Shoulderstand is a mysterious pose.
Scholars make an educated guess that it’s old, old, old!
It’s been with us since at least pre-modern times.
By one of its Sanskrit names, Salamba Sarvangasana, we date it back just a century—1924.
The earliest picture we have of shoulderstand when called Viparita Karani, remains recent, however.
We find it in the March, 27 1898 New York Herald ! (Figure 1).
The guy in the pic probably learned the pose from Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), or one of his students.
For a long time it was thought that this important teacher Vivekananda—who brought yoga to America in 1893 — taught meditation and chanting—but no asana, yet this image and others from the Herald are our main evidence that he did! The Herald article refers to Swami V, and it was written by his American disciple, Swami Kripananda.
Shoulderstand in the West
We find Shoulderstand in many early Western sources.
The gymnastic system of the famous Swede who invented modern group gymnastics, Pehr Ling (1776 – 1839) used the pose as early as 1806.
In his system, Shoulderstand was called, “Candle,” “Candlestick,” or “Swedish Candle,” and it’s sometimes identified that way today outside yoga circles.
Ling’s spread his exercises and his terminology throughout the world, and it was utilized even in the revolutionary teacher Krishnamacharya’s time (1888 – 1989).
The early system of vinyasa yoga created by the Brit, Mollie Bagot Stack (1883-1935), called “Stretch and Swing” (partly created from poses she learned in India in 1911) uses shoulderstand, too (seen in Figure 2).
She labelled it simply “Legs in the Air.”
Its Sanskrit Meaning
The literal meaning of “Salamba Sarvangasana” breaks down as,
Salamba = “supported”
Sarva = “all” or “every”
Anga = “limb” or “bodypart”
Āsana = “posture”,” position”, or “seat”
By comparison, “Viparita Karani” means:
Viparita = “turned round, reversed, inverted, acting in a contrary manner”
Karani = “doing, making, effecting, causing”
Karani relates to karana—which is an alternate word for “pose” that we find in the old texts
The fact that Salamba (“supported”) precedes the term, is incidental, for we have the “non-supported” form of the pose—called Niralamba (“non-supported”)—too (demonstrated by BKS Iyengar in Figure 3).
When we say Sarvangasana, we mean it affects the whole body, because it “makes” (karani) the whole body “reversed” (viparita)
It is reversed energetically as well as in space!
The Subtle Body Effects
This general effect of the pose is explained to us in Kundalini Vidya (kundalini science).
The old texts tells us that Viparita Karani makes the “moon eat the sun.”
If you can get your head around this, it means your introverted disposition absorbs your extroverted disposition.
You feed your subconscious, your intuition, by turning your attention inward. At an esoteric level, Salamba Sarvangasana brings the gross energy from the lower body toward the areas of subtle consciousness in the higher body (energy from the feet, legs, pelvis and torso is gathered toward the heart, throat, eyebrow center and crown, then stabilized—and made to emanate!).
Sarvangasana locks the neck, training the body to handle the power of consciousness (the moon) that flows down from the head, differently.
The body learns to block, hold, and channel the power of consciousness that pours down through the human form (like an inverted tree, as the old texts tell us) so that the “sun”—-which is prana or lifeforce in the body—-won’t wastefully burn it up in mundane activities of perception or action.
If the yogi can achieve this blocking or channeling, s/he reserves the force of consciousness and can apply it to the development of awareness.
This understanding is expanded when we point to Sarvangasana’s use of the chin lock (Jalandhara Bandha). In it, the closed neck acts as a “net” or “bond” to keep the “nectar” of the “moon” from moving below the throat–while the focused force of the chin penetrates pointed at the chest wakes up the awareness of the heart (see below).
Sarvangasana’s Modern Lore
In the modern day lore, we have the famous teacher B.K.S. Iyengar’s telling us that Shoulderstand is the “mother” of all asanas.
He says, “A mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for harmony and happiness in the human system.”
Sarvangasana is contrasted with Headstand (Shirsasana) as the “father” of all asanas.
Iyengar’s teacher, Krishnamacharya, took this dualistic coding a bit deeper when he explained that Shoulderstand and Headstand opened up the two main areas of consciousness in our body.
Whereas, the brain received stimulation from the pressure of the ground (especially at the point of brahmarandhra at the center of the skull), the heart received stimulus from the driving energy (vigaha) of the chin in shoulderstand (the chin points toward the heart in the pose).
Besides its many names, like headstand, it has many variations.
In Krishnamacharya’s 1937 book, Yoga Rahasya, tells us that Sarvangasana is good therapy (chikitsa) for bodily health, and adds that sixty-six variations of shoulderstand and headstand exist.
In Figure 4, we see K in one of these radical variations; it’s called Niralamba Konasana.
How it’s Done
Here’s how to do it—briefly!
The basic form of Sarvangasana can be seen as a variation of what we call Halasana, or plow—a forward-fold done upside down with the back on the ground.
The neck should be warmed up with various bendings and rolls, the hamstrings and back stretched by Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) and similar poses, while preparatory poses like Bridge (Setu Bandhasana) should also be explored.
In Iyengar yoga, one lays on folded blankets so that the seamed side provides a little shelf for the shoulders to line up on.
The neck hangs off this shelf with the head supported by the floor.
The legs are flipped over the head as the arms reach in the opposite direction along the surface of the blanket, interlace at the hands, and pull the shoulders toward one another.
The yogi should then actively push the shoulders down, unclasp the hands, bend the elbows, and put the palms on the mid-back as close to the shoulders as possible.
This is Plow.
Swing the legs vertically into the air and hold them there.
This is Shoulderstand.
Push the inner feet toward the sky following the line of tailbone, and flair the toes.
Lock your eyes on the dristi (eyegaze point) of bindu—the spot between the eyebrows.
Hold for a comfortable amount of time.
Return all the way to laying down on your back–with control.
Shoulderstand is commonly explored like this–as the third-to-last pose in a yoga class.
Explore its subtle physical effects–and Enjoy!
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