe, releasing that tension by creating space within that area. Feel the breathe into your chest, expanding your ribs as you inhale, than releasing a bit as you exhale, but looking to keep more and more of that expansion everytime, as if you were inflating a big balloon instead your chest, which would even eventually expand through it.
How to get out of the pose
When you start to feel like the breath isn’t moving as freely, it is time to come down. Shoulderstand is a great inversion that most teachers recommend adding to your regular practice, so do not worry, you will have time to practice it more and more. I believe that it is best to take our time to build a strong practice of Shoulderstand instead of rushing into the pose and hurting ourselves, so do come out when you feel like you had enough. Eventually, we want to be able to practice Shoulderstand for at least three to five minutes to get all the inner benefits on the organs, but you will get there, no need to rush.
- Whenever you feel ready to come down, slowly bend one leg at a time, placing your feet back to their original place on the wall. Release one arm from the strap, and slowly lower your buttocks on the floor. You can either keep your legs up the wall, move away from it to lie down on your back, feet together and knees rolling out on each side in Supta Baddha Konasana (http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/reclining-bound-angle-pose/), or simply lying down on your back.
- Stay here for about one minute, breathing slowly. When you feel ready, roll on to your right side, and come up to a sitting position, or stay lying if you want to continue your practice with postures on the floor.
I am always careful when it comes to mentioning the benefits of a pose, as the same posture can have a variety of benefits for each of us.
But I cannot not share with you the most common benefits known to be felt after practicing Shoulderstand, as it is these very benefits that inspired me to write this article first.
One of the greateast benefits of Shoulderstand I believe is the calming effect it has on the brain, soothing the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps relieve stress, mild depression, and can reduce fatigue and help improve insomnia.
Salamba Sarvangasana is also known to help balance hormones, stimulating the thyroid and hypothalamus glands, as well as the prostate glands (that I can definitely feel. Not.).
Like other inversions, Salamba Sarvangasana brings a lot of benefits by liberating us from the strong pull of gravity.
“After years of combating gravity, all the organs, especially the heart and the rest of the circulatory system, grow sluggish, which results in less nourishment to our cells and leaves us vulnerable to heart disease, fatty deposits in the blood vessels, varicose veins, and other effects of aging.” – Barbara Benagh
Inversions are great for abdominal organs, improving digestion and reducing constipation by inverting the gravitational pull on the body. They also help to strengthen the heart and respiratory system, reducing the strain on the heart and allowing the blood to circulate more freely, which can help relieve people with respiratory difficulties like asthma, bronchitis and throat ailments and can even help to decrease varicose veins by helping the body drain old blood from the legs and bring new one.
To practice safely Salamba Sarvangasana, make sure that you are not in your period and that you do not suffer from diarrhea, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, detached retina or glaucoma. It is also not recommended to practice Shoulderstand if you have any issue relating to your back, such as an hernia, a cervical spondylitis, or slipped discs. If you suffer from a neck injury, please talk with your teacher (which is hopefully experimented) before attempting to practice Shoulderstand, as he/she will be able to guide you towards a safe practice of the pose.