Updated: Aug 20, 2021
While I was shooting one of the Dosha Vinyasa Yoga sequences, DVY Series 4.3 to be exact, I struggled a little with deciding between doing a full, straight body shoulder stand or to pare it back.
It’s so easy for the ego to take over, even for yoga teachers, and go to the fullest, institutionalized expressions of poses. But while we, or I, can, that doesn’t mean we, or I, should. For one thing, my dear students might get stuck in the same dilemma and decide to do it as well, possibly against our collective better judgments.
So, I told the ego to hush and did the pared-back poses instead and ended up showing three variations. Yay!
But before showing you the modified poses, let’s talk about a bit of anatomy.
A bit of neck anatomy…bear with me...
The main reason I don’t do nor teach full shoulder stands is that more often the shoulder stand becomes a neck stand instead. It’s traditional to instruct and do a chin-to-chest position of the cranium or straight necked pose. But this forces a flatness that starts from the back of the head down the neck and puts pressure overall, creating a flat posterior line of the cervical spine (neck) which goes against its natural lordotic curvature.
Let’s break down the obvious discomfort this kind of neck position can induce:
It’s hard to breath because you’re compressing the trachea, which is in the anterior portion of the neck anatomy.
The C7, last and biggest neck vertebra, is digging in to the flesh. Ouch!
The skeleton of the neck isn’t designed to carry our body weight so putting pressure on it can cause damage anywhere from mild strain to, well, high risk.
Now let’s go back to the initial problem to explain this further; the straightening of the normal curve or lordosis of the cervical spine.
The spine has natural curves, the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) has lordosis or curves to the front. The thoracic (chest/ribs cage) and sacrum (between the hip halves) have kyphosis or curves to the back. These curves, as you can imagine, creates a counter weight effect to balance the head, create a scaffolding for the muscles, creates structure or a highway if you will, for practically all our systems – nervous, circulatory, lymphatic…you name it… and, well, keeps us balanced and upright. When a portion of this balancing act is off its natural curvature it can impede and damage some functions of the body. Herniated disks, anyone? Maybe pinched nerves? Impacted joints? Strained tendons & ligaments? I could go on.
One of my favourites substitutes is Viparita Kirani or Legs Up The Wall (with or without the wall!). Here, the spine is in a neutral position with the legs at an angle of 90 degrees or more. A strap can even be used around the feet and extend the reach of the hands.
If you really want a spinal lift, keep the hips angled.
In the diagrams below, the green line is my thoracic and lumbar spine and the white lines indicate the wider angles on both ends – the neck and the legs. This gives me space to breathe (literally) and maintains the safety and integrity of my cervical spine.
You can bring the legs into a straighter line, but keep the body angled.
The pink lines indicates where the body and legs would be in the traditional, vertical pose. As you can see, it creates a 90 degree angle at the neck; and I have seen this in some practitioners. I’ve tried it. Didn’t like it even while keeping the lordosis of the neck. Side note, this is possible, and I’ve taught it to some students one-on-one with a lengthy cautionary explanation. And those are the caveats…different discussion.
Anyway, all the points above and experience made it so I’d shush my ego and moved on to better variations.
It’s all about the intention
While we want our bodies to build strength and flexibility, going beyond what it is designed to do is very much counterproductive. There’s a lot the body can take, we can push it to extremes. But if we cause serious damage, that’s game over.
All that pushing, pulling, lifting and stretching will fall short of what they were intended to do - which is to create for us a healthy functioning body that enables us to focus on other aspects of life - if we let our egos push us into injury!
So, going back to shoulder stand and other such poses, let’s not be attached to our preconceptions of how it should look or what we were taught or how it has always been; and that very much includes our ego - our pride or even a little arrogance over our preconceptions.
Rather, ask what the intention behind the pose is. This then opens the pose to possibilities for modification and options for safety.
In Shoulder Stand for example, the primary intention is to help draw down blood flow from the lower extremities to relieve pressure (from the legs) and help improve circulation. This is at least what my intention is when I use the pose. So, the full, traditional, institutionalized expression isn’t necessary. Pared-back options will do the job just as well without the discomfort and risk of injury from a vertical body.
Our take-away from this?
Yoga poses are not absolutes. It is all about the intention of the pose. The intention of the one teaching it. The intention of the one doing it.
Modify your poses to suit what your current state is - in body, mind and emotions - and your needs based on sensibility, safety, non-woo mindset and what you intend for it to do for you.
After all, it is your practice, not anyone else’s.