Students who come to Anusara Yoga from other yoga traditions often ask me "why don't you ever teach headstand and shoulderstand?" The answer is, I do teach them, but not as commonly as handstand and forearm stand, and the reason is that they are considered to be more advanced inversions that require a certain level of strength and openness in the shoulders in order for students to do them safely.
When I teach inversions, I follow a certain order of diksha. Diksha usually means "initiation", and when you get it, that means "you got it" in that it has become your experience. I use the term here to mean the way in which we initiate ourselves to progressive levels of deepening experience by making the teachings our own.
So for inversions, the most basic level of diksha is downward-facing dog. It's technically an inversion, with the head below the heart below the pelvis. And you're weight-bearing, but not fully weight-bearing, on the arms, so it's a good place to learn the shoulder alignment that will support handstand and the other inversions.
Good shoulder alignment for all inversions will mean that the head of the armbones (humerus) are rooted back into the shoulder sockets, the shoulder blades hug onto the back, and there's a balanced, lordotic curve in the neck created from the Shoulder and Skull Loops (see the principles section below for how to create this).
Creating this alignment gets progressively harder as the surface area of the foundation increases. That's because the mobility of the shoulder girdle decreases when more of it is part of the foundation. What's more, the stakes also get progressively higher, because when you're weight-bearing on the head (as in headstand and shoulderstand) the potential risks for the neck are greater (as are the potential benefits). It's a double-edged sword.
The paradox is that it's much easier to balance in poses like shoulder stand and headstand for precisely the same reason: there's more foundation, so the pose is more stable. I think this is the reason these poses are often taught before handstand and forearm stand -- they're simply easier to do, although they're much harder to do with good alignment.
To ensure a healthy alignment in the shoulders and neck, it helps to build your inversion practice from poses where the alignment is easier to create and the stakes are lower, toward those where, due to decreased mobility in the shoulder area, the alignment is more difficult and the stakes are higher.
The sequence of initiations for inversions goes like this:
- adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog)
- L-pose (handstand with the feet on the wall, hips at 90 degrees)
- adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
- pinca mayurasana (forearm stand)
- sirsasana 1 (headstand, with hands clasped behind the head)
- sirsasana 2 and other arm variations
- sarvangasana (shoulder stand)
- Open to Grace: Part of this first principle is a willingness to back off, even if you've been doing shoulder stand for 10 years in your yoga practice, and really see if you have created an alignment that serves you in each progressive stage of diksha. For the shoulder alignment, a key component of Opening to Grace is making space for the inner body to expand fully, especially through the sides of the torso from the waistline all the way through the sides of the throat.
- Muscle Energy: When Muscle Energy is activated, the upper arm bones will root back into the shoulder sockets. This will create the greatest range of motion in the shoulder girdle. For the alignment of the neck, the throat will also move back with muscle energy (see the YogaNerd Blog posting on neck alignment); this action will line up the head and neck with the rest of the spine, and is particularly important for those students who have a forward carriage (AKA computer syndrome, where the head juts forward of the spine).
- Shoulder Loop: The Shoulder Loop begins at the palate and flows back, tipping the head slightly back to create a lordotic curve in the neck. The trapezius muscles engage to draw the energy down the back of the neck and toward the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, so the flow of the muscles in the neck and upper back is toward the pelvis. Lastly, as it pierces the heart center, it lifts the front of the chest and chin.
- Skull Loop balances the Shoulder Loop, by lengthening the back of the neck. It initiates in the palate, just like the Shoulder Loop, but extends up the back of the skull and down the front of the forehead, creating extension in the neck. These two loops create the optimal, lordotic curve in the neck. If you tend to have a flat neck, you'll need to emphasize the Shoulder Loop to create balance; conversely, if you tend to have a hyper-lordotic curve in your neck, you'll need to emphasize the Skull Loop to find balance.
- Organic Energy adds length and extension from the active focal point in all directions. In handstand and forearm stand, the focal point is the heart. In headstand and shoulder stand, it's the palate, which means that the skull will root down into the earth while everything else (especially the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades) lift up toward the sky, creating space in the neck.
Here's a sequence to move progressively through the inversions, paying attention to the diksha at each stage.
- Surya namaskar: warm up the shoulder girdle, paying special attention to keeping the armbones plugged in to the shoulder sockets
- Lunge pose with cactus arms: In a high lunge, bend your elbows to the sides, palms facing forward. Once you have established the first two principles, lift your chin and press your head back, drawing the shoulder blades down your back and lifting your chest. Keep the energetic flow of the shoulder blades moving down your back as you stretch your arms overhead.
- Parsvakonasana, trikonasana, virabhadrasana 1: In these standing poses, to build the strength of the Shoulder Loop, practice at first with you top hand (or both hands, in Vira 1) behind your head to provide active resistance for Shoulder Loop. You'll be able to feel the bottom tips of the shoulder blades curling into the heart.
- Prasarita padottansana with hands clasped behind back: This pose is a great, non-weight-bearing place to learn the actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop against the flow of gravity. Go through each of the 5 principles here, making sure that the shoulder blades lift toward the pelvis even as you stretch the arms overhead.
- Adho mukha svanasana: To know that you're ready for handstand, check in in downward-facing dog to ensure that you're able to keep the armbones rooting back (that would be up, in this pose) with the upper back soft (the shoulder blades pressing into the heart center).
- L-shaped handstand: Set up on hands and knees with your hands a leg's distance away from the wall, feet at the wall (NOTE: this will feel like a short stance if you've measured one leg's distance, but this is how it is). With the arms strong and the upper back soft, extend energy down into your hands as you walk your feet up the wall. Just go to 90 degrees with the hips. Because you're not fully weight-bearing on the arms, this pose is a great place to learn the actions of the shoulders for more advanced inversions. The shoulder blades should lift up the back toward the heart center.
- Handstand: Now try kicking up!
- Forearm stand prep (aka dolphin pose): I love this form of the pose, with the hands clasped and the outer forearms pressing into the floor. It's a little easier than the classical form (with palms flat, shoulder distance apart), but it has less foundation (no palms) and so is easier to align. Keep your head lifted as you go up. This will really build the strength of the shoulder girdle for headstand.
- Prasarita padottansana 2 ways: First, go back to the form of the pose with the hands clasped behind your back. You should be able to keep the arm bones back and the shoulder blades lifting here before attempting headstand (it's the same actions in headstand). As a preparation for sirsasana 2, take your fingertips to the floor, with the elbows bent and engage Muscle Energy from the hands all the way up to the focal point (pelvis). The armbones should move to the back plane (here, that's forward, toward the wall in front of you) and the shoulder blades should lift up the back. You'll feel the trapezius muscles flowing up, rather than bunching around your neck. This is a crucial place to learn alignment before attempting sirsasana 2.
- Sirsasana 1: In the set up, clasp your hands and set up your elbows shoulder distance apart. Line it up so that your wrists are not bent either in or out (straight line from the hands all the way to the elbows). The placement of your head will depend on the curve of your neck, but you'll want to set up in way that the neck can have a natural, lordotic curve. As you place the head further back (toward the crown or even the back of the skull) that will decrease the curve; as you place the head further forward, toward the forehead, that will increase the curve. So if you have a flat neck, your head will probably be touching the ground closer to your forehead. Place the radius and ulna (the two bones of the forearms) so that they stack vertically, and press the outer forearms (from the outer wrists all the way up through the elbows) into the floor to engage even Muscle Energy through the arms. As you go up into the pose, keep that alignment; it's common to roll toward the back of the head in the transition, so keep the actions of the arms and the lift in the shoulder blades strong. You will be weight-bearing on your head and arms, so yes, your head will press firmly down into the floor. That part of Organic Energy will give you a simultaneous lift up out of the palate focal point through the feet.
- Post-headstand alignment: Immediately after sirsasana, rather than moving to child’s pose, where the neck is released in a forward position that can pull on the cervical spine, transition to a pose where you can hold the neck in a neutral alignment. One good option is to go straight to downward-facing dog, keeping the back of the neck engaged and curved by lifting the ears in line with the upper arms. (Another option is to set up good alignment in vajrasana, wtih hands clasped behind your head to provide active resistance for aligning the neck) Give yourself several breaths in either pose before moving on.
- Sirsasana 2 (and other arm variations): These are more advanced, as they are more weight-bearing on the head and neck. The paradox is that, as the foundation starts to peel away, you will have greater mobility in the shoulder girdle, but it becomes harder to balance and the stakes (the health of your neck) increase. Make sure you can do prasarita padottansana with the fingertips on the floor as described above before attempting sirsasana 2. Set up with a natural, lordotic curve in the neck, and KEEP THAT as you go up by creating strong actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop. The arm bones must stay plugged into the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades must continue to lift up the back for this to be healthy on your neck. You can advance to other variations (sirsasana 3, niralamba sirsasana) safely only as you keep these actions.
- Backbends: all of the backbends are great preparations for shoulder stand (and headstand, for that matter) because of the emphasis on the shoulder loop. To build the strength and openness needed for shoulder stand, do several backbends with a focus on curling the head back and shoulder blades into the heart. I recommend setubandha (which is very much like shoulder stand), urdhva dhanurasana and dwi pada viparita dandasana.
- Sarvangasana: This pose requires an enormous amount of power in the Shoulder Loop to keep a curve in the back of the neck and all of the vertebrae lifted off the floor. To make the pose easier to perform – and easier to hold for an extended period of time – try using one or more folded blankets (with a mat folded on top, for traction) under the upper arms for this pose. The head will tip back to the floor, emphasizing a lordotic curve in the neck and helping to lift the vertebrae off the floor. No vertebrae should touch the floor (or your mat, or your blanket) while you're in this pose. As soon as you feel a vertebra touch down, it's time to come down out of the pose and re-set.
- Post-sarvangasana: Matsyasana (fish pose) is often taught as a counter-pose to shoulder stand, as it creates an exaggerated curve in the neck while weight-bearing. However, if shoulder stand is performed with good alignment (like any pose in yoga), the neck will not be flattened or strained, and there will be no need for a counter-pose. Rather, it's nice to just go back to a neutral place. I like laying supine, with the chin lifted for natural curve, and the arms to the sides in cactus position, for easy integration of the shoulders.