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I have a hard time staying focused? Can yoga help with that?
Most yoga postures require concentration, but it’s easy to space out or plan your to-do list in a forward bend or a seated twist. On the other hand, Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) requires and evokes absolute focus. Because the alignment in Shoulderstand is delicate and complex—and upside down—you risk falling over or hurting your neck if you’re not paying close attention. Focus is critical.
Set your foundation
When you set yourself up for Shoulderstand, be absolutely fastidious. Improper alignment can strain and compress your delicate cervical spine (the neck vertebrae). But don’t let this discourage you from trying the pose. To ensure your safety, follow two cardinal rules: First, never turn your head while you’re in Shoulderstand. And second, set yourself up properly. This includes being mindful—even obsessively so—when folding those blankets, which help retain the natural curve of your neck and ease the pressure on it.
To begin, take two or three blankets and find some wall space. Folding your blankets is simple if you remember three things: First, they should be wide and long enough to fit under your shoulders and upper arms. Second, they should be thick enough to lift your shoulders to a height that keeps your neck free from strain. Finally, they should be the same height under each arm—no sad, haphazard, uneven folds.
Stage 1: Getting into the pose
Place your blankets about two feet away from the wall with the folded edges toward the wall. Lie back on the folded edge so your shoulders rest on the blankets an inch in from the fold and your head is on the floor about a foot from the wall. These distances are approximate—once you swing your legs up into the pose, you’ll know if your blankets are the correct distance. You might have to experiment by moving the blankets closer to or farther from the wall until you get it right for your height and proportions.
Bend your knees and bring your arms by your sides, palms facing up. Gently press the back of your head onto the floor and root your shoulders and arms into the blanket. This should help maintain your neck’s natural contour. But to be sure, reach behind your neck without turning your head; if you feel space between the floor and your neck, you’re ready to go.
Inhale smoothly and, as you exhale, slowly swing your legs over your head until your toes touch the wall. Bend your elbows and place your hands on your lower back with your fingers pointing toward the ceiling. Your body should look like a less-than symbol (<), not a capital “I.” This shape is just right for beginners—and even more experienced practitioners who struggle with their neck in this posture—because the weight of your pelvis is over your elbows instead of your shoulders and neck.
Bring your awareness to the foundation of the pose—your elbows, shoulders, and the back of your head. Each point should bear weight, but your elbows should bear the most, followed by your shoulders, then your head. Although this dynamic will shift slightly in the next two versions, this is the safest arrangement for beginners.
If your neck is comfortable and your setup feels sound, stay for 5 to 10 breaths. If not, slowly release from the pose.
Stage 2: Stack it up
After some practice, you can challenge yourself by bringing more weight over your shoulders. From stage 1, move your shoulders away from your ears so that your neck feels long. Now, broaden and lift the front of your chest until it’s higher than your shoulders. (As you make this adjustment, you may need to walk your hands down toward the floor.)
Observe the sensations in your neck and throat. Release any tension by softening your temples, eyes, and jaw. Next, lift both feet off the wall, bend your knees, and draw your toes toward your buttocks. Imagine lifting both knees straight toward the ceiling as you elongate the front of your thighs. This should create more lift throughout your body and more length in your hip flexors. Continue to lift your body by walking your hands farther down your back, toward your shoulders, and opening your chest. Support your pose by gently firming your lower belly toward your spine.
Once your body is vertical, bring your attention back to your foundation. How is your weight distributed? Since your pelvis is perched over your upper arms rather than your elbows, your shoulders are more anchored and there’s more weight toward your head. (As you navigate this transition, don’t let your neck collapse.) Once again, spread the weight of your body evenly between your elbows and shoulders, and gently press the back of your skull onto the floor to maintain the natural curve of your neck.
How does the pose affect your breath? Since your diaphragm bears more weight when you’re upside down, it may take more effort to breathe. See if you can stay in the pose for 5 to 10 breaths.
Stage 3: Extend the pose
The transition from stage 2 to the fully extended pose is simple, but it can be surprisingly challenging. As you place more weight over your shoulders, you need strength and flexibility to keep your body vertical.
To move to this stage, straighten your knees and reach your feet up. Maintain the length you created in the front of your thighs as you vigorously reach your legs toward the ceiling. Use your lower belly to lift even more, which will decrease the feeling of weight on your foundation. Try to keep your breath smooth and even as your diaphragm bears more weight.
While working your legs intensely and using your belly to support the lift, walk your hands toward your shoulders. This should help open your chest, shoulders, and collarbones. As you continue to move deeper into this challenging posture, monitor your breath, the sensations in your neck, and the feeling in your eyes, ears, and tongue. If any of these areas is tense or strained, return to a previous version.
After 5 to 10 breaths in full Shoulderstand, fold at your hips and place the balls of your feet on the wall. Bend your knees and walk your feet down the wall until they are a foot or so above your head. Release your arms from your back and press them into your blankets. Slowly unroll yourself onto the floor using your arms to guide you. Notice the sensations that flow through your body as you rest quietly, feeling content knowing you’ve shifted the orientation of your body and mind-even if only for a few minutes.
More benefits of Supported Shoulderstand
Sarvangasana is one of the oldest and most therapeutic of the asanas. According to yoga literature, it can relieve allergies, alleviate asthma, stimulate your thyroid, calm your nervous system, and much more. But be sure to try Shoulderstand the next time you’re feeling restless or agitated or stuck in a rut. After a few minutes of pressing down through your upper arms and watching your toes ascend toward the sky, your senses will be heightened and you’ll naturally tune in to the here and now. You’ll emerge feeling more settled and focused. Who knows? After experiencing this new shape in your body, you might even find a fresh solution to an old problem.
Jason Crandell teaches yoga and trains yoga teachers in San Francisco and around the country.