how to do and teach shoulderstand (sarvangasana) safely {yoga 101}

shoulderstand-sarvangasana

This post is a little more essay-ish than my typical writing here because it was an assignment for my yoga teacher training I recently completed — but I thought, hey, this is important information that I want to spread, so why not share it with y'all?

Also, full disclosure: I was feeling a little too lazy to get a good lighting setup and ask my hubby to take a photo of me in shoulderstand, so here's a link to a Yoga Journal post with a few good photos where the model is demonstrating using blankets for safety and support. 

In 2012, The New York Times published an article entitled, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”[i] Though this was certainly not the first alarm bell raised about the potential risks of yoga (and especially certain poses), it was arguably the loudest to date, creating a frenzy of conversation and controversy about the safety of yoga. With its sensationalistic title, it’s no surprise that the article stirred up debate in the yoga community, with practitioners, teachers, studios, and publications discussing and commenting on their stances about certain poses and practices.

Two of the poses highlighted in this article (and others) as potentially high-risk were shoulderstand (sarvangasana) and headstand (sirsasana), which have long been viewed as some of the most beneficial asanas within yoga (sometimes referred to as the “King” – headstand – and “Queen” – shoulderstand – of poses). Shoulderstand is said to improve balance, drain fluid from the lungs and legs, and open the heart. In B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga[ii], he states that headstand is referred to as king because just as a country cannot thrive without a strong and effective king (or head of state), a person cannot thrive without a strong and healthy brain, which can be supported by sirsasana. It is also said to stimulates the pituitary and pineal glands, strengthen the lungs, improve digestion, and to help with asthma, infertility, insomnia, and sinusitis. Sound too good to be true? Many argue that the pros still don’t outweigh the risks that the pose presents — as one studio owner pointed out, these highly-touted health benefits haven’t yet been sufficiently supported by medical literature.[iii]

The Times article notes that some teachers support using the poses, but with modifications such as using props for support. Iyenger teacher Roger Cole, who has written extensively for Yoga Journal and speaks on yoga safety to the American College of Sports Medicine. In one article, Cole advocates the practice of “reducing neck bending in a shoulderstand by lifting the shoulders on a stack of folded blankets and letting the head fall below it. The modification eases the angle between the head and the torso, from 90 degrees to perhaps 110 degrees. Cole ticked off the dangers of doing an unmodified shoulderstand: muscle strains, overstretched ligaments and cervical-disk injuries.”[iv]

Not only have some teachers decided to do away with teaching these poses, but some have gone as far as to strongly request that their students not practice them in the studio space, even outside of class time. Even Dr. Timothy McCall, medical editor for Yoga Journal, has suggested that headstand is “too dangerous for general classes.” This concern is certainly understandable, as unfortunately many practitioners push themselves beyond their level of capability, especially when comparing themselves with peers in a class who are more experienced and can safely do these poses.

As teacher Rachel Scott writes, “these are high demand poses, asking practitioners to support the entire weight of their body with their mobile shoulder girdles. Unfortunately, some practitioners foray into them before they’ve developed the strength and flexibility to sufficiently support their body weight, which means that they are slinging weight instead into their cervical spine.”[v]

Yoga teaches us to work toward balance rather than extremes, and this seems to be one area where the field should refer back to its own philosophy for how to approach the issue. To say that a yoga practice without these poses is less-than or incomplete is extreme, and to say that these poses should never be practiced by anyone is also extreme. Teacher Matthew Remski writes, “When facilitating discussion in yoga philosophy, I always try to show students that it’s useful to identify and avoid potentially false dichotomies. In the case of the inversion debate, a third possibility might be to investigate the posture as a cultural artifact, defined not by the edicts of gurus or the MRIs of orthopedic surgeons, but by the reality of how most people practice it. Looked at this way, we might avoid making idealism (these poses should be safe) the enemy of pragmatism (it’s really hard to make them safe).”

So, for practitioners and teachers who wish to incorporate these inversions, what are the best practices for doing so safely? Below, I’ll describe methods for teaching shoulderstand in a way that still provides the benefits of the pose, while minimizing its potential risks.

How to Do and Teach Shoulderstand Safely:

  • Be aware of contraindications. Students with neck injuries or other neck problems, osteoporosis, retinal issues, glaucoma, or heart problems, should not go into full shoulderstand.
  • Warm the body appropriately. Poses that warm up the muscles and stretch the back, neck, and shoulders are important to have in a class before going into shoulderstand. Bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) would be a good prep pose to include before shoulderstand.
  • Offer prep poses as well as clear alternatives. For beginners (really anyone who has not already safely learned shoulderstand) or folks who are contraindicated for full shoulderstand, offering and demonstrating good krama and alternatives to the full pose is critical. Viparita Karani (feet up the wall pose) is a good pose to either substitute or as krama for beginners. Another recommended option is to prop the hips up on a chair, so the angle between their back and the floor is 60 degrees or less, and hold the pose for a shorter duration (about two minutes instead of 10).[vi]
  • Provide support to lift the shoulders higher than the head. Yoga blankets are ideal for this, as they create space for your neck so it is not forced into extreme flexion, as can happen without support under the shoulders. The teacher should ensure that the height of blankets is appropriate for the student, and that they are not too soft/mushy to provide stability. If blankets are not available and the pose is being taught flat on the floor, discourage students from doing the pose fully vertically (or just don’t include it!)
  • Encourage students to learn shoulderstand with an experienced teacher. Students should be taught how to safely prepare for, enter, and exit the pose with the supervision of a teacher, including how to appropriately use props for support, before trying to practice it on their own.

PS, I have now looked at and read the word "shoulderstand" so many times it has ceased to have meaning. :D

Endnotes:

[i] Broad, W. J. (2012). How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magazine/how-yoga-can-wreck-your-body.html

[ii] Iyengar, B.K.S. (1966; revised ed. 1977). Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken. ISBN 978-0-8052-1031-6

[iii] Remski, M. (2015). King and Queen No More? Headstand, Shoulderstand, and the Yoga of Experience and Evidence. Yoga International. Retrieved from https://yogainternational.com/article/view/king-and-queen-no-more

[iv] Cole, R. (2007). Keep the Neck Safe in Shoulderstand. Yoga Journal. Retrieved from http://www.yogajournal.com/article/teach/protect-the-neck-in-shoulderstand/

[v] Scott, R. (2012). Protect Thy Neck: Further Thoughts On Yoga Injuries In Headstand And Shoulderstand. Retrieved from http://www.rachelyoga.com/2012/01/protect-thy-neck-further/

[vi] Gutierrez, M. (2013). Why We Rarely Teach Shoulderstand. SMARTer Bodies. Retrieved from http://www.smarterbodies.com/yoga/why-we-rarely-teach-shoulderstand/

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.