09 Aug Shoulderstand – Sarvangasana – Asanas For All
Welcome to the first in my new series ‘Asanas For All’. ‘Asana’ is the sanskrit word meaning ‘pose’ and over the next few weeks I am going to show you how to do some intermediate yoga poses and how, with the use of props and modifications, they can be done by everyone!
Try this wonderful inversion to help releive tired and aching legs and to relax the whole body.
Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) is an inversion that provides a stretch for the upper back and the neck. In this pose the whole body benefits hence the name.
The benefits of practicing Shoulderstand:
- Increases the circulation around the lymphatic system which nourishes the whole body.
- It is an inversion which means that gravity increases the blood flow to the heart, brain and eyes.
- Relaxes the heart and decreases the heart rate.
- Brings clarity to the mind and sight.
- Lengthens the spinal nerves, which relieves tension in the head, neck and shoulders.
- Brings balance and regulates the hormone secretion of both the thyroid and parathyroid glands in the neck.
- Is very good for flexibility.
- Soothes the nervous system.
- Eases stress, tension, anxiety.
- Lowers high blood pressure
- Eases shortness of temper.
- Helps those who are suffering from insomnia.
- Increases energy when practiced in the mornings.
- Lifts and sustains one’s energy levels dramatically when practiced every day.
- Excellent for fat loss as it increases the metabolism.
- Strengthens digestion by returning “agni” (fire) to the abdominal organs—liver, spleen, pancreas and stomach.
- Tones the muscles of the gluteus, back, thighs and abdominals.
- Improves balance and stability.
Areas for caution
Cervical Spine (the neck)
During Sarvangasana the weight of the whole body is borne on the neck and shoulders. By bringing the trunk to a vertical position and extending the legs straight up so they are perpendicular to the floor, the sternum touches the chin creating Jalandhara (throat lock). It is important that the chest draws to the chin, rather than the chin to the chest as this can cause excess strain in the neck.
During shoulderstand the bodyweight is centred on the shoulders and neck. The muscles of the neck are all working eccentrically. These are all stretched due to the angle of the neck placement.
To perform Sarvangasana correctly, the muscles that adduct downwardly, rotate and elevate. The scapulae must be strong enough to take the weight of the entire body. If it is not, and the shoulders spread apart, the weight falls too much on the upper thoracic and cervical spine which can cause injury and discomfort.
This pose is considered an intermediate pose and should definitely be performed with care and caution. There are many different modifications and props that you can use to make this pose accessible for everyone.
How to perform Shoulderstand
1. Begin by laying down on your back on a mat. If you would like extra padding under the shoulders then this is needed now. If using the blanket, position yourself so that your shoulders are on the blanket and your head is on the floor. Place your hands by your sides with the palms facing down.
2. Moving into the posture: Bend your knees and bring them in to your chest. Draw up your abdominal muscles and gently rock your hips off the floor. Bend your arms at your elbows and catch your hips with your hands. Try to keep the elbows as close together as possible. Hands should be placed against the small of the back with the thumbs spread apart from the fingers.
3. Bring the trunk to a vertical position and extend the legs perpendicular to the floor until the chest touches the chin. Note that in many texts it specifies the importance of bringing the chest to the chin, rather than bringing the chin to the chest.
6. Move your elbows closer towards each other, and move your hands along your back, creeping up towards the shoulder blades. Keep straightening the legs and spine by pressing the elbows down to the floor and hands into the back. Your weight should be supported on your shoulders and upper arms, and not on your head and neck.
7. Keep the legs firm. Lift your heels higher as though you are putting a footprint on the ceiling. Bring the big toes straight over the nose. Now point the toes up. Pay attention to your neck. Do not press the neck into the floor. Instead keep the neck strong with a feeling of tightening the neck muscles slightly. Press your sternum toward the chin. If you feel any strain in the neck, come out of the posture.
8. Beginners should not go too high, adjusting the position of the feet so that the shoulders bear most of the body weight. Make sure your head is straight. Keep the elbows as close as possible and the hands as close as you can to the shoulders. Keep the legs together and try not to bend the knees. Keep your feet and calves relaxed.
9. Keep breathing deeply and stay in the posture for as long as feels comfortable.
10.To come out of the pose bend the knees and roll down one vertebrae at a time. Hug the knees into the chest.
Variations & Props
- Half shoulder stand is a good way to take the pressure off the neck. Students take their legs over their head and hold onto their lower back with their hands. The legs do not stack over the hips which lowers the weight on the neck.
- Placing a bolster under the hips allows students to take their legs in the air with ease but does not require any use of the hands. This is an excellent choice for those students with arthritis, but also for those students with back issues, as they leave their back flat on the mat.
- Viparita Karani (legs-up-the-wall pose) may be an easier version for those students who have excessive neck or shoulder tightness, neck injuries, osteoporosis or do not feel comfortable/confident at taking their legs up. This pose provides a restorative alternative to the full pose.
- Using a wall to help the student get into the pose can be an easier alternative for those who struggle to lift their legs up from the floor. To do this, lay sideways to the wall and then swing the legs around to rest against the wall. Bend the knees and press the feet into the wall as you lift their pelvis away from the wall. You can stay here, or begin to walk the feet further up the wall and take one foot, or both, away from the wall.