Co-authored by Darcy Miller.
One of the most beneficial poses in yoga is also – potentially – one of the more dangerous.
Many classes include an option to do “Shoulderstand” toward the end of class – it’s considered a more doable inversion for beginners, and a more relaxing one than handstand or forearm stand.
Alongside the offer to practice this pose, you may hear teachers call out warnings or suggestions. Like “don’t turn your head.” Or “use blankets for support.” Which might cause you to wonder – what would happen if I don’t do this? What are the real dangers? And… are the benefits great enough to outweigh them?
The best way to avoid causing injury to your body – and to simultaneously get the most out of the pose – is to have someone instruct you while learning the pose. Instead of trying to pick it up in a crowded class, hoping the teacher will catch it if you’re doing something wrong, take a private class. Or work with the teacher after class to check your alignment, and ask any questions. Like many poses in yoga, there are dangers to your body by putting it in a weird position it’s not used to, especially in this one where you can’t see yourself in a mirror to check how you’re doing – however, you don’t want to miss out on the enormous benefits by avoiding it entirely for the sake of potential problems. This goes for anything in life! Yoga encourages us to take risks. By this we don’t mean kick up in to a handstand in the middle of crowded room when you feel exhausted, or kick your legs up into Shoulderstand when you haven’t checked it out against your own physical constraints. Take a risk – safely.
Why you don’t want to miss out on Shoulderstand: the huge list of benefits from going upside down, and particularly from going upside down in this pose. If you pick up a copy of BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, notice that this pose is listed first or second as a therapeutic pose for almost every category of physical imbalance.
Shoulderstand puts your neck into flexion, as you lift your pelvis and shoulders. This means you are squeezing the carotid arteries – the major blood vessels that run along your neck and supply blood to the brain, neck and face. When the neck squeezes here, baroreceptors sense this as high pressure. Their job is to regulate blood pressure by noticing changes and reporting that to the brain, so that proper blood pressure can be maintained. So when they mistakenly note high pressure, the brain adjusts accordingly, resulting in lower blood pressure. This also increases the feeling of relaxation from this posture.
Another reason you end up feeling relaxed – and lowering your blood pressure – is that all inversions cause increased blood flow into the heart chambers. This is due simply to the effects of gravity. When the heart senses that the volume of blood there has increased, it releases a hormone to decrease blood pressure. In this way, Shoulderstand and other inversions healthfully trick your heart into lowering blood pressure.
Another big benefit is increased circulation to the body. And although it increases circulation in the thyroid region, interestingly enough, the pose does not stimulate the thyroid. The thyroid, when active, is known for increasing metabolism. But much to our benefit, this pose, instead of becoming a heated and stimulating posture, remains cooling and relaxing.
Along with improved circulation, the pose is also credited with helping to drain fluid from the body.
What else sees benefits? You guessed it, the always needy sinuses! Our sinus cavities can swell with allergies and other difficulties, and hence have trouble draining, causing sinusitis and sinus headaches. To get the benefits, rest in the pose for 30 seconds to a few minutes (depending on your level of practice), then gently come out of it. While drainage will be inhibited while in the pose, once you come out the sinuses should drain quickly – and completely.
Why you should get good instruction BEFORE you start…
Unfortunately there have been cases of students reporting serious injuries from this pose, usually from doing it incorrectly and for long periods of time. The head and neck can bear a lot of weight in this pose when done incorrectly, and this creates an environment for all sorts of injuries.
First of all, Shoulderstand puts the neck into flexion. This can be done safely, as long as the neck is not going into too much flexion, causing excess pressure on the head and neck. Too much flexion can, in the best-case scenario, cause neck strain. Potentially over time, it also could stretch the ligament there until it can no longer restore its normal cervical curve, and the neck flattens. A flat neck places way too much pressure on the vertebrae.
Another problem from applying a lot of overdue pressure to the neck is risk of cervical disk injury. As the pose squeezes the front of the disks down, they can bulge or rupture, pressing on nearby nerves and causing tingling, weakness, and pain.
We can be led to believe that the ideal way to do this pose is to do it with the body vertically upright. Part of this may come from Iyengar, who said the benefits increase when the pose is done this way. However, what we may lose sight of in doing this, is that Mr. Iyengar also strongly advised that blankets be used as essential supporting props in this pose. While there may be increased benefits from a more vertical positioning in this pose, most people who are not advanced yogis are not able to safely do the pose this way. When you use blankets, you support the shoulders, and also place the neck at a lower angle so there is less flexion.
Teachers will remind you not to turn your head side to side in this pose. Why?
Well, it can be dangerous to turn the head, as this increases the strain on all the muscles, ligaments, and discs there. Some report that this can even obstruct the carotid arteries, which run up along your neck and could cause you to blackout.
Finally, there really are some people who should consider avoiding Shoulderstand at all times, such as those with osteoporosis or shoulder/neck injuries. Other illnesses like arthritis or high blood pressure, even retinal problems, can also cause complications. Check with a knowledgeable teacher. Why not choose an alternative pose in these cases – even legs up the wall pose, for example, offers many of the benefits of inversion without the dangers and potential neck injury.
So – to reiterate – check in with a teacher for some one on one instruction when you are first learning this pose. Meanwhile, a few tips to remember when you are practicing that will help:
1. DO Use props! Whether or not the teacher in your particular class says it, you should learn what’s best for your body before you practice this pose in a busy class. Unless you’re very advanced, it’s most likely a good idea to use props – once you’ve learned how to use them. Go get your blankets (or block). Or choose not to do it at all, and opt for legs up the wall. Or… raise your hand and ask the teacher for an alternate pose suggestion.
2. DON’T force your neck into too much flexion. Use blankets. (Do we repeat ourselves? YES we do!) Make sure only the base of the neck is on the blankets.
3. DO use the back of your shoulders and arms to support you.
4. DON’T put pressure on the neck at all. Weight should be primarily distributed between the shoulders and upper arms.
5. DO keep space under the cervical spine area – that’s the seven vertebrae of the neck. The smallest vertebrae, they support the skull, move the spine and protect the spinal cord. So they’re important – take care of them! Leave enough space that someone could slide their fingers under there.
6. DON’T try harder to squeeze your chin toward your chest. In fact, you might want to raise your chest toward the chin and move the chin slightly away from the chest to lessen the pressure on the neck
For some more instruction, watch one of our favorite teachers Esther Ekhart instructing this pose.
Now have fun – and be good to your body. You need it.