Happier Shoulderstands

Shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) is a wonderful pose: it can be light and energetic — as if you’re reaching for the ceiling; it strengthens your back and core; and since it’s an inversion, it’s good for your circulatory and lymphatic systems. But, if you already have neck pain, or if your neck and shoulders are tight, practicing shoulderstand can be unpleasant or worse, aggravating your issues and causing serious injury to your neck.

Enter the shoulderstand platform.

The shoulderstand platform is a dense foam “block”, covered with corduroy, that lifts your shoulders and arms up away from the floor by about 2 inches. The extra height reduces the angle on your neck: in a full shoulderstand without the platform, your neck needs to bend at a 90 degree angle, with the platform your neck and body make something more like a 120 degree angle. When your shoulders and arms are on the platform and your head is on the floor, your neck is completely free. C7, the vertebra that sticks out at the base of your neck, and the rest of your vertebrae are not pressing into the floor potentially causing strain to your neck.

In some forms of yoga, two or more blankets (and a sticky mat) are used underneath a student’s shoulders and arms to support shoulderstand. Superficially, practicing this way provides the same benefits as the platform — your neck is free and at a greater angle from your body than when the pose is unsupported. However, the blankets tend to give underneath your weight so that you don’t have the ability to press strongly into your shoulders and arms to lift up into the pose. The firm, dense foam of the shoulderstand platform provides a stable base that allows you to press down and lift into the pose as if you were practicing without props, while still providing the extra space for your neck.

In my own practice, I’ve been using the shoulderstand platform for a few months now, particularly when I want to hold the pose for more than a few breaths. The platform is appropriate for all students and is recommended for anyone who cannot stack their shoulders, hips and ankles while creating space between your shoulder blades in the pose.

Recently, several of my students tried out my shoulderstand platform. Every student that tried it was pleased with how much easier the shoulderstand was with the platform and how much better it felt. One student even went so far as to say that it made the pose “1,000 times better”!

If you want your very own platform, you can purchase them locally at Health Advantage Yoga Center in Herndon, or you can order them online from Yogaware (listed simply as “platforms”).

I like to set mine up by wrapping a sticky mat around it to hold my arms/elbows together (the thin ones work better than the thick Manduka mats) and then placing a single blanket folded in half lengthwise at one end so that it makes a T with the platform. My hips go on the folded blanket (“the launching pad”) and my shoulders come about an inch from the opposite edge of platform.

No matter how you set up for the pose, once you come into shoulderstand, no part of your neck should be on the platform (or the floor). If you feel the platform, come down and move closer to the edge, so that your neck can be free.

If you have serious structural issues with your neck (e.g., bulging or degenerated discs), if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, or your doctor or your regular yoga teacher has advised against inversions generally or shoulderstand specifically, please do not practice shoulderstand with or without a platform.