Salamba Sarvangasana entails a whole lot more than just flipping upside down on your shoulders. What makes it so difficult? In two words: the neck. But there is no reason to avoid Shoulderstand just because you are prone to neck problems. In fact, if you practice Shoulderstand properly, it can strengthen your neck. Opinions will always differ about whether Shoulderstand should be practiced with the support of multiple yoga props.
Regardless of the health of your neck, regardless of whether you use many blankets or none at all, a slow and patient approach to Shoulderstand is worthwhile; a poorly practiced Shoulderstand can aggravate or cause neck problems. I recommend a Shoulderstand strategy that starts with Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose) and gradually trains you to rely more on spinal strength than on props to support your Shoulderstand.
Prepare for Viparita Karani by folding a firm blanket into a rectangle large enough to fit comfortably under your torso from shoulders to hips (at least 24 inches by 20 inches). Place it on a sticky mat, folding about a foot of mat over the folded edge of the blanket so you’ll have traction for your elbows.
Position the mat and blanket just far enough from a wall that you can lie on it with your shoulders on the blanket fold and your hips near the wall. Lie down on the blanket with your legs up the wall and your arms stretched out at shoulder level on the floor. With your eyes closed, consciously relax into the blanket. Take your time; let Viparita Karani be an exercise in patient undoing. Feel your shoulders and the back of your skull melting into the floor each time you exhale. As tension dissolves, you may feel more freedom in your neck, perhaps allowing you to elongate it a bit.
Don’t just tuck your chin in; wriggle both the front and back of your neck longer until your weight rests on the center of the back of the skull. Allow your face to become quiet and feel how you can turn your head easily from side to side. As you relax, your breathing will become slow and steady and create a delicate sound in the throat. There is no need to force this sound; simply shifting your attention to the movement of the breath in the throat will usually produce this subtle sound. The sound and accompanying sensations are a bit like sonar, helping you map and maintain the space you seek, the whole way from the soft palate to the upper chest.
You are now ready to raise your torso off the floor. Exhale and gently press the center back skull (not the base of the skull) into the floor. Do you feel the response in your neck muscles? What you are doing is creating an active cervical arch that will help avoid overstretching the neck and begin the movement that will be the source of core support for your Shoulderstand. This movement is quite important, but don’t do it by pushing the chin up: That action overarches the neck.
Keep the center of the back of your skull firmly rooted to the floor and exhale as you bend your knees, press the soles of your feet into the wall, and roll up onto your upper back or shoulders. Allow each exhalation to add strength to your lift. Regardless of how high you rise onto your shoulders, it is important that you maintain the active cervical arch of the neck. If you feel that your chin drops or your neck flattens down, intensify the action of pressing the skull into the floor.
Next, bring your arms behind your back, join your hands, extend your arms toward the wall, and press your elbows down far into the blanket. Please don’t actively squeeze your shoulder blades together, since this may constrict your neck. Instead, allow the action of the arms to narrow the shoulder blades more gently. If you are prone to hyperextending (i.e., locking) your elbows, bend them enough that you can press them down into the blanket. If, on the other hand, you can’t bring your elbows to the floor at all, lean back until you can root them firmly into the blanket. Then lengthen the back of your arms and bend your elbows, placing your hands on your back as close to the shoulder blades as possible.
If your elbows start to splay out wider than the width of your shoulders, lower your arms. Moving more slowly, strongly lengthen the backs of your arms and rotate your outer arms toward the floor as you once again bend the arms to place your hands on your upper back. If your elbows don’t splay open, leave well enough alone.
Take a close look to see if your pose suffers from this common problem. Examine your lower ribs. If they are sinking back into your body, you can try a couple of remedies. First, recall the slight back arch you did in Viparita Karani Mudra. Using your hands to keep your rib cage fixed, drop your hips back just enough to restore length to your front body. Also, use your legs and abdomen more strongly.
Though you do need strength to sustain and stabilize the uplift in Shoulderstand, you should feel no strain at all. As always, your breath is a good guide to the overall health of your asana. The sound of the breath should remain subtle and steady, with each exhalation strong and at least as long as the previous inhalation. If you feel strain or cannot sustain a breath-initiated uplift, put your feet on the wall or return to Viparita Karani Mudra. If not, remain in Shoulderstand, continuing to refine the pose.
In any asana, physical sensations and techniques often dominate your attention. When a pose is difficult, as Salamba Sarvangasana can be, it is easy to rush through the pose.
Shoulderstand needs time to take shape and make its effects felt. As your actions work their way to the core of the body, the benefits of the asana deepen dramatically. If unhurried, your body will continue to change, allowing a natural and lasting expansion of your range of motion. For example, as your shoulders adapt to the deep rotation required for this pose, you may be able to move your hands closer and closer to your shoulders, which in turn helps you to achieve greater lift and ease in the whole pose.
Also, while the effects of Salamba Sarvangasana (like any asana) are most noticeable in the surface muscles of the body, subtle but powerful internal movements inevitably ripple through you as you hold the pose. Establish a comfortable balance that allows you to prolong the pose in attentive stillness for several minutes, so you can explore these subtle inner currents. Search out pockets of inner tension, letting the breath’s pulsating rhythm help restore space and movement in the deepest regions of the body.
Of course, the optimum length of time to hold any pose is unique to each person—unique, in fact, in every practice session, depending on the condition of your body on a given day. I’m not a big fan of forcing the body to hold a pose for a predetermined time. When you impose a fixed time, you can easily outstay your welcome in Shoulderstand and open the door to injury. But eventually, if you want to fully enjoy the effects of inversion, you should try to build up your Viparita Karani Mudra or full Shoulderstand until you can practice them for at least three to five minutes.
To come out of either pose, put your feet on the wall and slowly curl back to the floor. Lie on your back for a minute. You should expect to feel as though your neck has been stretched, but any discomfort should be mild and subside quickly. If it doesn’t, I suggest practicing for a shorter length of time or switching to Viparita Karani Mudra with your feet on the wall instead of full Shoulderstand.
Now that the mild constriction of Jalandhara Bandha has been released, all the energy you built up in your throat is also released, which can bring a wonderful sense of expansion through your chest and throat. After relaxing for a minute, roll over on your side and come to a straight-back sitting position. If you feel a strong lift through your upper back and your skull seems to be floating gently upward, you have sure signs that your Shoulderstand did its job.
In Salamba Sarvangasana, as in all hatha yoga, much of the beauty of practice lies in knowing that while each of us walks respectfully in the footprints of the masters who have gone before, we must each use our own unique body to continue the journey. Only the whole-hearted, authentic inquiry of each individual practitioner keeps Shoulderstand a living entity—and keeps hatha yoga a vital tradition, venerable and yet ever unfolding.