When I first began practicing yoga three years ago, I followed a basic hatha sequence in the Woman's Book of Yoga and Health by Linda Sparrow. It included all the fundamentals: warriors I and II, triangle and revolved triangle, extended side angle, bharadvajasana and marichyasana III, downward dog, etc... It also included headstand and shoulderstand-- 26 poses in all, though I omitted a few were either boring, or caused me too much discomfort.
Learning the asanas at home, practicing without a teacher, I have learned many yogic lessons the hard way. When I began my practice, the limitations of my body, and mind, infuriated me. I was strong, damn it! Maybe a little out of shape, but I was no blob. This yoga thing was supposed to be relaxing. Instead, I found myself fighting my way into the asanas, trying to go a little deeper with each practice, and completely disregarding the pleas from my body to have a little compassion, for Christ's sake! As a result, my practice made my body stronger, but also caused me a great deal of pain... and not the nice 'opening' kind.
Because I have suffered from frequent headaches for most of my life (though very rarely, these days), as a green yogini, headstand seemed out of the question, even with a wall there for support. There was absolutely no way, in my mind, that my head and neck would be able to comfortably support the weight of my body without seriously painful repercussions. Shoulderstand, on the other hand, was less scary, more approachable with the back of the head resting there on the floor, my perception not entirely overturned. I practiced it regularly... though I often came away from my practice with lingering, dull headaches that would last for the rest of the day. At the time, I would get headaches nearly every day, yoga or no, but these headaches were distinctive, and it took me a too long to figure out what was causing them: shoulderstand.
As I began to practice more regularly, I learned to relax and listen to my body. I stopped practicing the same sequence every day, and only practiced what felt good to me. This meant dropping shoulderstand from the repertiore almost entirely. I would practice it very occasionally, mostly out of curiosity, but it has never been comfortable. I attribute this to an awful imbalance in my shoulders caused by a habitually defensive posture. I have a tendency to hunch my right shoulder up and forward and drop my left, always, as if readying to protect myself.
Shoulderstand is the asana that brings this habit into full view. I can feel my right shoulder inching its way toward my ear against the mat, clenching, feeding a line of tension along the right side of my neck and into my jaw. I've been battling this tension by working on forward bends, and a few backbends, with my hands clasped behind my back. In this position, I can zero in on the hunching action in my right shoulder, and relax it down. Regular practice has yielded obvious results.
I tried shoulderstand a couple of weeks ago, and there was clear improvement. The first five breaths were perfectly comfortable and stable, but everything fell apart after that, comfort-wise. Last night, I tried it again, and I'm willing to say that it was pretty okay. I stayed for ten breaths. My elbows did not splay, nor did they seem to want to. I mindfully kept my right shoulder relaxing down and back, and maintained length in the neck without trouble. There was noticeably more stability in my pelvis, likely due to all the headstand and handstand work I've been doing. And no headache. I was very pleased, and lowered down into a plough pose after, which was also quite comfortable. Maybe it's time to work sarvangasana back into the mix.