Anatomical Breakdown Of Shoulder Stand

March 26, 2024
Anatomical Breakdown Of Shoulder Stand

Shoulder stand, or salamba sarvangasana in Sanskrit, is one of the classical asanas. It’s found in nearly all contemporary styles of yoga asana practice and mentioned in yoga texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP). The Sanskrit name translates to “supported all limbs pose.” Alamba means support. Sarva means all. Anga means limb. At its most basic, that describes what shoulder stand pose is: a supported inversion involving the whole body. Keep reading to dive deeper into the anatomy of shoulder stand.

Mythology

Shoulder stand is a posture shrouded in mythology. Hatha Yoga Pradipika considers this pose to be a mudra (a gesture intended to cultivate an energetic state or connection). More specifically, Krishnamacharya considered shoulder stand, viparita karani, and headstand to be related mudras (Mohan, 2017). He differentiates shoulder stand as the pose in this group where you can practice all three bandhas.

In commentary from a different translation of HYP, the author considers the main difference between shoulder stand and viparita karani to be the relationship of the torso to the floor. They suggest that in shoulder stand the torso is more perpendicular to the floor, but in viparita karani, the back is at a forty-five-degree angle to the floor (Muktibodhananda, 2008). However, there is some difference of opinion on the naming of these related poses. Pattabhi Jois, in Yoga Mala, says: “Viparita karani means inverted, turned around, or working in a contrary manner, and refers to the shoulder stand and headstand.”

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Yogic benefits

Either way, you can get a sense that these various types of inversions are related and likely have similar effects. A wide variety of interesting benefits are attributed to shoulder stand and/or viparita karani. Commentary from one translation of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that viparita karani “stimulates the thyroid and awakens vishuddhi chakra” and that it is very similar to shoulder stand. BKS Iyengar is particularly enthusiastic about shoulder stand and says in Light on Yoga: “The importance of sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized. It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages.”

Both BKS Iyengar (in Light on Yoga) and Pattabhi Jois (in Yoga Mala) report that shoulder stand is a cure for many throat-related ailments and has many other potential benefits. Pattabhi Jois even suggests that musicians will benefit from the pose. He says this in Yoga Mala: “Musicians who practice this asana for a period of time will find that it helps their singing become melodious and tuneful.”

Why do shoulder stand pose?

It’s important to differentiate between the measurable physiological benefits and whatever energetic or other subtle benefits this pose might have, however. There is very little Western laboratory research about this pose specifically. There are no medical studies that have validated the claims that shoulder stand influences the thyroid or parathyroid because of the chin position, or as an aid to any of the other illnesses it’s reported to cure specifically. So the physiological benefits of this pose are still unclear. Shoulder stand is both an inversion and a forward bend. It has the benefits of other inversions, but with generally less effort needed to hold yourself up compared to something like headstand. It also has many of the benefits of other forward bends.

Let’s get into the anatomy to better understand shoulder stand.

Anatomy of shoulder stand

Shoulder stand is a forward bend. We might think of it first as an inversion, and that’s also true. It is an inversion. But if we’re thinking about muscles that restrict our ability to move into the pose, then I think it’s more helpful to remember that shoulder stand is a forward bend. It requires sufficient length along the whole back line of the body in order to get up and then eventually straighten up. That means we need length in our calves and hamstrings. We need to be able to tilt our pelvis. And, we need to be able to flex our neck and spine. Tension anywhere along that line of connected tissues can restrict our ability to do shoulder stand.

Flexion in shoulder stand

In the full expression of a shoulder stand, our neck is fully flexed. All of the muscles along the back of our neck and upper spine are in a lengthened position. That includes things like levator scapulae, the upper trapezius, and the cervical portion of our erector spinae muscles. Our spine is also flexed to some degree. However, our spine will be more flexed if we bring our feet all the way behind us into halasana, or plow pose, as we make our way into shoulder stand. We’ll undo some of the spinal flexion if we come into the full expression of shoulder stand with our legs up in the air. Regardless of how much we straighten up into our shoulder stand, the thoracic and lumbar portion of our erector spinae muscles will be lengthened to some degree.

The Erector Spinae Muscles in Halasana

Halasana: plow pose

The pelvis

Our pelvis might start in a more posteriorly tilted position when we move into shoulder stand, especially if we have tight hamstrings. But, when we straighten up into shoulder stand, we undo some of that tilt. How much we bring the pelvis into neutral depends on how much we straighten into our shoulder stand. And how much we can straighten up, depends on how much openness we have elsewhere in our body including in our neck, shoulders, and spine below us and in our hamstrings.

Arms and shoulders

The arms and shoulders are also involved in shoulder stand of course. When we are up in a shoulder stand, our arms are externally rotated at the shoulder joint and anatomically hyperextended. That just means we’ve extended our arms at the shoulder joint behind our torso. (That meaning of hyperextension is different than the condition of hyperextension in a joint that you might get diagnosed with.)

Intentions

As I’ve already said, shoulder stand best fits into two general categories of postures, forward bends and inversions. We can work with both of those intentions in the pose. As with other forward bending postures, one intention we work with in shoulder stand is lengthening the tissues along the back of the body. In particular, this posture is an effective way to lengthen tissues along the back of the neck, upper back, and spine.

We can also work with the intention of inversions in shoulder stand. We are elevating the legs above the torso. Within the Ashtanga practice, shoulder stand is part of the closing sequence, so there is an intention of steadying the nervous system and integrating the practice you’ve just done. However, other styles of practice, like Sivananda, do shoulder stand closer to the beginning of the practice, so in those styles it can have a different energetic intention.

Techniques

Generally, we set up for shoulder stand by first lying down. Assuming we want to do the regular version of the pose and not a variation, we then move into the pose in one of two ways. One way to enter the pose is to just pick our legs up and reach our feet up into the air to come directly into it. That works if your shoulders and spine are sufficiently open to allow you to move through the range of motion needed to go straight into the pose.

Coming up through halasana

Another way to come into shoulder stand is to bring your feet behind you, into halasana, then take some time to wiggle your shoulders towards each other which often has the effect of also creating more space under your neck. Then, when your base feels comfortable and balanced, you can bring your legs up into the air. In either version of entering the pose, you’ll place your hands somewhere on your lower back to support yourself.

Modifying the pose

If your shoulder and/or spinal flexibility don’t allow you to come all the way into the pose, or if you try to lift up into shoulder stand and you can’t get far enough up to stay there and you keep rolling out, then you can start with other variations. One option is to set up near a wall, and while keeping your whole torso on the floor, lift only your legs and rest your feet and potentially some part of your legs against the wall.

Using blankets for support

If your particular neck and shoulder architecture and/or flexibility don’t allow you to create space under the neck, particularly around C7 when doing shoulder stand, then you might benefit from setting up the pose in the Iyengar style with one or more blankets. Arrange the folded edge of your blanket so that it is just at the edge of your shoulders, but your head is hanging off. This can allow you to maintain a little bit more of the cervical curve in your neck and avoid pressing C7 into the ground with your body weight over it, which can be uncomfortable and also isn’t great for your neck.

Variations in shoulder stand

As I mentioned earlier in this article, yogic texts point out that shoulder stand is very similar to viparita karani, which some teachers call legs-up-the-wall pose. And that simple inversion could be considered a variation of shoulder stand. It’s a safe accessible inversion for most beginners. Other styles, like Iyengar yoga in particular, teach many supported variations of this pose using props like a folding chair, blankets, and straps. These are best learned from an experienced Iyengar teacher.

There are also variations around what shape to make with your legs. In addition to lifting the legs straight up, some styles teach variations with the legs in wide leg stretch, a lotus position, and others. And, there are sequences built around variations on this pose. In Ashtanga we have a whole series built around shoulder stand that is part of the closing series. The sequence includes shoulder stand, halasana, karnapidasana, urdhva padmasana, pindasana, then two counter poses, matsyasana and uttana padasana.

Cautions

Shoulder stand does ask us to deeply flex the neck. There are many reasons why that kind of flexion in the neck might not be a good idea. If you have herniated discs in cervical vertebrae, nerve impingements, past surgeries, injuries, neck pain, etc., then shoulder stand might not be a good fit for you. There is also some concern generally about inversions for those with high blood pressure. Theoretically, the body would have to work a little harder to keep the blood circulating if we turn the system upside down. However, there is limited research on that currently. So, if that is a concern for you, err on the cautious side and work directly with an experienced teacher if you are considering inversions.

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Conclusion

Shoulder stand is a part of the traditional canon of yoga postures in most contemporary styles of practice. It can have many benefits. It also comes with some cautions. If you’re new to yoga or are uncertain about whether this pose is contraindicated for you, consult a local experienced teacher.

References

Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga–Revised Edition. New York, NY. Schocken Books, 1979.

Jois, K.P.J. Yoga Mala. New York, NY. North Point Press, 2002.

Mohan, A.G. and G. Mohan, translation and commentary. Hatha Yoga Pradipika with Notes by Krishnamacharya. Svastha Yoga, 2017.

Muktibodhananda, S., translation and commentary. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Yoga Publications Trust, 2008.