SOS notes from a stiff yogi

SOS Notes from a Stiff Yogi_ Shoulderstand Part 1.jpeg

Shoulderstand: Peeling Back the Layers, Part 1

Although I haven’t written one in awhile, this post belongs to a series. It is addressed to flexible yoga teachers who have an interest in better understanding the internal experience of their less flexible students. It is written from my perspective as a stiff yogi. In the past, I have addressed some of the following topics/poses: how child’s pose or legs-up-the-wall, rather than being relaxing poses, can verge on the excruciating; how long holds in supta padangusthasana I can send a tight beginner home to spend the rest of the day icing his or her hip flexors; the effects of “core work” on the deep groin in those with tight hamstrings. Today I thought I would talk about shoulderstand.

Disclaimer: Each of us has an individual approach to teaching yoga that is informed by the bias of our own personal experience. We may not even be aware of the nature of this bias – especially at the beginning of our journey. But over time, we begin to recognize it in our choices in terms of how we present the practice. As we grow in understanding, so too do our offerings. 

I teach through a bias of strength and inflexibility. In the early years of my practice, the stiffness in my joints restricted me but it also gave me enormous leverage. It goes without saying that I am always open to receiving an SOS note from a flexible yoga student or teacher. I know I have asked you to do many things that are not easy and I am deeply interested in better understanding your felt experience. 

Feeling ashamed about what we don’t know is not helpful. It is our prerogative as human beings to continually change as new information becomes available. We may have been telling our students to do something one way only to change our tune further down the road. This is a natural progression and nothing to be embarrassed about. As far as I can tell, part of being a yoga teacher is having the honesty and the humility to repeatedly say “I don’t know what is right for you. But I’d be happy to explore with you.”

Anyways… back to shoulderstand.

Shoulderstand is a MASSIVE pose. I mean MASSIVE! If you are inspired to interlace your fingers and straighten your arms for salamba sarvangasana II, oh my! Shoulderstand requires flexibility in the arms, shoulders, chest and spine that, in my experience, only a small percentage of the adult population has. 

In Light on Life, Iyengar writes: “The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be overemphasized. It is one the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages… It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practices Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace and he will feel the joy of life…”

Why then, when I practice this pose, do I feel as if I am at the risk of tearing apart? Why is it common for myself and many other stiff students to experience back spasm upon coming out of this pose? 

It’s the kind of pose that a stiff yogi encounters often on his or her journey along the path. It is an amazing chest-opener that requires amazing chest openness to get into. Pushing ourselves into a shape which we are not ready for seldom feels good. It’s hard to breathe and we can easily get hurt. Our patience will be amply rewarded if we can learn how to break down the pose into its individual components and to explore them in a safe and accessible way. If we are lucky enough to find a teacher who can teach us how to do this then we are manifoldly blessed. 

In teacher trainings, we talk a lot about the importance of extension movements in our flexion-dominated world. Without mindfulness in sequencing, the predominance of flexion can be transferred intact into our yoga practice. Yoga can be healing when practiced with awareness and intelligence. But it can just as easily serve to further aggravate many of the poor postural habits we arrive with at our first class. We talk about the importance of hip extension, of spine extension. It’s just as important for the shoulders. If you are a vinyasa yogi who loves downward dog and plank and chaturanga and dolphin and forearm stand and handstand and headstand and arm balances, it’s worth including a hearty regimen of shoulder extension in your everyday practice. The very muscles that the aforementioned poses strengthen are the same muscles that need to be lengthened in order to safely get into shoulderstand. We do a tremendous amount of pushing with the arms in vinyasa yoga and very little pulling. The anterior shoulders and chest can get disproportionately strong. Shoulderstand can play a beneficial role in helping to address these imbalances - to relax chronically tight neck and upper back muscles, to powerfully open the chest, to strengthen areas that have become inhibited or weak, to stimulate circulation through the inseams of the arms, to free the breath, and to restore a feeling of lightness in a part of us that has long been in a slump - literally! 

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, one very straightforward approach to alignment that works in just about any pose is to ask: “What can I do here so that I can breathe more fully? How can I create space for my diaphragm and for my ribcage to move freely? Even in the deepest of twists or forward folds, this intention will usually help us to find a little more space inside.

So let’s agree that in order to enjoy the benefits of shoulderstand, we need to be able to position the body in such a way that the rib cage and the diaphragm are not collapsed. Basically – just like in Tadasana - we need to be able to stand up straight. 

Here’s a fun little test. Stand tall, arms alongside you, palms facing the sides of your body. Move your shoulders back and snuggle your upper arm bones down into their sockets. Lift your upper sternum and broaden your collarbones without arching in your lower back. Keeping all that, begin to move your arms back behind you. Do not allow your rib cage to come along for the ride. If you notice your shoulders roll forward and in, stop, go back, and only go as far as you can while still maintaining the lift in your upper chest and the breadth across your collarbones. Notice where you hit your end range of motion. Now bend your elbows, and see if that action frees you to take the arms back slightly farther. This is your unassisted range of motion for shoulder extension. 

For an unsupported shoulderstand, you need 90 degrees of shoulder extension in order to be able to “stand up straight.” You need to be able to lift the back ribs up away from the armpits to establish the verticality of the pose which requires tremendous flexibility. After over 9 years of almost daily practice, I have nowhere near this range of motion. If as a teacher, you offered me an adjustment in this photo by holding my ankles up and using your feet to walk my elbows together, you would injure me. If I used a strap to keep my arms shoulder width apart, my body would fold in on itself at the joints, rounding my spine, collapsing my rib cage, flexing my hips, leaving my elbows and hands to do the job of holding me up against gravity. The challenge and intensity of this pose makes it impossible for me to practice with any kind of effortlessness or ease. More on all of this in my next post including what is problematic about the shoulderstand in this photograph. 

This is not even taking into account the range of motion required in the upper thoracic and cervical spine. Neck safety in shoulderstand has been widely addressed by many incredibly experienced and knowledgeable teachers and though they vary hugely in terms of what they propose, we can glean from their collective wisdom a pretty good idea of what to look out for. Some will tell you that the typical method of stacking blankets for shoulderstand will overtax C5-C6, some will tell you that using blankets precludes you from experiencing the essence and therefore the most important therapeutic benefits of the pose. But what they all seem to agree on is that there should be some give in the nuchal ligament that runs along the back of the neck. 

Today I feel this pose most intensely in three areas: right underneath my collarbones (subclavius) when I work to externally rotate my arms; if I attempt to straighten my arms, I feel it in the thick fibrous tissue of my inner elbows; and I feel it in the deepest layer of my chest muscles – the infamous pec minor and the clavipectoral fascia its imbedded in. But this is not where I felt in in year one or year five or year seven. 

One of the very first things my teacher told me in our first private session was that “in yoga we work from the gross to the subtle.” As Iyengar puts it, we travel from “the outermost layer of skin into an unknown center.” We often have to soften the outer sleeve before we can touch upon the core. If you’d have asked me to tune into what is restricting the glide of my collarbones when I first started yoga, I would never have been able to isolate that in my awareness because EVERYTHING was screaming so loudly. If you’d asked me to sense the stretch being placed upon the nerves running through my forearms, I am not sure I would have been able to. My journey towards shoulderstand has led me through much of what is on the surface to get at what is hidden underneath. This is the gift of yoga. It peels back the layers if we are willing to go slowly and pay attention along the way. The value in the poses is not in their outward form but in the way they function as gateways, taking us into deeper parts of ourselves. 

To be continued.