by J. Brown
Perhaps the most questionable convention in yoga practice is the assertion that headstand and shoulderstand are the “king and queen of asana.” Deeply rooted in classical traditions and adopted by modern hybrids, the emphasis on these poses is an example of a broader disconnect between ideals and actualities.
I practiced headstand and shoulderstand on a daily basis for many years as is prescribed by the majority of systems and schools. I never really questioned the chronic pain I had in my neck and shoulders. I was under the impression that the pain was just my body changing and that eventually it would go away and I would be enlightened, or something like that. Of course, that never happened. The pain just got worse and worse until I had to question what was causing it. Headstand and shoulderstand were obvious culprits. And just about as soon as I stopped doing them the pain started going away.
For the record, my form was not the issue. I was able to achieve all the alignment cues and am trained in the use of props that are indicated for safety. I had it checked by senior teachers many times. Nonetheless, these poses were causing me pain and all I had to do was stop doing them to alleviate it.
But that did not stop me from continuing to teach these poses. They are so ubiquitous in yoga classes that, even though they had proven to be no longer appropriate in the context of my own personal practice, it never occurred to me that they might be excluded from my class. Only when I had a student actually hurt himself in my class did I finally draw a line.
I was doing headstand with a gentleman. I was right there with him and making sure that we were doing everything “right.” I really don’t think he could have been aligned better and everything looked great from the outside. But he still ended up having a sudden pinched nerve in his neck that caused him to exit the pose and my class immediately. As many yoga teachers do, I shrugged it off at the time. But when I ran into him a few months later on the street and he told me that he would never go to another yoga class again, I felt crushed. I swore to myself that this would never happen again and I have not taught headstand in my group classes ever since.
Now, I have never had anyone pinch a nerve in their neck while doing shoulderstand. But I have found it to be equally problematic as headstand for different reasons. Even more than the fact that strain and injury are often being ignored, the claims of benefit seem to be elusive at best.
So many of us feel tight in the neck and shoulders. And the stretch sensation and stimulation we feel in our neck and shoulders when in a shoulderstand is satisfying. It feels like maybe all that sensation might make it better. Sadly, its not always so easy to gauge the amount of pressure being applied and the duration of the pose is often too long, only exacerbating the tension. It is true that with an effective use of props the risk of overdoing the action on the neck and shoulders can be mitigated. But in the context of group classes and the emphasis that gets placed on shoulderstand, the necessary care is often sacrificed.
But you don’t hear about this in those lists of the Top 5 Health Benefits of Shoulderstand. Holding your legs above your heart to relieve swelling in your legs seems like a reasonable piece of advice to me. However, even if we give some benefit of the doubt to the claims that inverted poses will improve digestion, I think we are well advised to question the easy assertion that shoulderstand will alleviate headaches or that it will increase blood flow to our brains. The latter seems particularly absurd in that, if it were true, our feet would be filling up with blood every time we stand up.
Most importantly, the claims do not take into account the actual experience of shouderstand practice for a large majority of individuals, nor do they deal with whether or not it is genuinely useful in alleviating or managing their pains.
To anyone reading this who loves shoulderstand and headstand and is receiving benefit from them, please don’t get me wrong. I have many friends who have had a regular practice of headstand and shoulderstand for many years without injury. It is not that I think the poses are inherently bad or that they may not be rewarding for some. I’m not interested in telling anyone what is right or wrong for them in their yoga practice. Nor do I wish to scare anyone about how yoga practice will hurt them. I am merely advocating that, in this time of paradigm shift, we will be fiercely honest with ourselves and others about what we are doing in yoga practice, so that we can better make choices based on our own personal and observed experiences rather than on the spiritual or scientific ideals of another.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com