by Barbara Benagh
Deepening the Subtle Effects
In any asana, physical sensations and techniques often dominate your attention. When a pose is difficult, as Salamba Sarvangasana can be, it is easy to rush through the pose.
Shoulderstand needs time to take shape and make its effects felt. As your actions work their way to the core of the body, the benefits of the asana deepen dramatically. If unhurried, your body will continue to change, allowing a natural and lasting expansion of your range of motion. For example, as your shoulders adapt to the deep rotation required for this pose, you may be able to move your hands closer and closer to your shoulders, which in turn helps you to achieve greater lift and ease in the whole pose.
Also, while the effects of Salamba Sarvangasana (like any asana) are most noticeable in the surface muscles of the body, subtle but powerful internal movements inevitably ripple through you as you hold the pose. Establish a comfortable balance that allows you to prolong the pose in attentive stillness for several minutes, so you can explore these subtle inner currents. Search out pockets of inner tension, letting the breath's pulsating rhythm help restore space and movement in the deepest regions of the body.
Of course, the optimum length of time to hold any pose is unique to each person–unique, in fact, in every practice session, depending on the condition of your body on a given day. I'm not a big fan of forcing the body to hold a pose for a predetermined time. When you impose a fixed time, you can easily outstay your welcome in Shoulderstand and open the door to injury. But eventually, if you want to fully enjoy the effects of inversion, you should try to build up your Viparita Karani Mudra or full Shoulderstand until you can practice them for at least three to five minutes.
To come out of either pose, put your feet on the wall and slowly curl back to the floor. Lie on your back for a minute. You should expect to feel as though your neck has been stretched, but any discomfort should be mild and subside quickly. If it doesn't, I suggest practicing for a shorter length of time or switching to Viparita Karani Mudra with your feet on the wall instead of full Shoulderstand.
Now that the mild constriction of Jalandhara Bandha has been released, all the energy you built up in your throat is also released, which can bring a wonderful sense of expansion through your chest and throat. After relaxing for a minute, roll over on your side and come to a straight-back sitting position. If you feel a strong lift through your upper back and your skull seems to be floating gently upward, you have sure signs that your Shoulderstand did its job.
The early yogis described the potent effects of this inversion with metaphoric language: locks (bandhas), seals (mudras), inner fire (agni), upward and downward winds in the body (prana and apana, respectively). Rather than the objective, analytical language now used by science, the yogis' terms reflected their personal subjective experiences and were meant to evoke similar self-discoveries in their students. No matter how much our modern, Western minds are attracted to analysis and explanation and no matter how helpful such knowledge can be, it can never replace the experience of self-inquiry and rejuvenation that results from practice.
In Salamba Sarvangasana, as in all hatha yoga, much of the beauty of practice lies in knowing that while each of us walks respectfully in the footprints of the masters who have gone before, we must each use our own unique body to continue the journey. Only the whole-hearted, authentic inquiry of each individual practitioner keeps Shoulderstand a living entity–and keeps hatha yoga a vital tradition, venerable and yet ever unfolding.
Barbara Benagh founded the Yoga Studio in Boston in 1981 and teaches seminars nationwide. She is grateful to the many teachers who have inspired her and to her dedicated students in Boston. Currently, Barbara is writing a yoga workbook for asthmatics and can be reached at www.yogastudio.org.
• 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