In classical hatha yoga lore, Headstand (Salamba Sirsanasa) and Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) are known as the king and queen of the asanas. They are practiced in tandem and their benefits are supposedly mutually beneficial. Headstand is known as a pose that heats up the body, while Shoulderstand cools it down.
I love Headstand (and all inversions, actually) and practice it regularly. However, here is my dirty little secret: I never follow it with a Shoulderstand. Unless I’m in class and forced to. Because I detest Shoulderstand.
It’s more than a mere dislike. I have a strong physical aversion to the pose. This cooling affect that it’s supposed to have – not on me, yo. I feel hot and agitated. I fill with rage and hatred. I experience more discomfort than I do in any other physical position. The skin on my back flares up and reddens, and sometimes I actually break out in a rash.
More than anything, though, I am overcome by self-loathing. Upside down and literally faced with the parts of my body that I am least satisfied with – my belly, my thighs (and seriously, gravity doesn’t flatter these parts in any way) – I feel heavy and fat and ugly.
Even my shoulders and upper back, which are so strong and supportive when I’m in Headstand, become weak and useless. For years, I’ve been quietly avoiding Shoulderstand, only doing it when I absolutely have to, and even then, just briefly. I always manage to find some excuse to come out of it early, or I just openly complain to my teacher and refuse to stay in it.
This all came to a head this past weekend, in my yoga teacher training weekend. We learned how to teach this pose and I confessed that I am reluctant to teach it because, well, I hate it. Of course, when you admit to hating something in yoga class, it becomes an opportunity for your teacher to gather everyone around you, force you into the pose, adjust you and try to unearth the source of your hatred and maybe even a way to make you like it. By the end of the demonstration, I was on the verge of tears, felt like I had claw marks all over my back and just wanted to kick something.
My teacher, however, encouraged me to stop avoiding the pose and become friends with it. She suggested that I work with a variation, with support from a block, so I can strengthen my shoulders and receive the apparent benefits (thyroid gland stimulation, reversed circulation, soothed nervous system).
BKS Iyengar says about Shoulderstand: “The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be overemphasized. It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages… It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practices Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace and he will feel the joy of life.”
Yeah sure, BKS – I’m still not quite convinced. But perhaps, by becoming friends with Shoulderstand, I am becoming friends with my body. By learning how to accept and love this pose, I will learn how to accept and love myself. Blah blah blah, I remain a little skeptical. I’d prefer to stick with what’s comfortable and seemingly empowering, rather than what challenges me and forces me to confront my ugly side.
However, there’s also a part of me that wants to have faith in what Mr Iyengar promises. And so I am begrudgingly committing to work with Shoulderstand, to practice it regularly. I have to admit that I could stand to welcome a little more vigour, strength, happiness, confidence, peace and joy into my life. Because, if anything, it’s better than the weight and the heat of anger and self-loathing.