Essential Asana: Salamba Sarvangasana
Shoulder stand is an essential asana. It is considered the queen mother of all poses because of it's range of health benefits including improved circulation and vital immune, digestive, and endocrine systems. Shoulder stand brings blood to the brain stem which controls our deep life sustaining rhythms. It is considered a "cooling pose" because of it's soothing effect on the nervous system.
When taking yoga classes I noticed that shoulder stand is absent from most sequences. This may be because we live in a stressful culture resulting dysfunction or gripping around the neck and skull. Teachers are reluctant to bring students into a pose with potential to compromise the vital complex of nadis in the neck. With careful preparatory poses, appropriate props, and an understanding of the movements in the pose, sarvangasana can become daily medicine, or chikitsa. While there are a myriad of instructions helpful in teaching a successful sarvangasana, this article is meant to highlight a few points of interest.
In shoulder stand we seek to maintain the openness of the front body along with the upward movement of the spine and legs. This requires a well considered foundation. The weight of the body should rest on the superior spines of the scapulae, not on the neck. Often a lift of two or three blankets just under the shoulders can be of benefit so the neck isn't required to make a 90 degree bend at it's base. The base of the neck at the 7th cervical spine should lift away from the floor. To achieve this, the heads of the upper arm bones need to move towards each other. JinSung of Oakland Yoga Studio, has devised a contraption he calls the "impinger", constructed of two wooden blocks fixed to a board with space enough between to wedge the student's shoulders. This aligns the shoulders allowing the base of the cervical spine to ascend. The feeling of upwards movement of the body while in the "impinger" is significant.
The elbows should be shoulder width apart but not closer, otherwise the heads of the humerus will see saw out of the shoulder socket. The hands should rest on the kidneys to support the opening of the front torso. As you hold the pose the hands will slip. Each time you adjust the hands there is a tendency for the spine to descend while the skin of the upper back ascends. Meditate on reversing this pattern so the spine continues it's upward journey while the skin of the back releases. Continually ask the tailbone to lift higher, while inviting the pubic bone to follow suit.
Senior Iyengar teacher Kofi Busia, recently told an anecdote about an architect designing an expensive looking home on a limited budget and his joy in undertaking this challenge. Kofi said we approach shoulder stand in this way. We come into the pose and immediately realize our shoulders are under resourced and on a limited budget to hold the weight of our body. As a result, the pose has a sinking tendency. We need to view this as our challenge or tapas, using skillful adjustments and careful attention to maintain the integrity of the pose.
As you hold the pose, let your eyes rest into your heart, softening the face and jaw. For greatest benefit, work up to holding shoulder stand for ten minutes each day, unless you are menstruating or have high blood pressure or glaucoma. Always sequence shoulder stand at the end of your practice for it's cooling and nourishing effects on the nervous system.