Inverted yoga poses are perfect for looking at the world for a new perspective – seeing with new eyes. When we turn upside down, the world looks different. The world hasn’t fundamentally changed of course; it is our relationship with it that has changed.
Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) is one of the fundamental asanas in yoga. Nicknamed the “Queen” of poses (Headstand is “King”), Shoulderstand improves balance, drains fluid from the lungs and legs, stretches the back of the neck and opens the heart. In the scale of heating to cooling poses—referring not only to temperature-raising or -lowering qualities, but also to the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic “fight or flight” vs. parasympathetic “rest and digest” response—Salamba Sarvangasana sits just to the cooling, relaxing side of the center. If you thumb through the BKS Iyengar’s classic book, Light on Yoga, you will see that Salamba Sarvangasana is listed first or second as a therapeutic pose for almost every category of physical imbalance.
In order for Shoulderstand to live up to its promises, it must be practiced with patience, mindfulness and care. If you have never practiced it, I highly recommend that you learn from an experienced teacher. If you have neck problems, retinal problems, glaucoma or heart problems, it is better not to practice Shoulderstand. That said, with proper support and guidance, some individuals with neck problems can practice safely. I have suffered several whiplash injuries, and have learned how to practice comfortably. It is also advisable to avoid inversions during your menstrual period.
I can’t stress adamantly enough the importance of practicing Shoulderstand with props. In his early years of teaching, Iyengar’s students began to experience neck issues such as arthritis and degenerative disc disease from practicing Shoulderstand on the floor. This prompted him to devise a new way of practicing with blankets that literally saved his students’ necks. Elevating your shoulders and arms on a stack of yoga blankets while your head rests on the floor accomplishes two things: It keeps the neck from flexing past 75 degrees, the maximum angle that most cervical spines are able to bend forward. It keeps the weight of the body off the fragile cervical vertebrae and intervertebral discs.
Geeta Iyengar’s book, Yoga: A Gem for Women, claims that Shoulderstand nourishes the throat, home of the thyroid and parathyroid glands by bringing fresh blood into the area. In my experience, Salamba Sarvangasana, is truly good for everything on all levels—physical, mental and emotional. Practiced with patience, care and props, Shoulderstand can relax and calm, as it opens you to fresh perspectives.