Shoulderstand: The Queen of Yoga Poses

 Two poses in yoga have the high honor of being called the “king and queen” of all poses: Headstand (Sirsasana 1), the king, and Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana), the queen.

These two classical inversions reign supreme over all other postures, not only because of their many science-backed benefits, but some teachers also theorize that these poses employ the crown of the head (Headstand) and neck (Shoulderstand).

While some may think that “king” is the highest rank, a joke amongst yoga instructors is that the neck moves the head. So, if we had to place these poses on a hierarchy, it could be argued that Shoulderstand is really the pose that rules.

Shoulderstand’s esteemed status also reminds us that we need to respect the pose and our abilities, practicing it with intention and care. This means making sure that the body is well prepared and that we can perform it safely.

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The Sanskrit name for Shoulderstand is Salamba Sarvangasana. This means “supported all limbs pose,” with Salamba meaning “supported” and Sarvanga meaning “all limbs.” In gymnastics, there is a similar shape called Candle Stick Pose.

In Shoulderstand, your entire body should be supported by your upper arms and shoulders. If you’re unable to get your arms far enough underneath you, there’s a risk of bearing too much weight on your neck or spine.

For this reason, Shoulderstand is considered an advanced inversion and should be set up mindfully and safely with props.

Shoulderstand is classified as an inversion, which is any position where the legs go above the heart. Inversion therapy is an alternative treatment for back pain.

Although research to support its effects is still somewhat limited, the thinking behind the approach is that going upside down relieves pressure on the discs caused by gravity, helping create length.

Shoulderstand is considered to be a calming pose, helping people shift into their parasympathetic nervous system, by inducing the relaxation response. As such, it’s often practiced toward the end of class.

In one 2017 study, people who had mild to moderate depression showed significant improvement in their symptoms and mood after practicing Shoulderstand and a handful of other poses for 8 weeks (1Trusted Source).

In addition, a 2018 study showed that practicing Shoulderstand helped reduce the blood glucose levels of people with type 2 diabetes (2Trusted Source).

Another oft-touted benefit of Shoulderstand is its assistance in lymphatic drainage. The lymph system is crucial in removing waste and toxins from our body. While you will find a lot of yoga websites and books claiming this benefit, they are often anecdotal and there is limited research supporting this claim.

A big part of what makes this an advanced pose is not just the physical requirements, but the level of attention it requires to set up properly.

Props needed

  • 2–3 blankets, to protect your neck
  • yoga mat, to further prevent slipping of your elbows
  • optional: a block, for tighter hamstrings, and a strap, looped around your elbows to keep your arms in place

Prop setup

  1. Neatly stack your blankets toward the top of your mat.
  2. Take the front end of your mat and fold it over your blanket.
  3. Optional: If your hamstrings are tight, place your block behind your mat, above where your head is going to go.

Instructions

  1. Lie down on your blankets. The back of your head should be on the floor, and the tops of your shoulders should be right at the edge of the blankets.
  2. On an inhale, take your hips and legs overhead, starting in Plough Pose (Halasana). Take a moment here to snuggle your upper arms underneath you, so that you’re high onto your upper arms and shoulders. Please note: If your feet don’t reach the floor, try placing them on your block or see below for a modification at the wall.
  3. Draw your upper arms underneath you, getting as high onto your shoulders as possible. Remember, this pose is called Shoulderstand, not Neckstand.
  4. Bend your elbows and place your palms flat onto your back. Pro tip: It helps to have your palms directly on the skin of your back, as clothing can be slippery.
  5. On an inhale, lift your right leg slowly up to the sky, followed by your left.
  6. Press the backs of your arms into the blankets and reach strongly through your legs.
  7. Start with 10 breaths, but over time, try building up to longer holds.

How to come out of Shoulderstand safely

Take your time coming out of the pose. Come down with as much care as you set yourself up with, and don’t rush.

  1. Lower one leg at a time back into Plough Pose.
  2. Remove your hands from your back. Slip out of your strap and grab the edges of your mat. This will help slow your body as you roll out.
  3. Bend your knees, and on an exhale, roll your spine down slowly until your pelvis is on the floor.
  4. Use your belly to control your descent, so your upper body and head don’t pop off the blankets.
  5. It’s always helpful to counter Shoulderstand with a variation of Fish Pose (Matsyasana). An easy way with the blankets is to slide your body headward until your upper back is on the floor above your blankets and your legs are stretched out straight.
  6. Rest here for a few moments before sitting up, or better yet, roll over to one side to come up.

You can still get many of Shoulderstand’s benefits without having to do the entire pose.

Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) variation at the wall

Many people have difficulty getting their upper arms underneath them far enough to really stand well on their upper arms.

This variation uses the wall as additional support for the legs, so you’re not entirely weight-bearing on your upper back yet still benefitting from the chest opening.

  1. Take your blanket and mat setup (see above) to the wall and place it 1 foot from the wall.
  2. Lie down with your head away from the wall and sit bones against it.
  3. Bend your knees and place your feet on the wall.
  4. Lift your hips away from the ground.
  5. Walk your upper arms underneath you as far as you can, either interlacing your fingers or holding the edges of your mat.

Legs-Up-the-Wall (Viparita Karani)

There may be a variety of reasons why someone can’t do the full pose, from neck injuries to low energy. Legs-Up-the-Wall-Pose gives you many of the benefits of an inversion, without much physical effort.

  1. Bring the short edge of your mat up against the wall.
  2. Sit sideways against the wall.
  3. Lie onto your back and bring your legs up the wall.
  4. The back of your pelvis should be flat on the floor. If it isn’t, slide back a few inches.
  5. Optional: Place a rolled towel or blanket underneath your lower back.

Protect your neck with blankets

One of the key features of this pose is the ability to bring your chest up to your chin as deeply as possible. This movement is called neck flexion. A typical range of motion is 40 to 80 degrees, with many people falling toward the low end of this spectrum.

Northern California-based physical therapist and yoga teacher, Olivia Barry, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, explains that when we practice Shoulderstand without blankets, we risk flattening the natural curvature of the neck, which can lead to herniated discs and cervical instability.

Particularly today, where more and more of the population assumes forward head posture or text neck, which also flattens the cervical curvature, we need to take care to practice the pose in a way that establishes proper neck alignment.

Doing the pose with your shoulders elevated on blankets helps maintain the natural curve of the neck. It also matters how many you use. As such, Barry recommends learning the pose under the guidance of a seasoned teacher who can determine how many blankets you need.

Piking at the hips

Many people lack the core strength to fully straighten their body in the pose. Instead, they end up piking at the hips, which is when the thighs are in hip flexion and slightly forward of the hips.

This makes it challenging to get your upper arms underneath and may put undue pressure on your neck and lower back.

Don’t try if you have eye injuries

If you eye injuries or other eye concerns, such as a detached retina or glaucoma, avoid Shoulderstand and other inversions, as being upside down may elevate pressure within the eye. One 2015 study found this effect during Plough Pose and Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (3Trusted Source).

Shoulderstand is a challenging inversion with many benefits. Although, what makes this posture advanced may have less to do with the physical requirements and more to do with the proper setup and necessary precautions.

While you’re first learning it, this pose is best practiced under the supervision of a teacher. Thankfully, there are some great other poses that give you similar benefits.

Make sure to seek approval from your medical professional before starting any yoga practice. As you continue to grow in both strength and confidence, you’ll be sure to reap all the benefits this pose has to offer.

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