Shoulderstand, or Sarvangasana, is a wonderful pose that stretches and strengthens different sections of the spine. But many people struggle with this pose-either to get vertical or to clasp their hands behind their back. Some simple tests can determine whether either of these goals is possible for a given student. These tests involve three different body segments.
Our very first step in understanding how to teach Shoulderstand should be to review the counterbalance principle. The easiest demonstration of counterbalance is to have your students stand in the middle of the room with their feet together, legs straight. Now have them bend over with a straight spine until their torsos are just below horizontal. Then ask them to try this a second time, but with their heels and buttocks touching the wall. They will be unable to do this without falling forward. This is because they are unable to push their hips back to counterbalance the weight of the torso. When standing in the middle of the room, they could unconsciously shift their hips back to achieve this counterbalance.
Counterbalance determines whether a student will be able to do Shoulderstand with her entire body vertical, or whether she will have to content herself with a bend at the hips and her feet at an angle over her head.
When a student is upside down and attempting to get her body vertical, she is really trying to get her torso vertical. The legs will always come to an easy vertical position if her torso is vertical. (If your student has a seam or a vertical stripe on the side of her shirt, it is easy to see if her torso is vertical or not.) If the torso is not vertical, it means the weight of her pelvis is falling behind her base of support. In order to counterbalance the weight of her pelvis, she will have to bend at the hips to bring her feet over her head. The less vertical her torso, the more the bend at the hips. You can test this for yourself by elevating into your own Shoulderstand and then slowly letting your pelvis roll back a little. You will find yourself adjusting to move your feet over your head to counterbalance, or you will roll all the way down.
Two body segments determine whether the torso can get vertical: the neck and the rib cage. Technically, we must call these areas segments, because they are each composed of several joints. The first segment to consider is the neck.
When a student is trying to get her torso vertical, she is effectively trying to bend her neck to a 90-degree angle. Needless to say, this is difficult for many people to achieve—but it is relatively easy to test for. Have your student kneel with her buttocks on her heels. Now have her drop her head forward and gently stretch the back of the neck. If you lay a ruler from the base of the neck to the back of the head, you will discover that she is unlikely to have a range of motion even close to 90 degrees. In other words, the ruler will usually slant up and not be level with the floor. If her neck does bend close to 90 degrees, you can be virtually assured that she will have an easy Shoulderstand.
How much someone can bend her neck forward is ultimately due to the shape of her bones. She must, of course, adequately stretch the muscles and connective tissues of the neck to reach their full potential. But once this has been achieved, it is still the shape of the neck vertebrae and skull that determine how much the neck can safely bend.
The Rib Cage
All is not lost if a student cannot bend her neck 90 degrees. She can try to make up for it by compressing her rib cage in a manner similar to doing crunches. You could ask her to remain kneeling, compress her rib cage, and round her spine; but unless she is experienced, she might round her lower spine as well. To better isolate the rib cage, have her lie on her back and do a crunch. Or, better yet, have your entire class do this and examine what a large range of differences there is.
A crunch involves contracting the stomach and curling first the head and then the upper spine off the floor. Only the neck and upper part of the rib cage should curl up. The lower back should stay pressed to the floor. You will see that some people's rib cages compress so easily that a great deal of their upper body curls off the floor, while other people can curl up little more then their necks. The shape of her ribs and vertebrae will determine how much a student can compress her rib cage. Someone could have a tremendously strong abdomen and still not curl much of her spine, while a couch potato could curl much more.
If a student has a fairly flexible neck and can easily compress her upper spine, then she might be able to bring her torso to vertical in Shoulderstand. If not, she is going to have to remain content with a slight "banana bend" to her pose.
The final segment to consider is the shoulder. This joint doesn't have much bearing on how vertical a student's torso can get, but it does indicate whether or not she should try to clasp her hands behind her back when doing Shoulderstand. The test for this is simple: Have your student stand with feet apart, then lean forward as far as possible. Now have her clasp her hands behind her back and, with straight arms, attempt to bring her hands down behind her head as far as possible. If her arms are approximately perpendicular to her spine, then she will find it useful to clasp her hands in Shoulderstand. If she has difficulty clasping her hands or bringing them away from her spine, then suggest she do Shoulderstand with her elbows bent and hands on her back. You might also suggest she bring her arms down to the floor behind but not try to clasp her hands.
One need not do a perfect, vertical Shoulderstand to feel its benefits. Any close approximation will do. It can also be a big relief to some students to know that it is not their fault that they cannot get vertical. They can be content to approximate it the best they can, and enjoy.
Paul Grilley has been studying and teaching yoga since 1979. He teaches regular workshops on both physical and energetic anatomy. Paul lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife, Suzee.