"The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized. It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages. Sarvangasana is the Mother of asanas. As a mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for harmony and happiness of the human system." -- BKS Iyengar, Light on YogaSalamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) is a basic yet powerful inverted posture. The benefits ascribed to this pose are many, particularly stimulation of the thyroid and parathyroid glands. Long holds (5 to 15 minutes) are recommended to fully allow for its effects to take place, though 15-20 slow breaths is a good place to start for beginning practitioners. While Shoulderstand is generally considered the most accessible of the full inversions, care must be taken to protect the neck and shoulder girdle when practicing this pose.
Do not practice the full pose if you suffer from high blood pressure, chronic neck pain, or are recovering from any type of spinal injury. I recommend that blankets or a folded mat (as pictured -- sorry for the awful, grainy picture, btw) be placed under the shoulders and upper arms to ease the flexion of the neck and reduce the risk of causing reverse curve in the cervical spine. When done correctly, this active yet rejuvenating pose has a wonderfully soothing effect on the nervous system and is grounding and strengthening for the entire body. With the appropriate support, Sarvangasana may also help alleviate tension headaches as it stretches the deep and delicate musculature at the base of the skull.
Prepare for Sarvangasana with gentle forward bends and shoulder openers. When coming into the pose, be sure to establish your foundation by bringing the shoulderblades together on the back and, once up, walk the elbows a little closer together so that the weigh of the body rests on the tops of the shoulders. Be aware of the position of the head and neck throughout your stay in the pose, ensuring that the back of the neck is not in contact with the floor and the gaze is kept straight up to the toes. Any lateral movement of the neck in this position may result in serious injury to the cervical vertebrae. Maintain a neutral position of the cervical spine and steady position of the head. If you feel any discomfort in the neck or if the weight of the body is resting on the C7 vertebrae (the knobby knob at the base of the neck), release the pose immediately and work with a modified version until the necessary strength and mobility has been developed in the neck and shoulders.
Once proficiency has been gained in the basic version of the pose, there are a variety of movements to be explored in Sarvangasana. You may take one foot at a time to the floor behind the head for Eka Pada Sarvangasana, bring the legs into lotus position for Urdhva Padmasana (Upward Lotus), or reach both arms up and balance on the shoulders alone for Niralamba Sarvangasana (Unsupported Shoulderstand). These variations (among others) are an excellent way to build your stay in Shoulderstand without feeling as though tension is accumulating in the shoulders or fatigue in the torso and thighs from too long of a stay in the same position.
Sarvangasana Sequence: This sequence, inspired by the Ashtanga finishing series, prepares the body for Sarvangasana, first with core strengthening and shoulder opening, then a forward bend before taking it all upside down for some nice inverted hip openers.
- Navasana (Boat Pose)
- Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) - I'm envisioning the hatha variation, not the Ashtanga version of this pose.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
- Paschimottansana (Intense West Stretch/Seated Forward Fold)
- Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand)
- Eka Pada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand)
- Urdhva Padamasana (Upward Lotus Pose)
- Matsayasana (Fish Pose)
- Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose)
- Savasana (Corpse Pose)