Ah, Shoulderstand. The pose that drives me to pretend I have my period, just so I don’t have to suffer through it. Mmm hmm. That’s right ladies and gents, I said it: I have, on at least one occasion, pretended that I am on my ladies’ holiday (thank you Ms. Kathryn Budig for teaching me that term, by the way), just to avoid going upside down in the Queen of Poses, Salamba Sarvangasana.
Why have I committed such an egregious yoga sin, you ask? There are three reasons to be exact: For starters, the pose is uncomfortable! And hard! Iyengar teacher and physiologist Roger Cole once promised me that Shoulderstand could feel effortless—that I’d feel weightless and I’d be able to stay up for 10 minutes at a time—if I could achieve the proper alignment. To do so, I’d have to open my thoracic spine (upper back) enough that I could really hoist my pelvis above my head. Unfortunately, 16 years of writing and sitting at a desk means that, on most days, my spine and back muscles just don’t cooperate.
Second: I’m just a teeny bit afraid of Shoulderstand. I have absorbed—whether correctly or not—the idea that Shoulderstand can be very, very dangerous for the neck in the long-term. Before I learned this crucial piece of yoga trivia, I was quite happy to do the pose without a blanket like there was no tomorrow for my C-7 vertebra. But then I learned about the potential hazards that come with doing the pose incorrectly over time—a flattened cervical curve, cervical disk injuries, or painful bone spurs. Yikes.
And so I began experimenting by using blankets to support myself in the pose. I tried 1 blanket, 2 blankets, 6 blankets—all on the advice of different yoga teachers. Nothing ever felt quite right. I found the whole process confounding and wearying. It was the beginning of the end.
Finally, I confess: Shoulderstand ignites my inner vanity. As if it’s not bad enough that I find myself uncomfortable and worrying about developing bone spurs on my neck, I also have to stare at the flesh of my belly being pulled by gravity into chubby little rolls. Not fun.
Am I proud of my sordid relationship with Shoulderstand? Not at all. This pose is not called the Queen for nothing. Just take at what BKS Iyengar has to say about the pose in his seminal work, Light on Yoga:
The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasised [sic]. 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. It is a panacea for most common ailments.
He goes on to describe the pose’s benefits in more detail. Among them:
- Calms the nervous system
- Soothes headaches
- Balances the thyroid and parathyroid
- Eradicates sinus problems and colds
- Alleviates digestive ills like constipation, colitis, and ulcers
- Cures the grumps! (He doesn’t put it quite this way, but he does say that it helps with “irritation” and “shortness of temper”)
Given all of that, I decided that it was important for us to make some sort of peace with each other. Then my husband, Jason Crandell, taught me how to do the pose on a chair. Suffice it to say: It changed everything.
Using a chair for Shoulderstand helps you lift your upper back, it supports the weight of your hips, and you get all the benefits of being upside down. For me, it feels exactly as I imagine the pose should feel—relaxing yet stimulating, rooted yet lifted. It’s a beautiful thing and I’m grateful for it.
If you have any difficulties with Shoulderstand and you haven’t tried it with a chair, I strongly encourage you to do so. Even if you are—as I once was—a diehard prop-o-phobe, I promise you this variation is worth it.
There are many ways to use a chair in this pose, but here’s what I do: Grab at least two blankets, a chair, and your sticky mat. For this version, you don’t need a classic yoga folding chair—any chair will do. You will have to adjust the blankets according to your height and body proportions.
Place the chair on the mat and fold one blanket into thirds. Place the blanket on the front edge of the chair seat. You’ll use it to pad the back of your pelvis and hips.
Fold the other two blankets into thirds and place them on the floor about 12 inches in front of the chair. With your props in place, you’ll sit sideways on the chair and then swivel your hips so that your legs are on the back of the chair. Move your buttocks to the center of the seat and hold onto to the sides of the chair. From there, slowly lower yourself down so that your torso is on the floor and your hips are on the chair.
Scoot your hips so that they are toward the front edge of your chair and your upper back is resting on the blankets. (Your neck and head will not be resting on the blankets. If you need less support underneath your back, you can remove one of the blankets.
Once you feel situated, grab on to the sides of the chair seat and extend your legs straight up toward the ceiling. You should feel as though it’s relatively easy to extend your spine and lift your chest.
Yum! Right? Leave a comment here and let me know how it goes! Or, share your favorite variation of Shoulderstand.
An editor at Yoga Journal for nearly a decade, Andrea Ferretti has had the honor of writing about and learning from some of the best yoga teachers in the West. She has been greatly influenced by Sarah Powers, Sally Kempton, Cyndi Lee, and her husband, Jason Crandell. For more of her personal writing, visit her blog, Mindful Living.