A Full-Bodied Practice

Sharanya Narayanan explains how the supported shoulderstand works the entire body and calms the nervous system.

Of all the Asanas available for us to practice, I have always found sarvangasana to be the most holistic. (Sarva – all. Anga – parts of the body. Asana – posture). This pose works on every part of the body. It encompasses all the contradictions one often faces when sustaining a physical practice. As an inverted posture, it is quite demanding on the body. It requires us to engage several muscles, bear the entire weight of our body and do all this while defying gravity. Yet, at the same time, on an internal level, it slows down the subtle processes of the body and helps us to move inwards. Sarvangasana allows our nervous system to calm down, our breath to deepen and our minds to rest. Additionally, it maintains the healthy functioning of the thyroid and parathyroid glands, nourishes the brain with more blood and also recovers more venous blood to the heart. This pose shows us exactly how to balance the yin and the yang within us. It proves to us that the two can co-exist together beautifully.

Salamba means supported. Practising the supported sarvangasana or salamba sarvangasana allows us the time to set these processes into motion, by taking away any excess strain the body may endure if one were to do it freestyle. In the carousel below, I have demonstrated how the use of yoga props can assist us in achieving the correct alignment and therefore prepare the body to sustain the pose for longer.

If you’re a beginner, I would recommend practising this pose under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Take your time to build your way up to it. Hopefully, these instructions will help you find the safest way to approach your practice. Here are some of the benefits of practising salamba sarvangasana.

  • Stimulates the thyroid and parathyroid glands and normalises their functions
  • Strengthens the arms and shoulders and keeps the spine flexible
  • Nourishes the brain with more blood
  • Stretches the heart muscles by returning more venous blood to the heart
  • Brings relief from constipation, indigestion and varicose veins.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Through each stage of this practice, it is useful to focus on elongating our exhalations. Take the time to complete each exhalation as this helps the mind to stay calm. Each exhalation helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and this enables our body to relax. Breathing out slowly and fully assures that the ‘message’ of relaxation is spread more evenly through the body. It also assures that any old air that may be trapped in the lungs is eliminated and this prevents infections and maintains the general health of our respiratory system.

Asana that Works the Whole Body

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Salamba Sarvangasana (with chair, belt and blankets)

Stack 2-3 folded blankets and place them at one end of your yoga mat. Position your chair about one foot behind the blankets such that the seat of the chair faces the mat. Take a belt and loop it around your arms so that it sits just above your elbow joints. You want to tighten your belt to the point that your arms open only as wide as the width of your shoulders. Take a cross-legged position on the floor just in front of the blankets and stretch your arms behind you. This will create a tension in the belt. Hold this position, sit up from your tailbone, lift the chest and relax the back of your neck. Just breathe easy here for a minute while the shoulders warm up.

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Bend your knees and keep your feet hip width apart on the floor. Bend your elbows, drop them down into the blankets and then lean back into them. Slide your shoulders away from your ears while keeping the chest lifted. This is a gentle movement that helps to prepare the back muscles and release the neck at the same time. I find it proves to be very useful once you have assumed the final pose.

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Lean back and lie down on the blankets. Make sure that your shoulders rest just at the edge of the blankets and your head rests on the floor/mat. This will ensure that you are not compressing the back of the neck or putting any additional strain on it. This is a good moment to check whether the chair is positioned correctly. What we want is for your forehead to rest just under the edge of the seat of the chair.

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Roll your shoulders into the blankets and gently secure the back of the head into the floor/mat. Once you have done this, bend your knees into your chest, allowing your feet to lift off the ground, and keep your arms lengthened out behind you. Then press your palms into the floor/mat to help you lift your hips off the mat and as you find the weight shift off your lower body, bend your elbows and bring your palms to your lumbar spine/lower back to help support the upward movement of the hips. Immediately, use the chair as a support for your knees, while you adjust the position of both your elbows on the floor and the palms across your back. Take a moment here to make any necessary adjustments. Remember, your belt is here to make sure that your elbows don’t slide too far away from each other. It’s also what helps you find a deep rotation in the shoulder joints, releases the pressure from the neck and provides the body with the right kind of support.

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After you have taken a few breaths in the earlier position, straighten your legs out along the seat of the chair. Take your time here. What the chair does is take on some of the load, leaving the spine a little room to warm up and find the correct alignment. If you are a beginner to sarvangasana, this step will make all the difference because it will give you a chance to understand where the body needs to be before you attempt the final steps. In case you do not feel strong enough to go ahead, don’t worry. First build the strength in your back muscles and over time you will be able to go ahead. This variation here is called a supported halasana.

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Use your palms to support your lower back. Spread your fingers apart and stretch them towards your tailbone. With the help of the chair, start to shift the weight of your hips into your palms, while simultaneously bringing the legs to a 90 degree position. Continue to ground your shoulders into the blankets and secure the back of the head into the floor/mat. This action will give your body the necessary counter balance, while making sure that you avoid any compression in the neck. Maintaining the cervical arch of the neck is vital in sarvangasana and any variations building up to it. Stay here for as long as you are comfortable. This position is called viparita karni.

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Finally, start climbing higher up the back with your palms till they reach the thoracic spine/middle back and lengthen the lower body upwards. The aim is to try and position the length of your body, from the shoulders till the heels, at 90 degrees from the floor. Continue to ground your shoulders, elbows and the back of your head into the blankets and the floor/mat. If you find your legs tilting over your head towards the chair, engage your buttocks or your glute muscles, while pressing your fingertips into your back. Keep your inner ankles gently turning in towards each other. The combination of all these subtle movements will help you to support your spine better, protect your lower back from over-arching and also help you to breathe more comfortably.

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When you are ready to come out of salamba sarvangasana, bend your knees in towards your shoulders and your thighs into your chest. Shift the position of your palms down to your lumbar spine/lower back and hips.

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Roll the spine down one vertebrae at a time to the floor till your entire spine is supported. So long as you maintain the contact between the thighs and the chest, you will be able to control the speed of your movement.

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Once your buttocks find their way down safely, keep your knees bent and place your feet hip width apart on your mat. This will prevent any sudden shock to the lumbar spine/lower back. Straighten out your arms beside you and take a minute or two to just rest there. When you are ready, release the belt from around your arms, roll over to the side and sit up.

Sharanya Narayana is an Iyengar and Hatha yoga teacher based in Goa, India. For her teaching schedules, call
+91 99807 14420 or email sharanya.narayanan@gmail.com.

July 2, 2020
Photos Simon Meier

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