Many many many yoga traditions consider shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) to be the mother of all poses, quintessential to every yoga practice. It has been touted as one of the most beneficial poses and we have even heard teachers claim that a yoga practice is “incomplete” without it. Because of this dogmatic attitude, we are met with strange and (we feel unwarranted) animosity when explaining to other “yogis” that… we rarely teach this pose and when we do, it is SUPER modified.
First, let’s talk about some of these “benefits” that are widely listed. Increases thyroid function… There have even been medical doctors who side with this claim. This could potentially be true, but we have yet to read any real concrete studies done about this subject, so as true scientists, we can’t claim this as a benefit. Same thing goes for other “benefits” such as increasing metabolism, relief from asthma, relief from insomnia, etc… Again we would love to see some real studies done on this. As far as other benefits, such as relief from anxiety, decrease in blood pressure, or activation of the parasympathetic nervous system: those are purely subjective experiences. Some people may find this pose relaxing, but others may find it scary and uncomfortable. Obviously, for those people, shoulder stand would have the opposite effect. Now that we’ve discussed the possible reasons for doing the pose, let’s talk about the asana itself.
The way this pose is usually taught (unsupported) has the back of your head on the floor and the shoulderblades and upper arms supporting the rest of the body, which is supposed to be perpendicular to the floor… uh… yea. I don’t think it takes a biomechanical genius to figure out that this is probably, at the very least, uncomfortable. It is believed that if it is done properly, there is no weight being placed on the neck, as the shoulders and arms can support your whole body. That MIGHT be true for somebody with very stable or broad shoulders, a decent amount of thoracic spinal extension and who weighs less than a buck twenty. (Don’t forget that this pose is said to yield the most benefits when practiced for OVER 10 minutes!) However, imagine someone with a kyphotic curve who is overweight and leads a sedentary life being given the same cues? That’s just an injury waiting to happen. Of course, a common reply we hear when speaking about the dangers of this pose is, “Well, I have been doing it this way for 15 years and I’m fine!” Good for you! Do you also bleed rainbows?! Just because that is YOUR experience, does not mean it will be EVERYONE’s experience. To be fair, there are lots of ways to modify this pose to make it safer, however just like any physical activity, repetition increases the chance for injury… and injuries in shoulder stands are NOT FUN ONES. In fact, here is a little excerpt from Yoga Journal about the potential dangers of this pose:
“What happens if your student forces her neck too far into flexion in Shoulderstand? If she is lucky, she will only strain a muscle. A more serious consequence, which is harder to detect until the damage is done, is that she might stretch her ligamentum nuchae beyond its elastic limits. She may do this gradually over many practice sessions until the ligament loses its ability to restore her normal cervical curve after flexion. Her neck would then lose its curve and become flat, not just after practicing Shoulderstand, but all day, every day. A flat neck transfers too much weight onto the fronts of the vertebrae. This can stimulate the weight-bearing surfaces to grow extra bone to compensate, potentially creating painful bone spurs. A still more serious potential consequence of applying excessive force to the neck in Shoulderstand is a cervical disk injury. As the pose squeezes the front of the disks down, one or more of them can bulge or rupture to the rear, pressing on nearby spinal nerves. This can cause numbness, tingling, pain and/or weakness in the arms and hands. Finally, a student with osteoporosis could even suffer a neck fracture from the overzealous practice of Shoulderstand.”
Wow… that sounds FUCKING AWESOME! On the off chance that you don’t permanently fuck up your neck, you can look forward to the unproven benefits listed above. Sounds like it’s worth it… The ironic thing about this, is that even though teachers know and admit that this pose has these potential dangers, it is still recommended even for students who are overcoming neck pain, as stated in a different Yoga Journal article:
“But there is no reason to avoid Shoulderstand just because you are prone to neck problems. In fact, if you practice Shoulderstand properly, it can strengthen your neck.”
Yea maybe… if it doesn’t BREAK your neck first. (We do want to note that we think it is wonderful that this author was able to improve upon her own experience with the pose. The fact that it cannot be necessarily applied to others does not invalidate her experience, nor does her experience act as proof that everyone else could benefit as she has. Also, her ideas about combating the effects of gravity are in and of themselves questionable. ) Now, as you may know from reading our blog, we do not like speaking in absolutes. That being said, this next statement is going to be a highly controversial exception to this rule. Ready? Here it comes: IF YOU HAVE A NECK INJURY, DON’T DO SHOULDERSTAND! Period! There is NOTHING to be gained by this pose that you can’t gain in some other way that won’t potentially damage your neck. A little cost-benefit analysis could be helpful in this case. The ONLY absolute and proven benefit that practicing shoulderstand has is that it will make you better at shoulderstand and I guess better at yoga, whatever that means. What this information essentially boils down to is that, if shoulderstand is something that you care about doing, then do it. If you don’t care about it, maybe do something else. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do Yoga.
When we do have students who are interested in trying this pose, we generally teach it with a less extreme angle of the spine. Instead of being perpendicular to the floor, we will prop their hips on a chair (so that the angle between their back and the floor is 60 degrees or less) and have them hold the pose for less than two minutes (not over 10). There are times in which we are working with performers who have to practice similar movements for an upcoming piece, we may teach unsupported shoulder stand, but IN TRANSITION so that they can learn how to properly bear weight on their arms. That is about the extent of our shoulder-stand-ing. Again, if you have any questions about this pose, feel free to ask us.