For exclusive access to all our stories, including sequences, teacher tips, video classes, and more, join Outside+ today.
Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) is a classic yoga asana. But it wasn’t one I enjoyed during my first two years of practice. Physically, I felt like I was choking, and mentally, I was restless whenever I tried it. Fortunately, within a few years I learned to use blankets to elevate my shoulders. That definitely improved my experience. But when I started using a chair, I was in heaven. I also was able to stay in the pose much longer—an important point: The positions our bodies take change the biochemistry and neurology of our brains. Think about sleeping; we instinctively know it’s best to lie down. And when we lie down, a cascade of events is set in motion in our bodies that facilitates the state of sleep. Inversions held several minutes or longer not only affect brain states, they change the hemodynamics (blood flow) of our bodies, stimulate our abdominal organs, help drain lymph from our legs, and calm our minds. They also shift our perspectives.
You must understand the anatomy of your neck in order to do Shoulderstand safely. The cervical spine flexes (when your chin moves toward your chest) up to only 55 degrees. If you practice the posture directly on the floor, you force your cervical spine beyond that range of motion—and pile your body’s weight onto it. You also stress your upper thoracic spine. When you prop up your shoulders, you protect your neck, because your shoulders bear most of your weight. (This also keeps the pose true to its name.) Plus, the rest of your spine is free, and your lungs, heart, and abdominal organs aren’t compressed. Not only does this feel better, but it allows for a freer excursion of your diaphragm and therefore better breathing. When you practice Shoulderstand with a chair, things get even better for your cervical spine. Instead of your head and neck, your pelvis—which is designed to bear the weight of your head, arms, and trunk when you stand and sit—now carries your body’s load.
Yoga asana are not just physical exercises. Each posture affects your subtle energy differently. Shoulderstand represents the energies of the Mother archetype—compassionate, nurturing, benevolent—and focuses your gaze on yourself, as compared with Sirsasana (Headstand), for example, which has you face outward. Shoulderstand lets you be introspective. This is especially true for propped versions; the chair frees you from effort and striving. Accepting support allows you to give up your ambition in the pose and take deep rest physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
1. Enlist assistance.
Get a qualified yoga teacher to guide you at first, no matter your experience level, in order to enter the pose safely; using the chair is a little tricky. This pose is not appropriate for beginning students. Contraindications for practicing any form of Shoulderstand are issues with the cervical spine, such as a pinched nerve; nerve pain in one or both arms; diagnosed disk disease; whiplash; or chronic neck pain or dysfunction. Also, don’t practice this pose if you have hypertension; gastroesophageal reflux; a sinus infection or stuffy cold; diagnosed spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis; or are pregnant, menstruating, less than three months postpartum, or under the age of 14.
2. Assemble your props.
- Backless yoga chair: It won’t have front rungs or a backrest, but its legs will create a wide base for stability.
- At least three blankets: You can pad the seat with a blanket for comfort, but it can make the pose more difficult to execute; be sure it doesn’t compromise your alignment. Place enough blankets under your neck to ensure it flexes 55 degrees, no more or less, and that your weight is borne mostly by your pelvis, moderately by your shoulders, and not at all by your cervical spine.
- Sticky mat: It keeps the chair in place. Also, make sure the chair has rubber footings so it doesn’t puncture or tear your mat.
Entering the Pose
Arrange your chair, mat, and blankets as pictured. Sit on the seat facing the back of the chair with your legs wide.
Next, place your legs over the upper back rim while holding the sides of the chair back.
Slowly let yourself down. The powerful muscles that bend your knees, your hamstrings, keep you on the chair; your legs, not your arms and hands, give you a sense of security as you descend. Breathe softly. If a teacher is assisting you, let them gently support your shoulders. As you descend, your legs will naturally straighten over the back of the chair.
When you are almost down, reach with one hand, then the other, between the chair’s legs to grab the outer part of the chair’s back legs. As soon as your shoulders rest on the blankets, make sure your hands are in line with or higher than the upper edge of the blankets; if you try to reach farther down, you could strain your elbow joints by hyperextending them. Rest in this position for a few breaths while you tuck each shoulder joint under you a time or two.
Don’t rush to raise your legs. Make sure your pelvis is well supported. Bend one knee toward your chest, then the other; don’t bend both knees toward your chest at once or you could strain your lower back. Next, raise one leg, then the other, straight up from your hips.
Experiencing the Pose
Concentrate on pressing your tailbone into the chair’s seat in order to arch your back. Don’t tuck your tailbone. The more you maintain an arch in your lower back, the more your upper back will lift. Remember, your pelvis, including your sacrum, should bear most of your weight. Your legs should be exactly vertical, which makes it easier to hold them up because your femurs (thighbones) are maximally congruent in your hip sockets. Also, your knee joints will be in a neutral position, and you can rest the bones of your knees against each other, requiring less effort to keep your legs straight. Drop your eyes into your lower eyelids, and soften your face.
Now that you are steady and present, take your attention to the exact center of your brain. Withdraw into this place, into the sensations of the moment. Take refuge in your own silence and stillness. Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutra (II.46), defines asana as stirham sukham asanam: abiding in ease is asana. This is truly possible in Chair Shoulderstand.
Keep your breath steady and easy. Gradually work up to staying in the pose for 5 minutes. For me, this version of Shoulderstand with variations (not shown) can be nearly a complete yoga practice.
To come out of the posture, bend your knees one by one, and place your feet on the upper back rim of the chair. Then straighten your knees over that same part of the chair. Release your grip. Slide down until your pelvis rests on the blankets; you will probably enjoy holding onto the bottom front chair legs as you do this. Drop your arms to your sides. Rest your lower legs on the seat. You now get to reap the sweetness of this version. Close your eyes and drink in the residue of the pose. Remember, the asana is not the yoga; yoga is the residue the asana leaves in your nervous system.
To finish, slide your pelvis off the blankets and onto the floor. Turn to your side for a few breaths, and then sit up slowly. A 20-minute Savasana is a perfect final pose after Chair Shoulderstand.
If this version feels awkward, don’t abandon it. Do it three times before deciding it’s not for you. The first time my students try it, they sometimes don’t like it. But the second time, they usually do, and the third time, they smile and refuse to come out of the pose. Give your body time to adjust. I believe Chair Shoulderstand can be practiced safely by experienced students, even during their senior years.
Post a photo of yourself to Facebook or Instagram doing Chair Shoulderstand and tag
@yogajournal and @experiential.anatomy for a chance to win free enrollment in the digital course Judith Hanson Lasater and Mary Richards teach, Experiential Anatomy: Movement Literacy for Yoga Teachers. Learn more at judithhansonlasater.com/yj.
About the author
Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, has taught yoga since 1971 and is the author of nine books on yoga. Find her at judith.yoga.