by Barbara Benagh
Saving Your Neck
Salamba Sarvangasana entails a whole lot more than just flipping upside down on your shoulders. What makes it so difficult? In two words: the neck. But there is no reason to avoid Shoulderstand just because you are prone to neck problems. In fact, if you practice Shoulderstand properly, it can strengthen your neck. If you do have chronic neck problems, I advise working with an experienced teacher who can give you skilled instruction. Opinions will always differ about whether Shoulderstand should be practiced with the support of multiple yoga props; certainly my opinion has evolved from my own experience with Shoulderstand. Learn all you can from your teachers, but remember that in the end the decision about what props to use in your regular practice is by rights yours and yours alone.
Regardless of the health of your neck, regardless of whether you use many blankets or none at all, a slow and patient approach to Shoulderstand is worthwhile; a poorly practiced Shoulderstand can aggravate or cause neck problems. I recommend a Shoulderstand strategy that starts with Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose) and gradually trains you to rely more on spinal strength than on props to support your Shoulderstand.
Prepare for Viparita Karani by folding a firm blanket into a rectangle large enough to fit comfortably under your torso from shoulders to hips (at least 24 inches by 20 inches). Place it on a sticky mat, folding about a foot of mat over the folded edge of the blanket so you'll have traction for your elbows.
Position the mat and blanket just far enough from a wall that you can lie on it with your shoulders on the blanket fold and your hips near the wall. Lie down on the blanket with your legs up the wall and your arms stretched out at shoulder level on the floor. With your eyes closed, consciously relax into the blanket. Take your time; let Viparita Karani be an exercise in patient undoing. Feel your shoulders and the back of your skull melting into the floor each time you exhale. As tension dissolves, you may feel more freedom in your neck, perhaps allowing you to elongate it a bit.
Don't just tuck your chin in; wriggle both the front and back of your neck longer until your weight rests on the center of the back of the skull. Allow your face to become quiet and feel how you can turn your head easily from side to side. As you relax, your breathing will become slow and steady and create a delicate sound in the throat. There is no need to force this sound; simply shifting your attention to the movement of the breath in the throat will usually produce this subtle sound. The sound and accompanying sensations are a bit like sonar, helping you map and maintain the space you seek, the whole way from the soft palate to the upper chest.
You are now ready to raise your torso off the floor. Exhale and gently press the center back skull (not the base of the skull) into the floor. Do you feel the response in your neck muscles? What you are doing is creating an active cervical arch that will help avoid overstretching the neck and begin the movement that will be the source of core support for your Shoulderstand. This movement is quite important, but don't do it by pushing the chin up: That action overarches the neck.
Keep the center of the back of your skull firmly rooted to the floor and exhale as you bend your knees, press the soles of your feet into the wall, and roll up onto your upper back or shoulders. Allow each exhalation to add strength to your lift. Regardless of how high you rise onto your shoulders, it is important that you maintain the active cervical arch of the neck. If you feel that your chin drops or your neck flattens down, intensify the action of pressing the skull into the floor.
Next, bring your arms behind your back, join your hands, extend your arms toward the wall, and press your elbows down far into the blanket. Please don't actively squeeze your shoulder blades together, since this may constrict your neck. Instead, allow the action of the arms to narrow the shoulder blades more gently. If you are prone to hyperextending (i.e., locking) your elbows, bend them enough that you can press them down into the blanket. If, on the other hand, you can't bring your elbows to the floor at all, lean back until you can root them firmly into the blanket. Then lengthen the back of your arms and bend your elbows, placing your hands on your back as close to the shoulder blades as possible.
If your elbows start to splay out wider than the width of your shoulders, lower your arms. Moving more slowly, strongly lengthen the backs of your arms and rotate your outer arms toward the floor as you once again bend the arms to place your hands on your upper back. If your elbows don't splay open, leave well enough alone.
Now begin to release your front shoulders toward the floor; feel as though they melt down over the tops of your shoulders. This movement will roll you higher onto your shoulders, but it must remain secondary to the more important actions of planting your elbows and the center back skull. Rooting the center back skull and elbows creates a critical rebound effect that serves as the basis for Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock), which in turn provides the internal lift crucial for a good Shoulderstand.
• Improves circulation and can reduce hypertension (high blood pressure)
• Balances thyroid and parathyroid glands
• Helps treat female reproductive disorders
• Helps manage asthma
• Some chronic neck problems
• Extreme hypertension