Shoulderstand: a Love Story.

Via Bernadette Birney
on Jan 15, 2011
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It wasn’t love at first sight. 

I have a fuzzy childhood memory of you.  My mother, in nursing school, was required to meet gym credits.  She chose yoga, and for some reason the teacher allowed her to bring me.  This was seventies yoga.  Bodysuits were worn over tights.  I was probably 5.  Noodle-like, I easily flung my feet overhead to the floor behind me, into my very first Halasana, and then an undoubtedly messy interpretation of Shoulderstand.

I was delighted. 

Then I abandoned you for years and years of ballet, for coveted solos in the recital, and for the allure of satin slippers, and ribbons that crossed at the ankle. 

The second time we met, in my twenties, I wasn’t interested. You eluded me and I didn’t care.  I wasn’t playing hard to get.  You weren’t my type.  No matter how many blankets I piled up for support, you hurt my neck, and made me claustrophobic.  You took my breath away and not in the good way.

For no amount of effort or surrender could I lift my body vertical.  Always, was the telltale pike of inadequacy.  I gritted my teeth.  I came to the wall.  I belted my elbows.  I attempted to spice things up between us on a chair.  You sneered at me.  Secretly, I thought you were stupid.  I resented you. 

Once, just once, in a workshop, Jim Bernaert noticed me struggling and casually lifted me up by the legs, right onto my shoulders.  I caught a glimpse of you then, a glimmer of possibility that soon fizzled out.

In the classes I taught, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why, at the end, students insisted on flinging themselves into an unauthorized, half-assed semblance of this most advanced of inversions, invariably with no blanket at all.  “What the fuck?  Who said to do that?  Certainly not me,” I inwardly huffed.  I got that the general public could pull off something resembling you.  What I didn’t get was why they would want to.  What could possibly be the allure?

Next, I heard a seasoned, highly respected teacher in the community use the term “Shoulderstand Body.”  Aha!  This shed light upon the matter.  Shoulderstand Bodies!  Some people had them, and some people did not.  Clearly, I did not.  I gleefully took this as my cue to abandon all further dealings with you.  Adios, sucker.  Nice knowing you. 

Years passed. 

When I was diagnosed with Hashimoto Disease, I reluctantly trotted you out.  Shoulderstand is good for the thyroid.  I would repair the relationship, I thought.  I would develop a daily practice. I should do you every day.  I would do you every day.   

I didn’t.

Then everything changed.  On a whim, practicing home alone–although I had long since disavowed you–I lingered in Bridge, which I hadn’t practiced as anything more than a pit stop on the way up to Urdhva Dhanurasana in years.  I marveled at the exquisite stretch of neck and shoulders. Oh my God! 

I wondered what would happen if…

Curious, hands at my back, one leg at a time, I lifted into you.  I was straight up and down, more or less.  The bunchy muscles at the back of my neck, and tops of my shoulders, were elongating.  You felt so good! 

I started seeing you regularly. We spent more and more time together.  I began timing you.  I wanted to see you all the time.  I craved you.  It was visceral.  No day felt complete without you. 

Yesterday, the unthinkable happened.  I removed one hand from my back, and then the other.  Externally unsupported yet inwardly entirely supported, together we soared.  It was easy!  It felt like flying. 

In the throes, I whispered those three little words in your ear.

It wasn’t love at first sight, Shoulderstand, but it is love.  It’s the kind of love that lasts.   You were worth the wait.


About Bernadette Birney

Bernadette Birney is a dyed-in-the-wool, freedom-loving tantrika. When she’s not busy conquering the world, taking hostages, feverishly freelancing, working on her book, and posting on-line essays, you can find her practicing the art of life-on-purpose, and teaching in Connecticut. / Bernadette has had the good fortune of studying with the great ones: she’s a certified Anusara yoga instructor, and has long pestered her Rajanaka Yoga mentor, Douglas Brooks. Known for her poetic and precise articulation, she insists that you can maintain a hard-core yoga practice and a sense of humor, too. Her classes, immersions and trainings are steeped in a life affirming philosophy that will invite you into the exploration of your own potential. / Bernadette was one of the earliest Certified Anusara yoga instructors in CT, and continues to mentor the local teaching community, leading trainings and retreats. She has contributed to Yoga Journal, Fit Yoga, Elephant Journal and Srividyalaya Amrta. She is also a Lululemon ambassador, and the author of the quirky, award-winning blog .


14 Responses to “Shoulderstand: a Love Story.”

  1. Great Story, Birney. Welcome to Elephant Journal! We're very happy to have you here.

    And I love the stick drawing too.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Yogini# says:

    Yeah, I'd avoided shoulderstand, too, for over a year while practicing regularly, and for years before that–practicing irregularly. I had not had core strength, the pose hurt; and I'd felt too stir-crazy all the time. Shoulderstand had not floated MY boat. Must have had something to do with my liking mellower vinyasa styles … I feel the same way about headstand currently … would not even touch that one ever … up to getting involved with the prep pose about a year and a half ago … up to hugging the wall with bent legs now … ironic as I am mistaken for someone who does it …

  3. jbnorton says:

    Bravo Bernie…I love your reaction to the "unauthorized" shoulderstands! Congratulations on breaking through and finding true love…you inspire me to regard visvamitrasana with a hopeful heart. Maybe we, too, can find such blissful union as you have…

  4. Nancy A says:

    Good to know one can overcome the ick that comes from Shoulderstand. It is one of two poses that make me have horrible heartburn (plow of course being the other) so I avoid it in my own practice. Add to that the fact that the anatomy teacher in my YTT said she felt it was the most dangerous pose in all of yoga (b/c of pressure on the cervical spine) and I avoid it in my classes as well. You've inspired me to take a second look, and to bring in the transition of going from Bridge to Shoulderstand and back as a fun alternative.

    Welcome to EJ from a fellow contributor and CT yoga teacher!

  5. Thanks so much for the welcome, Nancy! A fellow contributor and CT yoga teacher? Wow! I'm going to go cyberstalk you in a moment. (:

    Your anatomy teacher is wise to caution respect for potential danger. Shoulderstand is the only inversion that bears weight on the cervical spine in a non-neutral anatomical position. In Anusara we also teach that Shoulderstand is a very powerful pose which can be dangerous when not done in proper alignment. It's more important to do it well, I say, than it is to DO. In the Anusara tradition, it's the last of all the inversions to be taught, and only when students have cultivated both strength and skilled alignment. She is, after all, the queen of all poses, and so needs to be approached with respect!

  6. Thanks Bob! I'm so happy to be here and I think I may have just discovered my passion for stick figure artistry!

  7. Sometimes they sneak up on you!

  8. Thanks, JB! I actually run such a tight ship in my classroom that I don't see too many of those any more (;

    My friend and I sometimes refer to your nemesis pose as "VishVOMITrocious". Tee hee!

  9. Great blog, Nancy, and it's so good to connect with you here. You'll definitely see more of me here. I tend to be annoyingly prolific (; I would love to connect live, too. Shoot me an email first if you ever decide to make the trek down on a Friday, just to make sure I'm actually there that day. XO

  10. Christine says:

    GREAT article, Bernadette! Now that you reminded me the Shoulderstand is good for the thyroid, I will do it more consistently! I also like how it clears my sinuses and seems good for me in a female way as well. I ahve always felt it is a cleansing posture. I too love the Shoulderstand 🙂

  11. Thanks, Christine! Shoulderstanders of the world, unite!

  12. army mos says:

    Interesting article , I’m going to spend more time learning about this subject

  13. Raster to vector says:

    Raster to vector

    I’ve learned a lot from your blog here, Keep on going, my friend, I will keep an eye on it.