can i stand it? making friends with shoulderstand

(image via easternserenity.com)

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.

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  1. Recently, I heard someone talking cheerfully with the teacher after a yoga class about shoulderstand–to the effect that it’s wonderful and luxurious and they just wish they could stay in it all day…to which I thought, “maybe if I was on some really good drugs…” Then, I thought of how I’ve heard similar conversations about how my absolute favorite pose, pigeon, is so uncomfortable and generally sucks, but you do it just because it’s good for you, and have probably driven people nuts by chiming in about how I love it and it actually feels like a relaxing break in the middle of a strenuous vinyasa class…

    Though I don’t experience self-loathing issues in shoulderstand…except to the extent that I always do…which is why I’d never even consider practicing in front of a mirror…it’s never been at all comfortable for me, and, like you, I just don’t seem to feel the same positive effects as those from other inversions…in fact, it really just doesn’t feel right (and tends to be even worse when teachers adjust me or try to make me more comfortable with blankets).

    So, I dunno. Iyengar, in what he writes, at least, seems to take kind of a one-size-fits-all approach (like, I think he wrote that it’s best to do yoga in the morning since then the body’s loosest and the mind clearest, and I thought “speak for yourself, buddy…”). Personally, I’m gonna keep working with shoulderstand, when teachers tell me to, but only time will tell if does me any good…

  2. I have to say BKS has yet to convince me about shoulderstand either. BKS didn’t have fibromyalgia or scoliosis and I’m sticking with that. Nobody’s spine should feel like it’s been ripped out with a meat cleaver after an asana so I shall continue to avoid full shoulderstand, modifying with legs up the wall. Thank you.

  3. Nice. I think your motivation for turning this around is awesome. I know you can do it!

  4. in honor of this post, i led class through a two-minute half shoulderstand this morning.

    and… because of this post, i had new things to say about it.

    thanks!

  5. I absolutely love your honesty! Shoulderstand used to be one of the postures I avoided like mad – like you, it felt totally unnatural and I would find myself trying to breathe through it, keeping my ears open for the second the teacher would start to instruct us out of it…

    I’ve since found myself more comfortable in it, largely due to how it was broken down for us during training, but I definitely feel you…

    I was talking to my classes about Sutra 2.33 Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam (When disturbed by negative thoughts, think of opposite/positive ones) and how to apply it to the practice…when you’re coming to those postures you detest, check yourself and start telling yourself that it will get better, that the more you do it, the closer you are to feeling its benefits and that one day when taking the asana, you will have this epiphany where all of a sudden it all just falls into place…can’t wait to read THAT blog entry!!!

  6. oh dear…honey, you must run not walk to one of my yin yoga workshops….it’s all how your bones are put together in your neck/shoulder area. nothing more, nothing less. yoga is all in the bones.

  7. here you go, Roseanne: http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2008/11/killing-yogas-sacred-cows-paul-grilley.html

    as for the BKS quote, I doubt that is written down on a palm leaf somewhere in India….just sayin’……

    • fascinating, linda! i would love to try one of your yin yoga workshops. i’ve done a little yin, but never with a teacher as qualified as you. and paul grilley sounds really interesting, i hope i get an opportunity to study with him sometime.

      i really never even considered the possibility that my shoulderstand issue could have something to do with my bone structure. i’ve always thought it was about strength and weight.

      and the quote… well, it’s from the latest edition of ‘light on yoga.’ at one point it may have been written down on a palm leaf, but i don’t know… 😉

  8. thank you for sharing this. there are several poses i’ve developed a deep resistance to in my yoga practice but for some reason never shoulderstand. i love it. i love how open and beautiful i feel in it. one of my teachers told me that fifteen minutes of shoulderstand is the equivalent of two hours of sleep. totally makes me want to work up to being able to stay in it for that long.

  9. I as well am very uncomfortable in this pose, and avoid it usually in my practice. However, I am very comfortable teaching it, and it is a consistent part of my classes.

    I agree with @Linda-Sama, I actually took a workshop with Paul Grilley last weekend, and learned that the compression of my cervical spine may never allow for a perfectly vertical sargangasana, but it has allowed me to make peace with my anatomy and try to work towards acceptance, and commitment to the pose. My pigeon pose is compressed on one side more than the other, and now I know its not something I am doing wrong, but the actual angle of the insertion of the femur into my pelvis.

    Because of your post, I made a list of the daily yoga poses I *need* (rather than love) to focus on.

    Good luck!

  10. I love this post, because I’m pretty sure we all have an asana or two that drives us crazy. Camel Pose makes me more frustruated than any other physical position, and if I’m not careful I will fly into a fit of rage (inside my own head of course). It’s so good to take on new challenges, and feels great when you can begin to be friends with a pose you once hated, but at the same time, you can let your ego push you farther than your body permits. I think if you have an injury or condition (like the poster above) that makes doing a certain pose extremely painful, it is completely ok to not do that pose, and either go into child’s pose or do something less painful. Yoga is all about nurturing your body, not hurting it 🙂

  11. Interesting how different we all are. Shoulderstand is one of my favorite poses (along with Eagle). It just seems to be easy for me and I love the way it feels. No discomfort at all, and I can hold it for a long time if I want to, but usually don’t.

    On the other hand, I’ve never tried headstand. I’m really afraid I’d hurt myself, so I’ve just avoided it.

    Bob Weisenberg

  12. the pose I hated and now love is revolved triangle. and once again — and sorry if this sounds like I’m beating a dead horse — Paul showed me how to do it according to my bone structure. I believe — at least every time I have seen it taught — that people keep the feet too close together to the midline of the mat.

    years ago I was also FINALLY able to get up into wheel — not from what any teacher told me, in fact, every teacher’s instructions hindered me, but by knowing where to put my hands and how wide apart for MY bone structure.

    yoga is all in the bones.

  13. hey y’all ~ thanks for your comments and support! i’m glad to hear that i’m not the only one who has resistance to a particular asana. it seems like it’s universal!

  14. A Green Spell here, though I’m logged in via my other blog. I LOVE Shoulderstand, but I think it is because I cannot do headstand. However, I tend to keep my eyes shut, because this pose also brings up a lot of self-loathing for me. No one needs to see their stomach and breasts that close up! 😉

    However, I sometimes have problems with neck/shoulder issues, as well. This is definitely a challenging pose!

  15. First, the picture is HILARIOUS!
    Okay, I love Shoulderstand, the way I feel in the pose, but like GreenSpell (and yourself) I feel the same way when looking at myself. It’s interesting, the poses we HATE the most are the ones we really should do the most. What do they have to teach us? This post was great. I subscribe to your blog and read all of them, but don’t comment often – sorry! I love it, though. You always have interesting, thought provoking posts – and I learn a lot!! Happy Thursday to you!

  16. I wouldn’t say hate, but I always got bummed out by the view, the sensation of S.S. And, it wasn’t until I did my teacher training that I somehow got past that and figure out something that made the pose work for me–something with engaging/opening the chest, I’m sure.

    I wonder how a teacher can convey that sense of understanding to students, because I suspect most of us don’t have a whole class period to spend on the pose (or a group of students that want to…)

    Love the little sculpture!

  17. thanks for stopping by, heather! it’s a good question: what do these poses have to teach us? that’s part of the exploration, indeed!

    and brenda, i’m somewhat reassured by the fact that i’m not the only one who gets so discouraged by the view of myself in this pose. what i’d like to try, actually, is having a picture of myself taken, so i can see if i look as slumpy and lumpy as i feel.

  18. Am now officially a huge fan of you. Your honesty, authenticity and integrity, MWAH!

    I have yet to make peace with shoulder stand either. Am inspired to try.
    Thank you.

  19. When I first began practicing yoga, shoulderstand was difficult due to tight shoulder/upper back muscles. Now, a dozen years later, I quite like this pose. But it makes a huge difference to be on the right height (blankets or a combo of blankets and those flat chipped-foam blocks*).

    When you get that nice opening in the thoracic spine and chest (both from practice and from props), your posture shoots up straighter–making for a better line in the… belly on up!

    That is a truly hilarious sculpture.

    *Are these blocks a Canadian thing? http://www.halfmoon.bz/shop/catalog/details.php?deptname=yoga%20props&catname=blocks&item=5

    • yes, the proper props do make a difference! i’m working towards that nice open chest and thoracic spine. as for the chipped-foam blocks being a canadian thing… halfmoon is a canadian company, and the blocks are apparently canadian-made. so i guess that makes them canadian! maybe they need some moose or maple leaf motifs to really set them apart…

  20. I am late to the discussion (sorry), but just wanted to say I understand how you feel. I love shoulderstand, but WOW all that flesh really is in your face, and I had to get past that, too. When I brought my class into it for the first time, one of the ladies said “wow, you can’t hide anything here, huh?” : )

    Also…the photo is adorable.

  21. These relationships fuel my love of yoga. You are seriously having a dialogue with an asana, a deep emotional experience similar to human relationships. I think I’d rather experience hundreds of these charged relationships and learn how to be at peace with them, than simply be naturally at peace with all asanas. The process of making peace is so much fun, and the kicker is that this “asanic” relationship really just represents a piece of you that you are trying to make peace with.

    Ben

  22. Having read this post early Friday morning, I decided to try and make peace with shoulder stand myself today.

    I avoid shoulder stand for different reasons – it crunches my cervical spine, and my elbows slip outwards and I feel so unstable. The posture makes me feel awkward, it makes my body feel “not-working-right”.

    To face it, I used a stack of blankets and a stick. I took deep breaths before and when I went up, I didn’t extend my legs fully, just trying to find a mid-way point where I could lift my sternum and feel more stable.

    I’m not saying we’re buddies quite yet – but I’m working on it.

    Thanks for giving me a nudge today, r.
    adxx

  23. Hey, I just want to give you a HUGE HUG for sharing this post!! It’s hard to face up to our fears and even harder to be public about it.

    I used to HATE the Warriors. Like, with a passion. They just seemed to bring up every weakness in my body instead of the strengths! I would be practicing along, all good, and then suddenly we’d be in Warrior I and all of my insecurities and self-disappointment would just be bubbling up. 5 years later I have mostly made peace with them but I keep them to a minimum in my practice, and I’m ok with that.

    I think it’s wonderful that you are working with a teacher on this and would even encourage you to work with several different ones to see what works for you! Also, there was a great article in Yoga Journal a few months back about using props to get the right alignment in shoudlerstand, and using prepatory poses to prepare the body properly.

    If only they had a way to make Warriors more comfortable that involved blankets!! 😉

  24. Thanks for sharing the realities of your practice. I appreciate your honesty, which gives us all permission to be as we are and communicate, and learn. What came to mind as you were describing your experience in shoulderstand with all that heat and frustration and criticism is the pitta dosha. Not sure how familiar you are with Ayurveda, but, perhaps that particular inversion simply aggravates this imbalance? I have seen this in a few of my students. I think the half-shouderstand that your teacher recommended is an excellent alternative. Maybe even simply viparita karani? Perhaps you only ever to these instead of “full” shoulderstand because this is the variation that is in harmony with your constitution?

  25. What an amazing post, followed by amazing discussion. I love it. I like shoulderstand, but half pigeon is another story altogether. I am trying to slowly reaquaint myself with the pose while keeping an open mind. Thanks very much for your honesty!

  26. I hated shoulderstand for the first 13 years of my yoga life. Then a teacher I was training with insisted that I take her level one class, where we did shoulderstand with height – it was an Iyengar class, after all – and with our feet on the wall, beginning with stretching our heels up the wall and supporting the pelvis with our hands.
    In this dropped-back position, I finally stopped feeling the “oh God, I’m going to suffocate,” sensation that used to make me panic and come out of the pose.
    Instead, I could open my chest, breathe, and get my upper arms pressing down to lift my ribs.
    Eventually, I worked my way, inch-by-inch, back into being vertical, and now I happily spend 20 minutes on the pose and its variations.
    Thanks for the post, and for sparking this discussion.

  27. Thanks for such an honest post. I love shoulderstand. My body just says “ahhhh” when I do it. I didn’t like it very early in my practice, mainly because I didn’t know about using blankets under my shoulders. I felt as if I would suffocate and my body felt incredibly heavy. Once I started using blankets (thanks to Iyengar) I started loving shoulderstand. It’s been my favorite pose now for 20 years!

  28. Excellent post! Personally I like shoulder stand and have no problem with it but I’ve never taught it in a class. My classes have a therapeutic emphasis and as a PT, I know that shoulder stand is just not good for a lot of spines. Judith Lasater teaches some great variations of the pose using a LOT of props but since I teach in a community center and don’t have any props, I just don’t ever teach it. Btw, I loved the photo too!

  29. Hello

    I am wanting to get into doing shoulder stands at home. I am looking into having the shoulder stand foam blocks made for me by a foam manufacturer in my area. I have no idea what type of foam I should be using? They told me two options: 8lb rebond with an ILD of 80lbs (open cell foam made from shredded pieces) or a UC65 foam used for commercial cushions ….. well all of this is Greek to me. Anyone know if either or these will work and if so, which one is the better option?

    Thanks

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