A yoga practice without inversions is like a marriage without a spouse, lemonade without lemons, or a body without a heart—the essence is missing. Inversions set yoga apart from other physical disciplines: Psychologically, they allow us to see things from an alternate perspective. Emotionally, they guide the energy of the pelvis (the energy of creation and personal power) toward the heart center, enabling self-exploration and inner growth. Physically, they stimulate the immune and endocrine systems, thereby invigorating and nourishing the brain and the organs. When done correctly, inversions also release tension in the neck and the spine.
A healthy sarvangasana requires a strong opening of the armpits and a rolling of the shoulders back and toward each other to allow the neck to release properly. A good way to prepare for this is to stand with your back near a table, interlock your fingers, place your hands on the table, and bend your knees while lifting your chest. This replicates the movement necessary in the full pose but places no weight on the head or neck, allowing you to cultivate flexibility without risk.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) is another good preparation, because it distributes weight between the feet and upper body while protecting the neck. While in this pose, you can check to see if you’ve developed the necessary flexibility in your shoulders for Sarvangasana: Lift your pelvis, leave your shoulders on the floor, and notice your seventh cervical vertebra (C7), that big bump at the bottom of the neck. If it’s pressing into the floor, you are not yet ready for the next step, or you will need firm blankets or foam pads to support your body. If you use blankets or pads, they should support your body from your elbows to your shoulders and upper trapezius muscles, which cover the upper-back part of the neck and shoulders. If you have stiff trapezius muscles, C7 will also rest on the pads. Eventually, your chest will touch your chin, indicating that your neck is mobile enough for you to practice Sarvangasana.
If you feel you are ready to move on, try Ardha Sarvangasana (Half Shoulderstand). This is done with the pelvis lifted off the floor, the feet on the wall, and the shoulders rolled under with two or three carefully folded blankets or firm pads under them to ensure that the neck is pain-free. The pads should be in the same position as described above for Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. In time, you will feel ready to do full Sarvangasana by lifting one leg at a time from Ardha Sarvangasana.
While pads are unnecessary for perfect bodies, for the rest of us, they are necessary. Ultimately, the shoulders themselves become the pads and no part of the spine touches the floor. In the meantime, the stiffer the shoulders, the higher the pads need to be.
After you come out of Sarvangasana, sit up and notice its effects. Your eyelids should feel heavy and your facial muscles soft and weighted, as if your jawbone is going to drop off.
The gifts of sirsasana are so great that even if you are not ready to do the actual pose, you can benefit by preparing for it. The preparations help you strengthen the latissimus dorsi muscles—the large muscles that attach the upper arms to the back—as well as help create the awareness required to spread, lift, and strengthen the muscles around the shoulder blades so that the neck is protected.
Start in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and focus on engaging the muscles that spread the shoulder blades away from each other, away from the floor, and toward the rib cage. This action will build the upper-body strength you will need, and when you re-create this in Sirsasana, both your head and neck will be protected. In Adho Mukha Svanasana, make sure that your shoulder blades are wide and your neck is long. (You can allow your head to rest on a block.) Check to see if your shoulders are below an imaginary line drawn between your wrists and buttocks—if so, you are ready to go on.
Learning how to set up your arms and head is the next step toward Sirsasana. Interlock your fingers and thumbs on the floor in front of you. Keep your wrists as far apart as possible and your elbows shoulder width apart, so that your inner elbows and inner armpits form a square. Place your head against your wrists and thumb mounds; your head should rest on the floor at your fontanel (the spot in front of the crown of the head) or slightly in front of it. You can find the fontanel by feeling for the big bump on the top of your head and then sliding your fingers forward; you will feel a valley (the fontanel) followed by a second bump. Then come out of the setup.
If you have stiff shoulders and a rounded upper back, try a Sirsasana preparation with firm pads against a wall. This helps flatten and open your upper back, create a soft neck, and encourage the sense of lift in your shoulders that is necessary for doing Sirsasana correctly. Set up your head and arms with your knuckles touching the wall, then walk your feet toward your arms and straighten your legs. Press your wrists down and try to take your shoulders off the pads; as you do so, you should feel your head lifting off the floor.
As a beginning yoga student, you should have 90 percent of your weight on your forearms and 10 percent on your head in Sirsasana. As you evolve in the posture, you’ll put more weight on your head until eventually almost 100 percent of your weight is on your head. Many beginners find that Sirsasana is no longer scary when they realize there is very little weight on their head and neck.
The next step is Ardha Sirsasana (Half Headstand). There are no balance issues in this preparatory pose, because the arms are on the floor and the feet are pressing against the wall with the legs parallel to the floor. Start by kneeling with your back toward a wall, and place your arms on a sticky mat set a leg’s length from the wall. To set up the pose, interlock your fingers and thumbs, place your elbows shoulder width apart, bring your fontanel to the floor, and make sure that your head is not tipped or twisted to one side. Lift your shoulders, moving your shoulder blades up and apart like water flowing from a fountain. Then slowly walk your feet up the wall until your thighs and legs are parallel to the floor. Hold the pose for about half a minute—being very aware of your shoulder blades lifting and expanding—and then come down. If your shoulder blades moved up and away from each other in the pose, you are ready for Sirsasana.
To move into the full pose, set your sticky mat next to a wall and place your knuckles next to the wall. To come up, follow the setup instructions for the head and shoulders; then, with your legs bent, gently jump both legs up and land with the soles of your feet touching the wall. Straighten your legs one at a time, pressing them together.
When you come out of Sirsasana and sit up, you should feel a peaceful, focused sensation in your brain and nerves. Your hands should be calm and steady. If they are not, you have stayed too long, worked incorrectly, or worked too hard. Never strain in this pose. Have your teacher check your pose frequently to see that your head and neck are in the correct alignment and that your shoulders are lifting and widening properly.