Janet Johnson, Phoenix
John Schumacher's reply:
A simple solution is to do the pose without blankets. As I'm an Iyengar teacher who always uses blankets, this suggestion borders on heresy, but if you have sufficient flexibility and knowledge, you can perform Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) without them. However, few practitioners that I have observed in the posture over the years can fully open their chests, align their spines, and comfortably maintain the natural cervical curve without elevating their shoulders to some degree.
When I find myself without yoga blankets, such as when traveling, I improvise with nontraditional ones (soft and squishy or thin and small) and even sofa or chair cushions. But rather than find some half-baked solution that may be ineffective or even cause an injury, how about not doing Shoulderstand until you are properly prepared? You might instead practice other asanas that offer similar benefits.
Sarvangasana helps heal the endocrine system (especially the thyroid and parathyroid glands), the abdominal organs (particularly the large intestine, uterus, and bladder), and the respiratory system; it also soothes the nervous system. But the endocrine system can also be supported with other asanas, such as Salamba Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose) and Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose), both of which can be done with props like blocks and bolsters.
The abdominal organs and the respiratory system benefit from being inverted, so Sirsasana (Headstand) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) are good alternatives, as is Pranayama. Twisting asanas also work the abdominal organs. The nervous system can be soothed with supported forward bends, restorative poses like Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), and pranayama exercises that emphasize exhalation.
Don't become so rigid about your practice that you force yourself into inappropriate actions (such as an inadequately supported Shoulderstand) or a counterproductive state of mind ("My practice is ruined without Shoulderstand!"). In yoga, flexibility isnt just about being bendy. The ability to adapt and creatively respond to a given situation is a more profound aspect of your practice than the regularity with which you do Shoulderstand.
Do what you can under the current circumstancesand in the meantime, invest in some traditional yoga blankets for your home. (For more on Shoulderstand, see "Strike a Royal Pose,")
John Schumacher, founder and director of Unity Woods Yoga Center in Washington, D.C., is a certified senior Iyengar Yoga teacher who has practiced for more than 30 years. He has studied in India with B.K.S. Iyengar many times over the past 25 years.