The shoulderstand, sarvangasana, its limitations and its potential

Article by Heinz Grill:

Materialism doesn’t know matter

sarvangasana – the shoulderstand

If we make the bold attempt to compare the terms matter and materialism, we will probably come to the inevitable discovery that materialism, which marks our present time, actually has very little to do with a real knowledge of matter. The more people are governed by the principle of using, consuming or clinging fearfully to partial pieces of specialised information, the more alienated becomes the foundation of relationship, which ought to exist towards actual matter or towards an issue. Materialism causes an outright alienation from life’s material conditions, from other people and ultimately even from our own personal nature and body.

The shoulderstand – a danger for the neck?

In the practice of yoga with its ancient, intuitive tradition, people still knew that every posture adopted by the body had a cosmological meaning, and students practising in the past felt the different so-called prana streams or energies developing in and around the body. Words to the effect that, for example, the shoulderstand might present a danger for the neck and should therefore not be practised under any circumstances, would have been seen as absolutely crazy in an Indian ashram, even seventy or eighty years ago. Strangely today however, people like William J. Broad warn strongly against yoga and even refer to apparent scientific research.1) Article by William J. Broad “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”, published in The New York times Magazine,

Must the shoulderstand be excluded from the yoga exercise programme?

These pieces of scientific research, with all due respect, usually have the big disadvantage that they base their view only on a very narrow research perspective and exclude many essential and valid arguments. The shoulderstand, at any rate, is classified as one of the dangerous yoga exercises, potentially causing damage to the cervical spine, and even mild yet noteworthy strokes. The observations forming the basis of William Broad’s article can actually be true under certain circumstances – but only under certain circumstances. It would at any rate substantially reduce all yoga practice if the shoulderstand were entirely eliminated, as is done today in adult education courses because of the dictates of medical insurance companies.2) In Germany the cost of yoga courses can be claimed from medical insurance companies. It is probably easier to exclude an exercise, a topic or even a person from the current stream of the times than to confront reality oneself with the necessary research. A materialistic way of thinking can do nothing other than to exclude what is said to be dangerous and to propagate what seems to be useful. The shoulderstand, nevertheless, opens up an essential plateau of therapeutic effects which, with carefully guided practice, far exceeds the apparently lurking danger of injury.

The role of the breathing

To practice Sarvangasana, the first requirement to mention is a light, sound approach with the breath. In earlier times, particularly in oriental cultures, the breath was still experienced more as a cosmic and moving force, which aerates and touches matter, but is lighter than the bodily substance. Thus the lighter element was able to encourage movement in the heavier element and so it was the breath which lifted the bodily matter to a certain extent out of its earthly imprisonment. Now when practitioners go into the shoulderstand, they can both adopt a mental image of the movement to be carried out, and also vividly feel the breath with its oscillating and easing force.

shoulderstand-first phase
Raising the legs can be made easier by lightly rolling backwards.

The image which appears at the beginning in the shoulderstand is that inexperienced paractioners usually push themselves up off the ground with the help of a pretty strenuous movement and hold the breath back completely from its natural flow. The in-breath becomes blocked through tense muscles. Practitioners easily become red in the face, and the shoulders and neck, which for most people are a painful problem-area in any case, tense up even more. It is understandable that this unprepared and unsound practice can lead to neck trouble as a result of over-extension, and there can even be a risk of damaging the disc. If the yoga teacher were now to make participants straighten up into an exact vertical line, and do the position in the way shown by Iyengar, or also in the yoga practice book of the Sivananda yoga centre, a weakening with resulting strain can actually develop.

Practising the shoulderstand

shoulderstand-second phase
From the movement which falls backwards, the trunk easily straightens up as if in a kind of counter-movement.

The more sound practice of Sarvangasana can be trained through going into the position repeatedly, several times. This can be done with a little swing out of the sitting position, by rounding the back and rolling over backwards, or if there is sufficient mobility it can be done out of the lying position on the back while holding the arms above the head. In this second, dynamic method practitioners should not push themselves up with their hands, but rather they are even required to straighten up the spine through its own dynamic. This autonomous straightening up happens out of the entire thoracic spine, that is the section which should always be strengthened in the shoulderstand in order to subsequently off-load both the lumbar and cervical regions.

Therapeutic effects on different levels

The thoracic spine should straighten up autonomously

The therapeutic effects of the shoulderstand can be summarised as coming from the active, inverted straightening up of the thoracic spine, which gradually takes place with consideration of the tensions caused by the shoulder-region. The ether-forces which usually flow centrifugally upwards are re-organised in the inverted position of the shoulderstand. They are focused to the sides, to the chest area and to the thoracic spine, and finally begin to flow upwards, to be precise, into the erect lower body. The dynamic of uprightness, however, happens step by step and should not be forced in an overly muscular way. Only with increasing perseverance and practice do practitioners find the right approach to mobilise the spine between the shoulder-blades upwards against gravity.

As a rule people think that the shoulderstand obtains its specific therapeutic effect through the inversion and its relieving return of blood to the heart. From a material point of view, the veins in the legs and also the organs of the lower body can be freed from many blockages because the blood now no longer needs to flow downwards, as it does in long periods of standing during the day, but it can move recuperatively back to the heart. However, this observation about the reversal of the blood flow is derived mainly from the outwardly visible situation, in other words from the situation of being upside-down. One could also hang upside-down on a rope and would similarly receive the returning blood flow. The shoulderstand however contains something more than just this mechanical reversal of the blood flow.

The therapeutic effect of the shoulderstand is drawn to our attention in a different and more encompassing way when practitioners become conscious that this erecting of the thoracic spine happens against the pull of gravity. At first the shoulderstand causes an unpleasant feeling of constriction in the chest area, because the body has a habit of resisting the growing straightening upside-down. The trapezius muscles and also the latissimus dorsi are educated to an exceptional degree in an unusual way, in a downwardly directed dynamic, in the shoulderstand.

Now, in addition to practising, practitioners should develop a good mental image of the region in which the central movement starts, and that is the upper thoracic spine in the sections from Th 2 to around Th 6.3) The thoracic vertebrae are labelled Th1 to Th12. Through observing and through a gradual, growing energising of this region, the shoulderstand straightens up in constant lightness against gravity. The supporting force rises right up from the thoracic spine and increasingly relieves the cervical spine.

Ether forces originate far less through strenuous muscular work, than through a sound building of mental pictures, which is transferred onto the body and leads to a focused tension in the appropriate regions of the body. During the growth upwards, the trunk, the pelvis and the legs are relieved and the upper thoracic spine carries out the desired dynamic movement like a sprouting plant aspiring towards the light. Sarvangasana does not develop etheric energy through strenuous work, labouring upwards, but through a light and ever-easier gliding-out upwards. Ether forces with their therapeutic effects actually unfold in their excellent, regenerating and uplifting way, when the body is perfused in a free flow of the breath and the musculature rises up into the dynamic movement through its joyous release. When Iyengar, after years of practice, intuitively wrote that in the shoulderstand new life flows into the body and practitioners receive new forces and strength, he felt the accumulating prana currents, which are nothing other than specific ether forces.

In general the shoulderstand leads to a very useful stimulation of the excretory processes and balances the autonomic plexuses, such as the cardiac plexus, the renal plexus or the coeliac plexus through the intervention of the parasympathetic nerves. The effects on the thyroid and parathyroid glands, which are often said to be stimulated, in fact result less through the locking of the chin into the breast-bone and the resulting increase in blood supply, but rather through the simultaneous stimulation of the sympathetic trunk in the back, which has an extremely valuable relationship to the vagus nerve.

A creative approach rather than an exclusion of the shoulderstand

It is less the mechanical effects, and more the effects that come from the increasingly free and active etheric body, that characterise the therapeutic effects of the shoulderstand. If this position were to be eliminated from the tableau of yoga exercises, one of the essential opportunities for activating a potential that lives in human beings and wants to unfold, would remain unused. Today materialism seeks more and more those fantastic paths of exclusion and condemnation, and in doing so it neglects to utilise the central opportunities from matter and to integrate these usefully, pointing out the limitations and encouraging the forward-looking creative conditions within an overall concept of health.


1 Article by William J. Broad “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”, published in The New York times Magazine,
2 In Germany the cost of yoga courses can be claimed from medical insurance companies.
3 The thoracic vertebrae are labelled Th1 to Th12.

One Reply to “The shoulderstand, sarvangasana, its limitations and its potential”

  1. Interestingly I noticed a constricting feeling of fear close in around me when I read the New York Times article by William Broad. Will I end up a cripple after decades of yoga practice? Heinz Grill’s article had a completely different effect. It created no fear or doubts, but rather opened up the potential for each person to generate that uplifting and regenerating ether force in a gentle and natural way.

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