The Shoulder Stand is sometimes called the mother of the asanas. In this pose, the head and chest are close together and the eyes gaze right into the heart. The throat is soft, the will is bent, inviting a humility characteristic of the feminine. In the Kundalini system, the neck and throat are related to the fifth chakra, which is the seat of will and surrender, and is controlled by the sense of hearing. Flexibility in the throat is a key to the pose, which suggests bringing in an attitude of surrender and listening. Which voice will I listen to?
As in any asana, we have choice. We can listen to the voice of self-will, which is most interested in creating a perfect image at whatever cost. We can listen to the voice of fear, which is protective and cautious of being hurt. We can listen to the voice of complacency, which wants us to stay within familiar and comfortable limits. Or we can listen to the voice of intuition, hearing what the body is saying in the moment. Can we discriminate between our various internal voices and find that elusive mental, as well as physical, balance?
In Sanskrit, the Shoulder Stand is called Salamba Sarvangasana. Sarva translates as “whole, entire.” Anga means “limb” or “body.” Salamba means “with support.” In this position, we learn to support our whole body upside down on the foundation of the shoulders. Symbolically, we practise carrying our own weight, recognizing that we have the power to be independent and to lift ourselves up.
To many of us, shoulders are synonymous with responsibility. What responsibilities do we carry and how do they end up in the crevices of the shoulder joints? If you take time to relax your shoulders – rotating them slowly forward and back – do you notice that there is always a little something to let go? From where? From what thoughts? How can fleeting ideas in the mind become so heavy that they weigh down the body? Are there other thoughts light enough to lift us up to unimagined possibilities?
The Shoulder Stand also offers an opportunity to explore responsibility – what is mine and what is not. The shoulders are a wonderful structure designed for carrying weight as well as for allowing us the freedom to reach out, to open up, to embrace. Shoulders come with this dual potential of freedom and burden. In the Shoulder Stand we ask the shoulders to carry our own weight – nothing more, nothing less.
Working to find the precise balance in the Shoulder Stand can be a metaphor for searching for that delicate union of responsibility and non-attachment. For me, the Shoulder Stand involves finding the balance between effort and surrender. What do I have to accept about myself as a fact? And what can be changed? Where do I support a limited idea of myself until it becomes an untested reality? Where do I push for change when I need to accept?
Many of us have the idea that we are not good enough as we are. We react by trying even harder or by giving up. A third possibility is to accept where we are now and continue to grow. In the Shoulder Stand we are offered the possibility of lifting ourselves up to become an offering to the Divine, a rainbow bridge between our present state and our potential.ॐ
Warm up the spine with spinal rocks, cat tucks and dog tilts, the Downward Facing Dog and the Little Bridge. Free up the neck by moving the head slowly up and down, stretching from side to side by bringing the ear toward the shoulder and making slow rotations. Strengthen the abdomen with leg lifts.
1 From a relaxed, lying-down position with palms on the floor, lift your legs up, raising the hips off the floor and lengthening through the torso.
2 Roll up onto your shoulders, finding the place of balance – wherever that is for you – using your hands and arms to support your back. Find the position where you feel the weight mainly on your shoulders. With more experience, you can practise balancing with the arms up along your sides.
3 A more supported/modified option is to go into the half Shoulder Stand, where you keep the spine straight at about 70 degrees to the floor, and use your arms and hands as support under the hips.
4 Coming out of the pose: Slowly lower your spine down to the floor. Either bend the legs, if necessary, or bring them down straight. Try to keep the head on the floor, rather than lifting it up.
5 Follow up with the Fish Pose (Matsyasana).
reflections for shoulder stand
1 As you move from standing on your feet to standing on your shoulders, ask yourself: What security do I have to let go of to reverse my position?
2 Take a moment to list your responsibilities. Ask: Has self-importance caused me to shoulder responsibilities that are not mine? What burdens can I put down? What burdens are no longer mine?
Please note: Shoulder Stand is not recommended if you have high blood pressure or neck injuries. Also, as with other inverted poses, refrain during menstruation. Lying with the legs up the wall is an alternative with some of the same benefits.
SWAMI LALITANANDA is a teacher and author of two books, including The Inner Life of Asanas. For five years, she was the Director of Radha Yoga & Eatery in Vancouver, a space that embraces art, culture, yoga and community. She lived and studied with Swami Radha for over 20 years. Swami Lalitananda took sanyas in 1996 and is dedicated to making yoga accessible and significant in everyday life.