Salamba Sarvangasana and Salamba Sirsasana (aka Shoulder Stand and Headstand) are two of the most important poses to work into any asana practice. Some teachers even insist that without these two poses, no yoga practice is complete. I pretty much agree. In fact, I find these two poses so powerful that I sometimes just do them on their own, especially on days when I don’t have time to do a full asana practice. Here are some thoughts I have about what the benefits of each pose are, and how best to navigate your way though long holds of these poses.
Salamba Sarvangasana: There are many ways to get into Shoulder Stand, and many variations as well. You can consult your yoga teacher for instructions on how to get into these variations safely. Regardless of which variation you do, you will certainly have your feet and legs in the air. Now, I’m no medical doctor or anatomist, so I don’t know anything about the claims some people make about this asana’s ability to stimulate the thyroid or to improve digestion, etc. However, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m an empiricist when it comes to yoga poses, and if a pose feels right to me, I’m going to keep doing it. And Shoulder Stand feels very right to me. I personally like to hold this asana for at least 5 minutes, or at least until my legs start to feel real heavy and almost leaden. I have no idea what’s going on when this sensation kicks in, but I do know that when it does kick in, something is definitely happening. The key to holding this pose for a long time, for me, is to keep breathing and to continually think about alignment. This may require several readjustments along the way. Also, maintaining focus is essential in this pose, and this means not fidgeting unnecessarily with the legs or feet. Some teachers like to have their students spread the legs wide or do some other variations with the legs in Shoulder Stand. Personally, I find these variations to be more or less useless, not to mention distracting. I prefer to keep my legs perfectly straight the whole time, and to settle into a kind of stillness for several minutes while I let the asana come into full bloom.
Salamba Sirsasana: There’s nothing like doing a headstand for 10 minutes to change your perspective on things. In addition to literally looking at the world upside-down for an extended period of time, I find myself reinvigorated when I come out of such a long inversion. Again, I don’t know if there is any medical evidence for the claims I have heard about Headstand’s benefits for the heart and bloodflow, etc. But I do know, from personal experience, that if I’m feeling tired, groggy, or lethargic, after 10 minutes of headstand, I’m feel much, much better. I have persistently low blood pressure, so I am particularly prone to getting drowsy during the day, especially in the late afternoons. A prolonged headstand can really inject some energy back into my body and wake me up again, even more so than a cup of coffee, believe it or not. This inversion is a little more intense to hold for a long time than Shoulder Stand. It’s definitely a more active pose, and you’ll probably even start sweating after 5 or 6 minutes. The breath also becomes very deep, and conscious Ujjayi breathing becomes increasingly important the longer you stay in this pose. Also, I find the need to make periodic adjustments when in this pose, but, as this pose is much more of a balance pose than Shoulder Stand, the adjustments are much finer and require more concentration. The four main adjustments I like to make along the way are (1) to make sure that my hips are not falling in one direction or other other, and, if they are, to adjust accordingly, (2) to make sure that my shoulders and back muscles are not crunching up towards my ears, and, if they are, to adjust accordingly, (3) to make sure that I’m not dumping weight excessively into my head, and that I am holding the majority of the weight in my arms and shoulders, and (4) to extend through my feet periodically to make sure that I’m as straight as possible from head to toe. Importantly, when coming out of this pose, I tend to take a very long Child’s Pose, usually for several minutes. It’s crucial to rest in this way because you don’t want to pass out when you stand up, and this also helps to relax the whole body after a very intense and long hold.
Disclaimer: I am not a certified yoga instructor, and the ideas and opinions expressed here are not intended to be formal instruction on yoga poses. If you plan to start up a yoga practice, or if you have one and plan to do any of the yoga poses described in this blog, please seek out an experienced, living, breathing yoga teacher to guide you with hands-on instruction.