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Heels over Head with Plow Pose

Typically practiced before or after Shoulderstand, Plow Pose doesn't get much credit. Let's look at all of its benefits.

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Halasana (Plow Pose) is often taught hand-in-hand with Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand); both poses are great mood stabilizers, said to simultaneously relax your nervous system and boost your energy level. You can do Halasana, which takes its name from the humble horse-drawn plow it resembles, before or after Sarvangasana, (itself referred to in much more regal fashion as the queen of asanas), but there’s no reason Halasana can’t be practiced, with a proper warm-up, all by itself.

Plow is said to have the same benefits as Sarvangasana, which yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar calls one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages. In his famous manual Light on Yoga, he catalogs the many ways that Sarvangasana benefits various organs and glands; it can also, he says, alleviate breathing problems, headaches, hypertension, and insomnia. Regular practice of Halasana and Sarvangasana, he concludes, gives strength and vigor, joy, and confidence. Some people, however, should steer clear of this superduo of poses if you have neck injuries, high blood pressure, or glaucoma, avoid them. And forgo practicing during menstruation and pregnancy. If you have never practiced yoga, or haven’t practiced for a while, do this pose only under the watchful eye of an experienced instructor.

Got Props?

If you’ve learned the pose without blankets, you might ask, Do I really need them? Trust me: It’s important to support your shoulders and upper arms on a stack of blankets, especially if you’re a beginner. Why? The answer is simple: The cervical vertebrae in your neck are delicate structures. If you do these poses unsupported, you risk putting pressure on them. But if you elevate your shoulders off the floor with blankets, you’ll decrease how much your neck has to flex, so you can keep the back of your neck and throat soft. Also, if your shoulders are tight, you probably won’t be able to stand on them yet; instead, your upper back will sag, and you’ll struggle to hold yourself up with your arms. If you give yourself a break and use blankets, you’ll balance higher on your shoulders with less effort.
I recommend a stack of three (preferably firm and thick) blankets, though you may need more. Fold your blankets into two-by-three-foot rectangles. Note that one of each blankets three-foot edges has a firm, neat fold, while the opposite edge is open-sided and floppy. Stack these firm edges one atop the other to provide a solid support for your shoulders.

Prep Yourself

To get a feel for the shape of Plow, flip it upside down by sitting on the floor right-side up in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Sit upright with your legs extended. Lean your torso slightly forward and return to upright.

Contract and press your thighs actively against the floor and reach through the backs of your heels, stretching your soles. Press your fingertips against the floor beside your hips, firm your shoulder blades against your back torso, and lift the top of your sternum (breastbone), which is just below the small hollow at the base of your throat. Be sure that you don’t push the
bottom of the bone forward, which only sharpens the front ribs, hardens the upper belly, and compresses the lower back.
Bring the bottom of your sternum slightly into the torso and lengthen it down toward your navel. This may feel as though you’re making your chest sink, but if you secure the bottom of the sternum and lift the top of the bone straight up, perpendicular to the floor, you’ll feel a subtle lightness in your heart and brain. Last, lower your chin toward the top of your sternum, but don’t force the bones together. As you do, draw what I call the crook of the throat (the crease that forms between the underside of your chin and the front of your neck) diagonally up into your skull, toward the top spine.

Sit here for a while. Then reach your arms out to the sides, elbows slightly bent, palms up. Rotate your arms externally so your palms turn toward the wall behind you and your thumbs point down. Hold for a minute and feel how this rotation firms your shoulder blades (scapulas) against your back and slides them down to further boost your chest. Hold for a few breaths, then release your arms.

Here’s a simple exercise to help stretch your shoulders and open up your chest. Lean back slightly and press your palms to the floor about six inches behind your pelvis, shoulder-width apart, fingers pointing toward the wall behind you. This will externally rotate your upper arms again and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Maintain the arm rotation, but at the same time spread your shoulder blades as much as you can away from your spine to broaden your base of support and stabilize the position.
Again, lift the top sternum and hold this mild backbend for a minute or two, breathing smoothly. Keep your head upright and look forward, chin near, but not jammed against, your sternum. On an inhalation, lift your torso and come back to Staff Pose.

Plow Into It

Many beginners can’t safely and comfortably touch their feet to the floor, not only because of limitations in their shoulders and neck, but because of short hamstrings. If you’re just learning this pose, elevate your feet on a chair seat (or other stable height) for the time being. Place your blankets on the floor a little less than a leg’s distance away, with the folded edge facing the front of the chair. If you think the chair will slide while you’re in the pose, put it on a sticky mat or brace it against a wall.

Now sit with your back facing the chair and lie back on the blanket stack with knees bent and feet on the floor. Make sure there’s an inch or so between the tops of your shoulders and the firm edge (you’ll tend to roll toward the edge when you lift up). Many beginners find their elbows sliding apart in Shoulderstand and Plow. But you want them to be stationary. If need be, you can roll up a sticky mat and put it under your elbows.

With your arms by your sides and palms facing down, push your hands against the floor; on an exhalation, contract your belly, bring your knees toward your torso, curl your torso into a loose ball, and lift your feet off the floor. Using this momentum, swing your feet to the floor or onto the chair seat behind you. For now, round your torso slightly and keep your knees bent. Once in this position, do not turn your head, but look straight up at your thighs.

Roll With It

Again, externally rotate your arms, then press your fingertips against the floor and roll your shoulders under your body. I emphasize roll because you don’t want to pull your shoulders away from your ears—that only strains your neck. Maintain the rotation of your upper arms and spread your palms onto your back (with pressure on your ring and little fingers). As much as possible, press your outer elbows into your support (or rolled-up mat). You can also stretch your arms out along the floor behind your torso and either press your palms to the floor or clasp your hands. Apply what you learned in Dandasana: Bring your pelvis over your shoulders, lengthen your spine, draw the sacrum deep into your body, activate your legs and feet, and relax your neck and jaw.

If your neck is overstretched, if you’re choking and red-faced or wish you’d taken up tai chi instead, come down immediately and add another blanket (or more) to your stack until you feel comfortable. In the beginning, hold Plow between 15 and 30 seconds and build your time gradually over several weeks and months. With regular practice, aim toward three minutes. To exit, bend your knees and roll down slowly on an exhalation.

As you continue to practice Halasana, be mindful of your alignment; your stay in the pose will get more comfortable. It’s a nice cooling-down pose to practice toward the end of a yoga session. Inversions like Halasana are great because, like yoga itself, they turn things upside down and give you an entirely new perspective.

Contributing editor Richard Rosen’s most recent book is Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals (Shambhala, 2006). He lives and teaches in Northern California.