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King and Queen of Yoga Dethroned

in In Class, YD News, YogOpinions

neckpainby 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

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Unimposing Yoga

9 comments… add one

  • Twisted Yoga Sister

    The only person in charge of your well being is you. You have to know your limitations and go with what your body is telling you. When I was younger, headstands and handstands were something I could do. I’ve aged and headstands/handstands no longer feel okay. That’s me….I realize this and no longer feel the need to do headstands/handstands. My practice is right for me just the way it is.

  • Dwayne

    Good article! I know a very experienced teacher who doesn’t include shoulderstand or headstand in her classes because of potential problems. I practice both, but less often than I used to; I do pincha mayurasana much more often because there’s no stress on cervical vertebrae. I’m not a teacher, but if I were, I’d probably avoid shoulderstand/headstand class instruction (as opposed to private teaching) because of the risk.

  • John

    Ho Hum….

    ” 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.” …. Out goes the baby of common sense with the bath water of tradition. Think about this for a second. People go upside down for a second and what happens? Their faces turn bright red with the rush of blood… People spend too much time on their feet and what happens? Their feet swell up, over time they develop circulatory problems in the lower limbs… “Blood to the brain”? Difficult to prove, but “good for the circulatory system to invert from time to time”? Not all that controversial, really. Headaches there’s no evidence either way.

    Each to what works for them is good (for me props in shoulder stand are far worse than doing it free standing), and other than this one point I like the article.

  • Anne

    Come to Chapel Hill, NC and Triangle Yoga for true Aerial YOGA. Not circus, not dance, but full with the breath in this moment yoga. Rebecca has created a practice that is truly unique and amazing! Inversions that safely release the neck and the whole spine. 75 minutes of joy.

  • Ed T.

    Timely article. I found I was losing rang of motion in my neck doing headstand and shoulderstand. I am an older yoga practitioner so that may figure in. I now do chair shoulderstand on a large, square bolster, and hang upside down from ropes for “headstand”. The R.O.M. in my neck is slowly returning. There are too many variations of both these poses to force ourselves to continue risking injury.

  • Headstand was the one pose that scared me because of my cervical stenosis. Once you have had that type of pain, you really don’t want to repeat it. I worked hard to get my strength and balance and was able to to the pose safely. Now, I know that I can do it, but I choose not to unless supported. I purchased an headstand support from Gaiam to assure my safety. I bring it to class so my my students can experience a safe headstand.

  • inanna
  • VQ2

    Thanks. Read that article about 3 years ago. Just before the yoga and injuries brouhaha.

  • Noelle Gillies

    Some of us are just born with structural vulnerabilities and so learn to avoid these poses. After episode of cervical vertebrae disc bulging at work and the threat of cervical fusion I just don’t do these poses any more. Sometimes I miss them, but I have learned the art of discernment after that scary episode.

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