by Barbara Benagh
Engaging Internal Support
Without Jalandhara Bandha, Shoulderstand lacks its essential foundation. Bandhas are used in asana and pranayama to contain and direct the prana (life energy) generated by those practices. In Shoulderstand, Jalandhara Bandha is used to regulate the flow of prana, especially to the heart, throat, and head. Unfortunately, older yoga texts describe the action of Jalandhara Bandha in simple terms that give no hint of how difficult it actually is. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika , for instance, a medieval text considered to be the oldest in-depth treatise on hatha yoga, Swami Svatmarama simply instructs students to "Contract the throat and press the chin against the breast."
The proper action is much more difficult than that, but if you root your center skull and elbows strongly enough, you may feel a hint of the necessary lift. Indeed, without the lift these actions provide, you may have your chest and chin pressed together and yet still find the body descending painfully–and dangerously–onto your neck. Surely that's not what Swami Svatmarama had in mind!
I have become very fond of a variation of Shoulderstand called Viparita Karani Mudra (Upward Action Seal). Usually students can get a sense of the action of Jalandhara Bandha and avoid overstretching the neck in this pose more easily than in full Shoulderstand.
It's easy to move into Viparita Karani Mudra from your position in Shoulderstand with your feet on the wall. Keeping your feet on the wall and supporting your rib cage with your hands, lift as high as possible onto your shoulders. Then, using your hands as a fulcrum to keep the rib cage fixed in its near-vertical position, drop your hips slightly backward toward the floor. Your spine will arch a little, lengthening the front body from throat to pubis.
Continue to root your head and elbows to maintain an active cervical arch. Then, to intensify the uplift that creates Jalandhara Bandha, consciously open your throat and upper chest with each inhalation; with each exhalation, ground your center back skull and elbows and let a strong breath-sound from the throat lift your ribs, drawing your top breastbone closer to the chin, perhaps even bringing them into contact. Be careful not to drop your chin, since that movement may overstretch your neck. As the breastbone and chin merge, energy is generated within the throat that channels up through the torso, creating an infrastructure that supports the asana from within.
Once you've engaged the bandha, you may sense a strong current rising from your throat and traveling up the spine. In their book Dancing the Body of Light (Pegasus Enterprises, 1999), Dona Holleman and Orit Sen-Gupta give a good explanation of this phenomenon: "The combination of rooting and constricting the energy toward the center creates the 'eye' of the storm; in other words, the energy is lifted and the energy shoots upward." Gently arching your spine in Viparita Karani Mudra may make it easier for you to engage this upward energy, enabling you to lift: first from the chest into the midbody, opening your lower ribs, and then into the abdomen, helping the pubic bones curve away from the navel. When the entire spine is nourished by this upward energy, the pose becomes more comfortable and effective.
All of the bandhas intensify the cleansing effects of hatha yoga. According to traditional yogic understanding, a fire called agni , located just below the navel, cleanses the body by burning away toxins. When the flow of energy throughout the body is disrupted, the lower body accumulates excess apana , the downward flowing energy responsible for elimination. This excess contributes to weak breathing, lethargy, poor elimination, and other ailments. Inverted asanas turn the flame of agni toward this waste, enabling us to burn it off more efficiently. Inverting is beneficial in and of itself, but you should focus on your exhalation because the cleansing is most effective when the exhalation is longer than the inhalation.
Since supporting your feet on the wall helps you lift and maintain an active cervical arch, I encourage you to just stay in supported Viparita Karani Mudra if maintaining Jalandhara Bandha is very challenging. However, if you feel strong enough to take your feet off the wall, give it a try. Keep the slight bend at the hips as your feet leave the wall; once you've straightened your legs, position your feet over your shoulders.
Of course, you will immediately feel the added weight you now bear. In response, increase the power of your exhalation as needed to maintain your lift. If your neck presses into the floor or your chin drops, please put your feet back on the wall. The actions required to retain the cervical arch, to create Jalandhara Bandha, and to lift the spine are much more important than taking your feet off the wall. Give yourself permission not to proceed to full Shoulderstand if you feel a supported pose is more appropriate for you. Rest assured that you are still receiving the powerful benefits of inversion. On the other hand, if you feel quite strong in Viparita Karani Mudra, let us move toward full Shoulderstand.
Beginning in Viparita Karani Mudra, exhale as you bring your knees down, placing them on your forehead in a variation of Karnapidasana (Knee-to-Ear Pose). The ability to put your knees on your forehead while maintaining an active cervical arch is an excellent indicator of whether you can safely perform full Shoulderstand. (If you are unable to rest your knees on your forehead and keep an active cervical arch, return to Viparita Karani Mudra with your feet on or off the wall.)
In this Karnapidasana variation, let the weight of your upper legs and knees sink into your forehead to enhance the rooting of your skull. Spend some time in this pose, allowing it to gently stretch your back muscles and elongate your spine as you slowly continue to bring your rib cage closer to a vertical position. Help ensure that you don't overstretch your neck or let your chin drop by continuing to strongly plant the elbows and maintaining the upward movement of energy from within the throat. You should feel this lifting motion become even stronger in response to your efforts in Karnapidasana. You may also find that you can move your hands a bit closer to your shoulders and manually lift the ribs. Keeping your rib cage in the same position, inhale to raise your knees from your forehead and exhale to extend up into Salamba Sarvangasana.
In this classic version of Shoulderstand, primary support still continues to come from the upward push created by Jalandhara Bandha, which in turn depends on rooting the center of the back of the skull and the elbows. As your ribs lift off the throat, your breastbone will lift toward, and possibly touch, the tip of your chin. Remember, the chest travels to meet the chin (not the other way around). Even when the chest and chin come together, make sure the chin doesn't drop; you must continue to generate so much core lift that your spine remains taller and stronger along its entire length. Without enough upward movement, the front lower ribs tend to cave in and the entire pose weakens, possibly causing stress to your neck.
Take a close look to see if your pose suffers from this common problem. Examine your lower ribs. If they are sinking back into your body, you can try a couple of remedies. First, recall the slight back arch you did in Viparita Karani Mudra. Using your hands to keep your rib cage fixed, drop your hips back just enough to restore length to your front body. Also, use your legs and abdomen more strongly. While Jalandhara Bandha really creates the primary lift, your abdomen and legs must also play an important role in lifting your Shoulderstand. Tap into that support, softening your front thighs and drawing your groins into your pelvis on your inhalation; on your exhalation, lengthen the tailbone away from the spine and extend the backs of your legs.
This action will generate length and internal support for your lumbar spine as well as a feeling that the legs are helping to hold you completely upright in the pose, thus sustaining a sense of comfort. Though you do need strength to sustain and stabilize the uplift in Shoulderstand, you should feel no strain at all. As always, your breath is a good guide to the overall health of your asana. The sound of the breath should remain subtle and steady, with each exhalation strong and at least as long as the previous inhalation. If you feel strain or cannot sustain a breath-initiated uplift, put your feet on the wall or return to Viparita Karani Mudra. If not, remain in Shoulderstand, continuing to refine the pose.
• 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