The Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana) Pose and Modifications in Yoga (Beginner to Intermediate)
The Shoulder Stand Pose or Sarvangasana is an intermediate level posture that is often referred to as the queen of the asanas.
Since this is the first yoga pose that you’ll learn where your weight is balanced on your shoulders you might find this takes a bit of time to get used to at first. It requires finding a new sense of coordination and balance in your body in a position where your neck might feel a bit vulnerable.
We’ll explore a yoga sequence you can use to learn how to approach the Shoulder Stand, Sarvangasana and practice variations that progress up towards the full Shoulder Stand.
Since the full posture is an intermediate level posture that requires significant flexibility and strength it might not feel appropriate for everyone to practice. Therefore, it’s helpful to have a variety of different options of modified Shoulder Stand poses that you can choose to practice instead if that feels more appropriate for your body.
You can also follow along step-by-step with my guided Shoulder Stand video tutorial. But please do take care if you are trying the full Shoulder Stand for the first time without the guidance of a yoga teacher.
Benefits of the Shoulder Stand, Sarvangasana
(1) Shoulder Stand as an Inversion
The Shoulder Stand, Sarvangasana is usually the first inversion that you’ll start to practice. Inversions are any yoga postures where you bring your heart above your head.
Inversions are usually practiced towards the end of a yoga practice with a focus on lengthening and deepening your breath. This can help you feel a sense of relaxation and support you in your final relaxation practice of Savasana or meditation.
With this in mind, you’ll find it helpful to not only focus on the technique of the Shoulder Stand but also slowing down your breath while in the posture.
(2) Shoulder Opening in Shoulder Stand
You will find that although the Shoulder Stand, Sarvangasana requires some opening your shoulders to make the pose accessible you will also improve your mobility around the shoulder joint by practicing the posture.
Being able to open the front of your shoulders before and in the pose will also be essential to ensure that you are balancing the majority of your weight on your shoulders rather than your neck.
(3) Shoulder Stand for Your Thyroid
There are many yoga books and teachers that recommend Shoulder Stand or Sarvangasana as a way to improve your thyroid function by stimulating the thyroid glands. However, this claim has not been clinically proven and therefore not something that should be considered as a benefit for practicing the pose.
I would therefore recommend you to choose to practice the Shoulder Stand, Sarvangasana as a way to explore more about your body and the challenge of learning a new pose, rather than for thyroid stimulating benefits.
Shoulder Stand Sequence
You can find here a progressive Shoulder Stand sequence with a variety of different modifications and options.
Since we usually practice Shoulder Stand towards the end of our yoga practice it will be best if you first take the time to warm up with a few Sun Salutations and maybe some Standing Poses to make sure the body is warm and flexible.
(1) Using the Bridge Pose as a Preparation
The Bridge Pose is a great preparation posture to do before the Shoulder Stand, Sarvangasana.
Similar to the Shoulder Stand we are working here on opening the shoulders with the back of the neck on the ground and upper back lifting up. But since the legs are supporting us on the ground you will find there is less weight to balance on the shoulders and less potential pressure on the neck.
Use your inhale to lift up through your hips and see if you can start to walk your shoulder blades towards each other.
You could try from here to rest your elbows on the ground and rest your hands on your lower back. Making the positioning of your hands and shoulders very similar to the Shoulder Stand.
This does require a bit more of an intense backbend due to the hips being quite high, so if this feels too intense you could instead interlace your fingers behind your back and keep allowing your hips to lift up.
See if you can ground through your shoulders, lift up through your chest, and firm through your belly. Staying here around five slow and steady breaths.
(2) Focusing on Relaxing with Legs Up the Wall, Viparita Karani
The first version of Shoulder Stand that we're going to explore is the restorative posture of Legs-Up-the-Wall, Viparita Karani. This is a gentle inversion where you keep your hips resting on the ground or small pillow and let your legs drop heavily against the wall.
So this variation of Sarvangasana is really nice if you're tired or have some sort of lower back pain or neck pain. And there's this nice feeling of the blood flowing down from the feet, down through the legs. So this is a great sort of position if you've been walking or running a lot and your legs feel a little tired.
So you can come to sit close to the wall. You're going to roll over so that your hips are going to come right up close to the wall and your legs resting on the wall. You can start to close your eyes.
Since this pose is quite passive you can stay here for anywhere from 1 – 20 minutes while you focus on smoothing out your inhale and the exhale.
(3) Gentle Supported Shoulder Stand with a Block
So for the next version, we're going to start lifting the hips up a little higher but still keeping the posture gentle with the support of a block.
You're going to take your block (or something similar) and rest it under your lower back. There's this flat bone called our Sacrum that you should feel around your lower back that can just kind of rest down on the block.
You want to keep your hips heavy on the block and back of your head and shoulders heavy in the ground. Then from here you're going to reach your legs up towards the ceiling.
If it's comfortable, legs can be straight or if hamstrings feel a little tighter you can have the knees a bit bent. You’re trying to make your legs as light as possible so they are balanced in position reaching upwards.
See if you can allow your breath to slow down and lengthen. Eyes could be open or eyes could be closed. Staying here for around five to ten breaths.
(4) Active Shoulder Stand Against the Wall
We're now going to use the wall for support. This posture is quite a similar shape to the Bridge Pose but we are progressing towards balancing our weight on the shoulders. I recommend only trying this once you feel very comfortable with the Bridge Pose.
I suggest using a folded blanket or towel under the shoulders. You want to have your shoulders on the folded towel and head off the towel to give you a bit more space around the front of the throat and the shoulders.
You're going to come up close to the wall and start with your legs-up-the-wall. Once you’ve found your position you can adjust your towel so that your shoulders are on the towel and head is off.
From here you're going to bend the knees so that your feet are flat on the wall. Then press into the wall with your feet and press into the ground with your shoulders as you inhale and start to lift your hips forward.
You want to walk your feet a little up. So your knees, hips, and shoulders are in one line. And if you've got the space, start to walk your shoulder blades a little closer together.
If it felt quite intense you might just be up a couple of breaths. But if it feels okay you can stay here for around five breaths.
If you are comfortable in the Shoulder Stand against the wall pose you can also try extending your right leg up.
As you do this you want to keep lengthening up through your right leg and keep pressing your left foot toward the wall.
And then exhale, the right foot can come down and from here you can lift your left leg up. Trying to avoid your left leg coming more towards the wall or in front. We're looking for that extension and length with your left heel right above your left hip.
(5) Shoulder Stand Version With Hips Back
This is the first version of Shoulder Stand that we’re going to try without the wall. Again I would suggest using your towel or blanket here for a little bit of extra support. And only approaching this posture if the other poses we’ve covered felt comfortable.
You're going to come to lie down. So again lining up, so the shoulders are on the towel and the head is on the yoga mat.
Inhale you can first just lift your feet up. So very similar to what we were doing in legs-up-the-wall. Now you're drawing the hips a little back away from your shoulders so that you have less weight on your shoulders.
See if you can bring your legs right over your head to begin with. This is known as the Plough Pose, Halasana and will ensure you really open and walk your shoulder blades towards each other so that yours weight is on your shoulders and not on your neck. This is important to give you space.
Hands can then come to your back. You can bend your knees a little and then reach your legs up. By purposely dropping your hips a little forward you will have less weight is in your shoulders while you extend your legs up.
Staying here for around five to ten slow breaths.
(6) The Full Shoulder Stand or Sarvangasana
If you're comfortable with all the variations we have done so far you can try to bring your weight a little bit more onto your shoulders.
Lift up more through your hips and extend through your legs. You are now working towards stacking your feet and hips above your shoulders.
Avoid looking from side to side to protect your neck. Focusing on lengthening your breath for around five to ten rounds.
And they you’re going to roll slowly out of the posture.
(7) Counterpose for Shoulder Stand, the Fish Pose
The Fish Pose, Matsyasana is a great counterpose to open up the shoulders and chest in the opposite direction that you have been doing in the Shoulder Stand.
So you come up onto your elbows and rest the crown of your head on the ground. Staying for around ten breaths.
And then just releasing out and taking your time to rest for a while on your back in Savasana.
Tips for Practice
Like with any yoga practice or challenging posture do remember to listen to your body. If some of these versions of the Shoulder Stand didn’t feel comfortable, stick with the variations that do.
Then you can might again explore some of the more difficult poses after a bit more of consistent practice of the first few postures and again see how it feels to build up towards the either the Shoulder Stand on the wall or without the wall.
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