HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (9/18/13) - I am a yoga teacher who does not practice or teach full shoulderstand.
Oh! The horror! The shock! I know!
I've read numerous times that some schools of yoga consider shoulderstand to be the ultimate yoga pose, the pose of all poses, the pose that will bring physical bliss and spiritual enlightenment and all sorts of good fortune. I saw something about essence and sweet nectar and divine peace and other random, seemingly profound (but ultimately vague) words and phrases in regards to shoulderstand the other day.
As my friend Nick is fond of saying, "Cool, dude."
Really. Cool, dude, who thinks shoulderstand holds the key to knowing the meaning of life. Cool, dude, who digs the practice and feels better after a shoulderstand and thinks if you don't you're not as "yogic" as he is, but om shanti anyway. Cool, dude, who thinks if you are not rocking shoulderstand and arm balances and scary backbends day in and day out, you are not an "advanced" yoga practitioner.
Cool, dude, because I think shoulderstand is pretty scary for the general population, and that it can potentially be disastrous on your cervical spine.
You think I'm being overly cautious in my teaching and my practice? Okay, take it from Yoga Journal:
What happens if your student forces her neck too far into flexion in Shoulderstand? If she is lucky, she will only strain a muscle. A more serious consequence, which is harder to detect until the damage is done, is that she might stretch her ligamentum nuchae beyond its elastic limits. She may do this gradually over many practice sessions until the ligament loses its ability to restore her normal cervical curve after flexion. Her neck would then lose its curve and become flat, not just after practicing Shoulderstand, but all day, every day. A flat neck transfers too much weight onto the fronts of the vertebrae. This can stimulate the weight-bearing surfaces to grow extra bone to compensate, potentially creating painful bone spurs. A still more serious potential consequence of applying excessive force to the neck in Shoulderstand is a cervical disk injury. As the pose squeezes the front of the disks down, one or more of them can bulge or rupture to the rear, pressing on nearby spinal nerves. This can cause numbness, tingling, pain and/or weakness in the arms and hands. Finally, a student with osteoporosis could even suffer a neck fracture from the overzealous practice of Shoulderstand.
I am certainly not suggesting that there is no place for shoulderstand, no place for “advanced” asana (posture) practice, or no place for challenge and growth as part of yoga. If shoulderstand works for you (not your ego), that is great. If you want to work toward a certain pose that you do not currently have the strength or flexibility or balance to do, that is also great. Goals are good. Getting stronger is good. Using yoga to transform your body, your mind, your spirit – it is all good. And for some people, shoulderstand is good. For some people headstand is great. For some people arm balances are extraordinary.
But the truth is, being "advanced" in your yoga practice is not about any levels or progressions of postures or working up from shoulderstand to being able to balance on only your head. In fact, balancing on your head is kind of crazy, and for the majority of the population, potentially dangerous. It is just as advanced to practice simple yoga postures while being truly present for their subtle nuances.
Yoga is about compassion. Pushing past what is natural for you, to get your body to do what another person's body does, is not yoga. Not when ego and obsession are involved. Not when force is involved, period. Not when your anatomical structure and physical reality mean that if you were to do shoulderstand on the regular you could do severe damage to your cervical spine.
Asana, or postures, are not the only aspect of a yoga practice, and the goal of an asana practice in yoga is not to master versions of said postures that involve extreme bending and contortion. Like any physical endeavor, or any endeavor at all for that matter, practicing yoga has risks. People have been injured and hurt doing yoga, absolutely. But more often than not, any example of a “yoga injury” I have heard of involved someone clearly pressing their body past obvious, reasonable limits.
For example, an article that got a lot of buzz almost two years ago mentioned someone pushing their heels down with so much force in downward facing dog that they tore their Achilles tendon. But why would you do that? Listen to how I regularly cue downward facing dog pose:
Take a deep inhale and come high onto the balls of your feet, feel your hips float toward the sky, internally rotating your triceps so that your arms extend and your armpits pull in toward the body. Lift your shoulders away from your ears, letting your neck relax. Exhale as you slowly allow the heels to descend, to melt toward the earth.
Do you hear anything about forcing your heels to touch the ground? Nothing magical happens if your heels are flat to the ground in downward dog. What matters is the energetic, muscular intention - allowing the natural ability of your muscles to strengthen and open. So maybe one day your heels meet the ground, maybe your heels never get anywhere close the ground, and it does not matter. It is your body – your yoga.
I believe approaching self – body and spirit – with non-judgmental, compassionate self-awareness is the key to a healthy, safe, beneficial asana practice. In fact, I'd argue that learning non-judgmental, compassionate self-awareness is the reason to practice yoga at all.
Michael Taylor of Strala Yoga wrote:
Injuries aren't part of yoga. Injuries are part of 'not yoga.' Yoga, just like life, is ours to create. It's ours to create yoga that's struggling, striving, pushing and forcing; a life that reinforces the strain and difficulty in our bodies and minds. It's also ours to create a yoga that is calm and peaceful. And a life that is capable and easy in any setting, under any challenge.
And so, I am a yoga teacher who does not practice or teach full shoulderstand. I practice and teach Legs Up The Wall, instead. It offers the same benefits with far less risk for my body, as well as the average student in my classes.
Cool, dude, indeed.
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Written by Hilary Lowbridge