Asana Column: Parsva Sarvangasana (Side Shoulderstand)

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In this magnificent pose, Parsva Sarvangasana (Side Shoulderstand), the shoulders and arms remain rooted to the earth while the legs extend toward the horizon, reaching out to touch infinity. This suggests the true purpose of yoga: to be grounded while simultaneously stretching into the vastness of the unexplored Self. To do yoga is to be fully rooted in the present while at the same time embracing the possibilities of the future--a state in which we are both being and becoming.

Many practitioners of yoga think of asanas as the whole of the art. Yet making them the end defeats the real purpose of yoga. To practice asanas and not reach beyond them is like having a top-of-the-line automobile that we run only on a treadmill in the garage. Although the vehicle works perfectly, it doesn't take us anywhere. Such a car was designed to be on the road, to transport us powerfully into our future, our unexplored potential.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes an ashtanga (eight-limbed) path of which asana is but the third part. Our work in yoga begins with yama (ethics toward others), five guidelines that help us create and live in a sane and peaceful society. Then comes niyama (prescribed observances), personal disciplines that help us to become more aware of ourselves. According to one traditional categorization of yoga's eight limbs, asa- na belongs with yama and niyama as part of bahiranga sadhana (external practices). Pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), and dharana (concentration) are known as antaranga sadhana (internal practices), while dhyana (meditation) and all the different levels of samadhi (union) are considered antaratma sadhana (inner-self practices), the work that involves connecting with the Spirit within.

The great Indian sage Sri Aurobindo once wrote, "When we have passed beyond knowings, then we shall have knowledge. Reason was the helper, [but] reason is [also] the bar." A similar shift in status from vehicle to roadblock can occur with the limbs of yoga. As we move along the way, the yamas, niyamas, and asanas remain important, but if we focus entirely on them and make them the end of our endeavor, they become a burden.

We are misguided in our efforts when we dwell on that which is intended merely to help take us to the next level. The primary purpose of the asanas is to make the body strong, stable, and able to withstand the energy of prana, the life force cultivated in the practice of pranayama. Pranayama, in turn, is used to strengthen the nervous system so that it can handle the power of the succeeding limbs of yoga, the withdrawal of the senses and the ever-deepening stages of meditation that lead to the greater purpose of yoga, the communication with the Self. When we practice with this understanding, the asanas serve as a bridge to infinity, to the vastness of the worlds inside. The yamas, niyamas, and asanas are the ground in which we root, while the remaining parts of the eightfold path are the limbs that rise up endlessly in all directions, seeking our true Self.

Reaching into Infinity

In asana practice, no posture better embodies and teaches this simultaneous rooting in the present while stretching into infinity than Parsva Sarvangasana, one of the most beautiful asanas in yoga. As the legs reach powerfully, the arms and shoulders ground and the chest receives a mighty opening. The whole body balances on the fulcrum of the sacrum, and an amazing power is generated as you extend out of your center in both directions.

This dual extension creates heat and energy in the body, forcing prana into the cells of the pelvis and abdomen. In very few poses are the legs completely unsupported as they reach toward the horizon; in most asanas, they're either rooted or inverted. In Parsva Sarvangasana, we gain an awareness of the legs that we cannot get from any other pose. Additionally, it requires a powerful lift of energy from the pelvis toward the heart center. Parsva Sarvangasana creates a connection between the most powerful physical energy emanator in the body (the hand) and the most sacred bone, the center of balance (the sacrum). The body weight falling through the sacrum onto the hand creates a very powerful grounding, charging the sacrum with the hand's energy, which can then rise up through the body.

A Safe Foundation

To come into Parsva Sarvangasana properly, Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) must be firmly established first. Sirsasana (Headstand) is considered the king of all poses, and Sarvangasana the queen. It is said that the king governs the kingdom, while the queen rules the kingdom. This is due to the power of the feminine nature being the power of nurturing and calming. Sarvangasana should always be done with these qualities in mind.

Frequently I see students performing Sarvangasana aggressively, pushing their spines up toward the legs and jamming their chins into their chests. This causes great tension in the nervous system. Whereas Sirsasana should be done with intensity, focus, and power, Sarvangasana should be done with quiet, receptivity, and patience. Then the nervous system will feel clear and focused from Sirsasana while also feeling calm and relaxed from doing Sarvangasana.

Before doing Sarvangasana, prepare a support for your shoulders and upper arms with something firm and stable, such as folded blankets or closed-cell foam pads. (For most people, the ideal height is between 1 and 3 inches. You may need to experiment to find the right height for your body.) Wrap the blankets or foam pads in a sticky mat. Lie with your torso on this support but with your head on the floor.

A brief safety note concerning the use of props in Sarvangasana and its variations: In Shoulderstand, stiffness in the shoulder muscles pulls the elbows away from each other. But if you force the elbows to remain shoulder width apart--either by grounding them on a sticky mat or by strapping the arms in place--without also using the sticky mat to immobilize the upper arms right at the shoulder, the tight shoulder muscles may over time pull the upper arms out of the sockets and damage the joints. As long as your sticky mat extends up the whole length of the upper arm and under the shoulder, you may use a yoga belt to prevent your elbows from splaying out to the side. But do not tighten the belt beyond the range of motion you can achieve by your own muscular effort. If you do, you again risk displacement of the upper arm in the shoulder joint. Also note that you should never use a belt around the upper arms in Parsva Sarvangasana or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose); if you lose your balance in these poses with a belt on, you risk serious damage to your wrists.

When coming up into Sarvangasana as a preparation for Parsva Sarvangasana, I prefer to come into it from Setu Bandha Sarvangasana rather than from Halasana (Plow Pose), since Setu Bandha warms up the spine and prepares it for the backbending action of Parsva Sarvangasana. In order to come into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, your torso on your pad and your head on the floor. Press your feet down and lift your pelvis as high as you can. Interlock your hands underneath your back and straighten your arms. Lift your right shoulder and roll it externally as much as possible so that you open and expose your right armpit. Keep the right shoulder rolled under as you lower it back down so the sticky mat can hold it in place, then do the same action with the left shoulder. Although the sticky mat makes it a little more difficult initially to roll your shoulders under, I find it very useful since it keeps the shoulders properly positioned throughout the pose.

To come into Sarvangasana from Setu Bandha, bend your elbows and place your hands on your back. One at a time, lift your legs up to vertical. When you come up, the upper trapezius muscles (on both sides of the lower neck) and the shoulders should rest firmly on the pad. If your trapezius muscles are relatively stiff, the seventh cervical vertebra (C7), the large vertebra at the base of the neck, will rest on the pad. If they are quite soft and elastic, the seventh cervical vertebra may be able to lift up off your pad. In either case, your work in Sarvangasana is to drop your weight into your shoulders, toward the floor, while allowing a gentle yet unequivocal rebound from the earth up the spine into the inner legs. As this rebound moves up, simultaneously pull your perineum gently down. Release the tension in the organs of your abdomen at the lower belly so that they drop onto the diaphragm, creating a rounded, puffy upper belly. The lower belly should be drawn deeper than the upper belly into the body; if it isn't, further relax the tension in the organs of the abdomen.

As you remain in Sarvangasana, occasionally walk your hands down your back toward your shoulder blades. Keep your throat completely relaxed so you are neither pulling your chin toward your sternum nor lifting it away. Instead, use your hands on your back to help your sternum gently but surely move toward your chin. Keeping your breathing soft, smooth, and natural, drop your eyes so that you are looking toward your belly button or, if your torso is quite erect, your heart center. Relax the skin of your face, allowing the healing effects of this pose to flow from your feet to your head.

To best prepare for Parsva Sarvangasana, point your fingertips toward the buttocks rather than toward each other. If you can bring the heels of your palms to the tips of your shoulder blades, you'll be able to more effectively drop the weight of your body into your hands and down the forearms into your elbows. This will create a gentle automatic recoil of the spine toward the ceiling, which makes the pose intensely pleasurable. But until you can reach this hand position, do not make a concerted effort to push the spine up or you may strain the nervous system and damage your neck. I have met many people who have damaged the intervertebral disks in their necks either by lifting the chin or by pushing it down while doing this pose. Others have herniated their disks by turning their heads to look at what other students were do- ing; you should never turn your head to the side in Shoulderstand. For safety, relax the throat and keep the head still. Only after you have established a strong, regular practice of Sarvangasana should you attempt any of the next variations, since a supple and open neck is required for all of them.

Extend Each Leg

Many students find it difficult to do Parsva Sarvangasana because the weight of the legs tips the upper body over, and/or incorrect placement of the supporting hand causes pain in the wrist. You can help prepare your body for the final pose by practicing Eka Pada Parsva Sarvangasana (One-Legged Side Shoulderstand), a variation in which you extend only one leg at a time.

Like all versions of Parsva Sarvangasana, Eka Pada Parsva is best done on a hard surface, not on blankets or foam blocks, because in such poses the weight-bearing elbow requires maximum stability. If the weight-bearing elbow wobbles, you may severely strain it or your wrist. Also, supporting blankets or pads are not necessary under the shoulders because there is very little body weight on the neck in these variations, and because the neck has been prepared by the practice of Sarvangasana.

Traditionally, all Parsva Sarvangasana variations are done on the right side first to energize and contract the ascending colon, then on the left side to help contract and flush out the descending colon. Since body waste moves from the ascending colon to the descending one, this sequence assists the elimination process.

To come into Eka Pada Parsva Sarvangasana, lie on your back on a sticky mat or on the bare floor. If you are using a sticky mat, it's best to place your head off it. Bend your knees and, pressing your feet into the floor, lift your pelvis and come into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. As before, interlock your hands underneath your back and straighten your elbows, rolling your shoulders under; then press your elbows into the floor, bend them, and place your hands on your back.

Next, walk your feet to the right as far as you possibly can. Press them strongly into the floor and lift your sacrum. Except for the cervical spine, which should be kept relaxed, powerfully draw your entire spine toward your front body and draw your kidneys toward your upper chest. Release your right hand from your back and place your sacrum on your right palm, pointing your fingertips toward your knees. Do not move your right elbow to the left; keep it where it was in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. Also, do not move your left hand; keep it on the back as in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. The left hand is used for balance, not for bearing weight.

Press your pelvic weight down into your sacrum, through your right palm, and into the right elbow. Squeezing your knees together, slowly straighten one leg, stretching it powerfully into the toes while pulling your lower belly toward the diaphragm. Hold for three to five breaths, then bend the straight leg, place that foot back on the floor, and slowly straighten the other leg. Throughout these movements, keep your knees as close together as possible and try to reduce weight on the bent knee's foot by taking more weight onto your right hand. This will prepare the arms, spine, abdomen, pelvis, and legs for the final pose. Repeat the sequence to the left.

Resetting the Sacrum

If you can do Padmasana (Lotus Pose) comfortably, you will find Parsva Urdhva Padmasana (Side Upward Lotus Pose) in Sarvangasana to be of great benefit as a preparation for full Parsva Sarvangasana. Parsva Urdhva Padmasana is much easier to perform than Parsva Sarvangasana, yet it has similar effects and benefits. Parsva Urdhva Padmasana also has the additional benefit of correctly resetting and stabilizing the sacroiliac joint, because the legs are in Padmasana, which requires an external rotation of the hips. This rotation releases the sacrum from being pulled backward by the rotators, allowing it to move forward into the body. The sacral movement is increased because most of your body weight is then grounding down through the sacrum; in fact, in this pose, you'll often feel a popping or a clicking at the side of your sacrum as the bone moves into a more optimal position. If that occurs, you will experience the amazing freedom that comes from proper alignment of the sacroiliac joint.

To come into Parsva Urdhva Padmasana in Sarvangasana, begin in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. Then lift your legs up one at a time, coming into Active Viparita Karani (Upside-Down Movement) instead of full Sarvangasana: That is, instead of trying to create a straight vertical line from shoulders to hips to ankles, keep your buttocks slightly behind your shoulders and your legs leaning slightly over the shoulders and head. Next, bring the legs into Padmasana, placing the top of your right foot onto your left upper thigh and then your left foot on your right thigh. With your knees still over your chest and your buttocks sticking out behind you, turn your pelvis so that your buttocks face to the right. Then lift your legs slightly toward the ceiling to take the body weight off your right hand. Pull your thoracic spine into your chest, fully expanding the chest while keeping the throat soft. Slowly bring your pelvis toward your right hand and rest your sacrum on the palm with your fingers between your buttocks. Rest the weight of your legs and pelvis on the right palm. (If you feel pain in your wrist in any of these poses with the palm on the sacrum, press the mounds of your fingers into your coccyx area, the bottom end of the spine. If that doesn't relieve the pain, come out of the pose and rest.)

As you hold the pose, firmly pull your perineum toward your diaphragm, creating the internal lift of Mula Bandha (Root Lock), while also pulling the pit of your abdomen toward your chest, creating power in the lower belly. Simultaneously, contract your buttocks, opening your groins while bringing your knees toward the floor as much as you can. If you feel as if you're listing either to the left or to the right, you can use your left hand and pressure through the mound of your right thumb to stabilize your body. If you feel as if you're going to fall backward, come out of the pose and reposition your hand closer to the bottom of the sacrum.

Try to feel the duality of the stretch: in one direction, from your groins into your knees; in the other direction, from your groins into your chest. Allow the weight of your body to drop into your right hand, and allow the sacrum to move deep into the body toward the pubis. Hold for three to nine breaths, stretching your groins into your inner thighs on each exhalation and pulling up the pit of your abdomen and opening your chest on each inhalation. Slowly lift your knees, switch your sacrum to your left hand, and come into the pose to the left. Then unfold your legs, return to Active Viparita Karani, and cross your legs into Lotus on the other side (left leg folding in first). Then repeat Parsva Urdhva Padmasana to each side. As you practice this pose, you will feel a blossoming of energy in your pelvis, a warm, luminous power emanating from the sacrum well into the front body. Directing this warmth or light from the pelvis upward and letting it settle into your heart will give you the immeasurable satisfaction of feeling your physical strength making contact with Spirit.

Expanding Your Horizons

To come into Parsva Sarvangasana, follow the same method as in Parsva Urdhva Padmasana in Sarvangasana but do not take your legs into Padmasana. Instead, keep them extending straight up toward the ceiling as you turn the buttocks and the backs of your legs as far to the right as possible. Drop the weight of your legs down into your pelvis, and thus through your right hand and into the right elbow. Adjust your hand so that the tip of your middle finger holds the tip of the coccyx. Draw your kidneys toward your chest and your perineum toward your diaphragm. Straighten your legs fully and squeeze them together, rotating them slightly internally; imagine that both legs are merging, becoming one leg. Press the energy of your legs into your feet and out into the sky while you pull the muscles and the bones of the upper legs into your pelvis. If you do both of these actions, you will feel not just a physical contraction but also an outward extension of your energy.

Once you feel this, slowly sweep your legs back, down, and as far to the side as they will go. Continue to feel a tremendous expansion, a sense that your legs are making a "bridge to infinity" even as you pull the muscles and bones of your legs in toward the pelvis. Again, reinforce the actions of drawing your thoracic spine and your kidney energy into your chest. Initially, hold the pose for only two or three breaths on each side, consciously softening your throat so that the breath is not harsh. After many months of practice, extend the holding time to about nine breaths.

If you're an advanced practitioner of asana, you can get a beautiful sensation of sweeping the legs through space from the front to the back of your body by coming into Parsva Sarvangasana from Parsva Halasana (Side Plow Pose). To do Parsva Sarvangasana on the right side, come into Parsva Halasana on the left; from Shoulderstand, bring your feet overhead onto the floor into Plow Pose, keeping your spine erect, then walk your feet to your left. Once you've moved the feet as far to the left as you can, press your inner anklebones together. Then inhale and sweep both legs up until they are vertical, still keeping the pelvis angled to the side, as in Parsva Halasana. Draw the spine into the front body, drop the sacrum onto the heel of the right palm, and continue into Parsva Sarvangasana. After a few breaths, sweep back into Parsva Halasana to the left, then walk your feet over into Parsva Halasana to the right and come up into Parsva Sarvangasana to the left.

Parsva Sarvangasana can also be done passively. I teach it on two big bolsters placed end to end, perpendicular to a wall. To come into this passive version, lie with your back on the bolsters but your shoulders on the floor, simulating a low Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. The heels, pelvis, and lumbar spine are all supported by the bolsters at the same height. Press your feet into the wall; if they do not reach, place blocks against the wall to provide a firm surface to press your feet into. Roll your thighs internally and squeeze them together; if they tend to drift apart, you may bind your upper thighs together with a yoga belt.

Keeping your chest open, slowly walk your right hand toward the wall, moving your head along with your shoulders so that it remains perpendicular to them. Keep walking your hand as far as you can toward the wall, letting your left hand slide passively. Hold for nine to 18 breaths, then walk the shoulders over to the other side, sliding the head rather than lifting it. This passive version may be repeated three to nine times on each side, alternating sides, and is very helpful for reenergizing and revitalizing the upper abdominal organs, including the spleen, pancreas, liver, and gall bladder. When combined with a sensible nutritional program, I have found, this version is particularly beneficial for people with blood-sugar irregularities.

Challenge Yourself to Grow

Parsva Sarvangasana is a strong, challenging pose. But as the old maxim goes, "Where strong winds blow, good timbers grow." As the wind blows, the tree must lean, making its trunk stronger and its roots deeper. Even though a leaning tree appears to be weaker than an erect one, it actually has a stronger trunk and a deeper root system; in a storm, it will outlast one that has grown straight. In the same way, as we work in Parsva Sarvangasana, as we learn to lean into what is initially an uncomfortable, unusually extended position, we start to strengthen the timber of the spine, connecting more powerfully with the earth while reaching toward the vastness of the horizon.

The founder-director of Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington, Aadil Palkhivala began studying with B.K.S. Iyengar at age 7, was introduced to Sri Aurobindo's yoga at age 10, and received an Iyengar Advanced Yoga Teacher's Certificate at age 22. He teaches classes and workshops around the world. For more information on Palkhivala's work, please visit www.yogacenters.com and www.aadilpalkhivala.com.