Why We Hate Shoulderstand

Yoga Anatomy

Let’s talk about Shoulderstand or, more accurately, breakdown shoulderstand for a change. You know the pose – salamba sarvangasana in Sanskrit: you lift your legs up, you wiggle your shoulders underneath you as you place your hands on your low back attempting to stack your body nice-and-neat from head-to-toe. But have you ever noticed what happens when you do that pose? For most yogis they shift their weight into the neck. Like a lot of weight – like all of it. 

So, I guess that’s it. Let’s just wrap it up there. Thanks for reading, have a nice day, right? 

Maybe. But let’s talk about it. What exactly is happening in shoulderstand, what can we do to fix it, and is there perhaps another pose or poses we could do in its place. Let’s really dive in and breakdown Shoulderstand. 

So what exactly IS happening in Shoulderstand? 

I imagine you are pretty familiar with shoulderstand at this point. It’s a pose that tends to be taught to everyone, new practitioners included. Of course it has its benefits, like lowering the blood pressure and helping activate the rest and digest side of your nervous system. But in truth shoulder stand is particularly effective at encouraging lymphatic drainage and improving overall circulation. That’s what we hear from our yoga teachers the most right? Shoulder stand helps with circulation… Or maybe you’ve heard this one, “shoulder stand reverses your circulation”. 

Well, kind of. 

So it turns out, circulation can’t just be reversed, lifting your legs in the air doesn’t work like flipping a water bottle upside down – the blood won’t just reverse directions. This is a good thing! Veins don’t have muscular walls to transport blood around your body, instead they have one way valves that prevent backflow and help carry deoxygenated blood back to your heart. So when we lift our legs up like we do in shoulderstand we’re encouraging these valves to open better, stimulating blood flow back to the heart and improving circulation. 

So, clearly shoulder stand has its benefits.

Now let’s hone in on the problem. 

The neck. But it’s certainly not the necks fault! 

The neck is doing its best to support us. In fact, that in itself is the essence of the problem: the amount of weight being applied to the neck. For most of us, it’s nearly impossible not to shift nearly all our weight into the head, neck, and shoulders as we lift our legs above us. If we’re lucky we get a teacher that encourages a slight flexion (or bending) at the hips to shift some weight out of the neck and into the elbows and shoulders. The problem is, in a vinyasa setting, where teachers have gotten into the habit of moving as quickly as possible, this is rarely addressed. Instead, students are encouraged to get in and out as quickly as possible. Hence the risk of danger. 

The next question then, is how do we fix it? 

And we actually talked about it already, it’s that simple. If you’re a student, first, pay attention to how much weight you’re shifting into your neck as you wiggle into the pose, keep a slight bend at your hips so more of your weight shifts into your hands, elbows, and arms. If you’re a teacher, most importantly: slow down. Consider teaching shoulderstand as more of a ‘teachable moment’ as if you were teaching a workshop. Give your students plenty of time to get both into and out of the pose safely, and remember to over cue them – your primary job is to prevent injury! 

But there’s actually one more way that you can fix the pose and prevent neck injury: just skip it. It’s that easy. The risk of injury in this pose just isn’t worth the risk. Want to put your legs up? Try waterfall. Want more? Try a forearm stand. Yea, you’ll probably hear arguments that shoulderstand allows for pressure on the thyroid gland. However, unlike your digestive tract, the thyroid doesn’t function through pressure and movement. Sure, it might be possible that increased blood flow can increase its function, but the science just isn’t there to back up these claims yet. 

So I ask you, why risk it? 

With everything we’ve given you, what do you think? If you love shoulderstand great. Practice away – just pay attention to what is happening in your neck. I noticed in my personal practice that shoulderstand suddenly stopped feeling good – immediately after practicing the pose I oftentimes was light-headed in a way that would later give me a weird headache. Like I said, if you like it, shine on you crazy diamond, but if you secretly don’t like it and have been looking for an excuse to skip it, we see you. 

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