Why We Rarely Teach Shoulderstand

Many many many yoga traditions consider shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) to be the mother of all poses, quintessential to every yoga practice. It has been touted as one of the most beneficial poses and we have even heard teachers claim that a yoga practice is “incomplete” without it. Because of this dogmatic attitude, we are met with strange and (we feel unwarranted) animosity when explaining to other “yogis” that… we rarely teach this pose and when we do, it is SUPER modified.

First, let’s talk about some of these “benefits” that are widely listed. Increases thyroid function… There have even been medical doctors who side with this claim. This could potentially be true, but we have yet to read any real concrete studies done about this subject, so as true scientists, we can’t claim this as a benefit. Same thing goes for other “benefits” such as increasing metabolism, relief from asthma, relief from insomnia, etc… Again we would love to see some real studies done on this. As far as other benefits, such as relief from anxiety, decrease in blood pressure, or activation of the parasympathetic nervous system: those are purely subjective experiences. Some people may find this pose relaxing, but others may find it scary and uncomfortable. Obviously, for those people, shoulder stand would have the opposite effect. Now that we’ve discussed the possible reasons for doing the pose, let’s talk about the asana itself.

It’s good to read from other sources and we thought this was a good picture. Thanks Yoga Life Journey.

It’s good to read from other sources and we thought this was a good picture. Thanks Yoga Life Journey.

The way this pose is usually taught (unsupported) has the back of your head on the floor and the shoulderblades and upper arms supporting the rest of the body, which is supposed to be perpendicular to the floor… uh… yea. I don’t think it takes a biomechanical genius to figure out that this is probably, at the very least, uncomfortable. It is believed that if it is done properly, there is no weight being placed on the neck, as the shoulders and arms can support your whole body. That MIGHT be true for somebody with very stable or broad shoulders, a decent amount of thoracic spinal extension and who weighs less than a buck twenty. (Don’t forget that this pose is said to yield the most benefits when practiced for OVER 10 minutes!) However, imagine someone with a kyphotic curve who is overweight and leads a sedentary life being given the same cues? That’s just an injury waiting to happen. Of course, a common reply we hear when speaking about the dangers of this pose is, “Well, I have been doing it this way for 15 years and I’m fine!” Good for you! Do you also bleed rainbows?! Just because that is YOUR experience, does not mean it will be EVERYONE’s experience. To be fair, there are lots of ways to modify this pose to make it safer, however just like any physical activity, repetition increases the chance for injury… and injuries in shoulder stands are NOT FUN ONES. In fact, here is a little excerpt from Yoga Journal about the potential dangers of this pose:

“What happens if your student forces her neck too far into flexion in Shoulderstand? If she is lucky, she will only strain a muscle. A more serious consequence, which is harder to detect until the damage is done, is that she might stretch her ligamentum nuchae beyond its elastic limits. She may do this gradually over many practice sessions until the ligament loses its ability to restore her normal cervical curve after flexion. Her neck would then lose its curve and become flat, not just after practicing Shoulderstand, but all day, every day. A flat neck transfers too much weight onto the fronts of the vertebrae. This can stimulate the weight-bearing surfaces to grow extra bone to compensate, potentially creating painful bone spurs. A still more serious potential consequence of applying excessive force to the neck in Shoulderstand is a cervical disk injury. As the pose squeezes the front of the disks down, one or more of them can bulge or rupture to the rear, pressing on nearby spinal nerves. This can cause numbness, tingling, pain and/or weakness in the arms and hands. Finally, a student with osteoporosis could even suffer a neck fracture from the overzealous practice of Shoulderstand.”

Wow… that sounds FUCKING AWESOME! On the off chance that you don’t permanently fuck up your neck, you can look forward to the unproven benefits listed above. Sounds like it’s worth it… The ironic thing about this, is that even though teachers know and admit that this pose has these potential dangers, it is still recommended even for students who are overcoming neck pain, as stated in a different Yoga Journal article:

“But there is no reason to avoid Shoulderstand just because you are prone to neck problems. In fact, if you practice Shoulderstand properly, it can strengthen your neck.”

Yea maybe… if it doesn’t BREAK your neck first. (We do want to note that we think it is wonderful that this author was able to improve upon her own experience with the pose.  The fact that it cannot be necessarily applied to others does not invalidate her experience, nor does her experience act as proof that everyone else could benefit as she has.  Also, her ideas about combating the effects of gravity are in and of themselves questionable. ) Now, as you may know from reading our blog, we do not like speaking in absolutes. That being said, this next statement is going to be a highly controversial exception to this rule. Ready? Here it comes: IF YOU HAVE A NECK INJURY, DON’T DO SHOULDERSTAND! Period! There is NOTHING to be gained by this pose that you can’t gain in some other way that won’t potentially damage your neck. A little cost-benefit analysis could be helpful in this case. The ONLY absolute and proven benefit that practicing shoulderstand has is that it will make you better at shoulderstand and I guess better at yoga, whatever that means. What this information essentially boils down to is that, if shoulderstand is something that you care about doing, then do it. If you don’t care about it, maybe do something else. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do Yoga.

When we do have students who are interested in trying this pose, we generally teach it with a less extreme angle of the spine. Instead of being perpendicular to the floor, we will prop their hips on a chair (so that the angle between their back and the floor is 60 degrees or less) and have them hold the pose for less than two minutes (not over 10). There are times in which we are working with performers who have to practice similar movements for an upcoming piece, we may teach unsupported shoulder stand, but IN TRANSITION so that they can learn how to properly bear weight on their arms. That is about the extent of our shoulder-stand-ing. Again, if you have any questions about this pose, feel free to ask us.

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60 Responses to Why We Rarely Teach Shoulderstand

  1. Alex Litvak says:

    Thanks for the warning, Kim. Will keep your post in mind when I teach this posture.

  2. As a yoga therapist and posture educator, this post is absolutely spot on. There is no reason to put the weight of the upper body on a flexed and flattened neck spine. I see many yogis whose entire spinal column looks ‘flat’. I am firmly convinced that all yoga poses should support the spinal column in its natural curves. Too many yoga poses strain the necessary ligament tension in the spinal column as well as put pressure on the nerve roots.
    I wrote a book about my style of yoga I created called YogAlign. I consider shoulderstand, plow and headstand to be extremely dangerous. A student I had was convinced that headstands made her feel good and I warned her not to put the weight of the lower body on top of the delicate cervical spine. Well it took a few years but eventually she developed bone spurs in her neck and a lot of chronic pain. The doctor said you must do headstands and I have seen this in other yoga practitioners. We need to give the entire yoga asana system a biomechanical wake up call before yoga practice of asana looses creditability. Yoga is supposed to be a healing practice and many people are in denial of the dangers of yoga asana or unaware there can be dangers in the execution of many yoga poses. See http://www.yogalign.com for more information about a way to do yoga that tractions the spine and makes people taller without any painful poses, toe touching or headstands.

    • Megan Kelly says:

      I love your style of yoga. I am having difficulty finding a practitioner near me so am saving up to come and do a course with you. I love yoga but it has been known to hurt me so I do careful beginner classes and your youtube videos. So great!

  3. Josie says:

    I’m glad I found this post. I’ve had many yoga instructors pressure me into doing shoulderstand, and they even look at me strangely when I say I find it highly uncomfortable. The instructors at my studio told me that the only way to get into the pose is to bring my legs over my head (almost touching the floor)… but it really hurts my lower back.

    With all the yoga hype out there, how can I better assess the qualifications of my instructor? I’ve only been practicing for about 2 or 3 years now, but I’ve already seen some behaviors that concern me (in multiple studios).

  4. Hi Josie! I see we missed answering your comment. So sorry. I’m writing you an email right now! Thank you for commenting.

  5. Michael Glenn says:

    Important topic and you’ve brought up some good points. But your argument is undercut by the sardonic comments. To be sure, inversions bear greater risks than, say, standing postures. But every posture comes with contraindications. An impartial stance toward people who have found the posture beneficial would strengthen rather than weaken the claim that shoulder stand should be approached carefully and under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thank you for commenting! I understand what you mean about making sure we don’t demean the beneficial experience of Shoulderstand for students who do enjoy it. But, we believe in constantly evaluating our practices and teachings through the lens of a risk/benefit framework. In the case of this particular asana, as it is usually taught, we don’t think it is worth the risk. You are correct though. Our post is full of cynical remarks. That’s because we are.

  6. Gilda says:

    I found this article very interesting, thank you! I practise yoga for eight years now but I try to keep it basic and gentle for my body. Shoulder stand was never a problem for me till lately when I find it painful for my lower back especially, like Josie. I was looking online for similar experiences and I’m wondering whether the pose is telling me something I should pay attention to.

    • Hi Gilda,

      I love the idea of listening to our bodies, particularly in a yoga practice! Any posture can give us powerful feedback for what is going on and pain is always a signal to start paying close attention. Sometimes it’s also a message from your body, “Stop doing that!” Are there other times you feel back pain? Maybe there’s a pattern emerging.

  7. Johannes Gustavson says:

    My neck became injured after more than 10 years of daily practise of this yoga posture. I did not learn it with a pad raising my shoulders, and now I suffer. My neck has been x-rayed and there is permanent damage from inner bleedings. I have gone through hard pain and have even been fetched by ambulance and brought to hospital. Those so called yoga teachers teaching this exercise without raised shoulders by a pad, endanger there pupils health and may cause life long suffering to them.

    • Johannes,

      Your suffering is very clear and we are sorry that you have had this experience. What does your practice look like today? We’re curious to know how you’ve modified or if you even continue to do yoga. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with all of us!

      • Johannes Gustavson says:

        I learned these exercises from Ananda Marga in the beginning of the seventies. Today I just do two exercises. One is sitting and twisting the spine and the other is lying on the stomach and bending head and feet upwards (the latter grabbed by the hands. Sorry for not knowing their names.

        I have to be careful not getting shocks upwards sitting on my bum, as for example driving a bike with too hard suspension. If so I will not be able to move for several day and I will suffer severe pain.

        I write this to warn others not to become injured like me.

        • Johannes Gustavson says:

          It was not until I was given a book from Siddha Yoga, with Hatha Yoga exercises and a definite warning about shoulderstand, that I eventually could make the connection between this exercise and my neck pain.

  8. Rachel says:

    I found this post because yesterday I injured myself doing a shoulder stand at home. I have enjoyed this pose for a while but tried to do it a bit differently (Moving onto my shoulders first like prepping for bridge pose) based on a teachers instructions and now my neck is very sore. And I do have previous neck issues. I always found that the pose felt good and I enjoy being upside down. No instructor has ever warned me of the dangers of this pose, but now I know. Any suggestions now that my neck is sore and stiff. I am alternating ice and heat. But can I do some gentle stretching? And when will I know if I need to see a doctor?

    • Hi Rachel,

      If your pain has been persistent it never hurts to head to the doctor. Information is good. Then if you have an official diagnosis, or clearance, it’s easier to formulate a plan. Give your neck a rest. Even gentle stretching, when you don’t know what’s going on in there, can be aggravating. I suspect if your discomfort is at all linked to the practice of shoulder stand giving that asana a break will help you feel better sooner rather than later. My apologies for the late reply. If you’d like to directly communicate email me: mel@smarterbodies.com

  9. Terje says:

    I have decided to skip shoulderstand in my yoga program due to increasing pain in the rib cage after practice. In the region on the lower right side to be specific. At first I thought the pain originated from my liver, but I now suspect my right kidney to be the source. I haven’t found kidney problems related to the shoulderstand yet, but maybe the excercise has uncovered a latent problem with my right kidney. I show no other symptoms of kidney disease, so I guess it is not a serious issue yet.
    The excercise used to be the most rewarding one in my program, but now it has become too painful. I would like to find a good replacement, which will also stimulate the thyroid gland. Do you know an alternative yoga pose which would work on the thyroid?

    • Hi Terje,

      You bring up a fascinating subject: poses as prescriptions. Shoulderstand has often been taught with the intent of stimulating the thyroid gland. The logic behind the pose being that if one inverts more energy/prana moves towards the thyroid glad stimulating it. Now, truth time. Do we believe this to be true? Well, as of right now, from what we study, there’s no reason to believe that shoulderstand should have any affect on the thyroid any more so than other inversions. That being said, there is emerging evidence that movement affects our bodies on even micro levels (cells, genetics, etc.). So we are open-minded. I would suggest a practice that allows you to more directly connect to and embody the functions of your thyroid. That practice may not be comprised of inversions of any kind. BTW, do you know that you need to stimulate your thyroid? Have you been diagnosed with a hypo-thyroid? You may not need to go out of your way trying to stimulate it…

  10. Jess says:

    Hi, thank you for your article. I’m in India, where I have been doing yoga for the first time in a long time. I seem to have hurt my neck – shoulder stand and headstand. It’s never happened before but I’m in a lot of pain. My neck and shoulders are stiff and hurt a lot, even lying down. Can anyone recommend what I could do to help? Or what this might be? How long does this sort of injury take to recover from? It was stiff and sore for a couple of days but today I woke up in a lot of pain and little mobility. Thank you in advance! Xoxj

    • Damn, Jess, sorry for your troubles! Can’t tell you what’s going on without being able to see you. Are you opposed to getting an MRI or seeing someone there who can tell what might be happening?

  11. Heidi says:

    Hi Melissa, I just found your website and article on shoulderstand while Googling “neck pain from yoga”. Over the past 4 years of practicing Iyengar yoga, I’ve developed a painful, distressing “catch” when turning my head. Not every time I turn my head, and not even every day, but a few times a week. It’s an odd, almost sickening feeling, and I noticed an increase in frequency as I’ve done more shoulder stands (also noticed a pronounced ache in my shoulders and neck, sometimes even a headache, only after sessions including shoulder stand, which is what prompted me to Google). Thanks to your post, I will stop this pose (and headstand for now, too), share your post with my teacher and look for safer alternatives. Thanks so much for hopefully saving me from a serious problem, as I’m hopeful of healing if I practice smarter, safer yoga.

    • Hi Heidi. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I do hope that your neck problems clear up. Please don’t be afraid to get that further checked out if it doesn’t. Information can be powerful and can lead to solutions. It means so much that you would share our work with your teacher. I am humbled and so very happy! Keep us updated as to how you’re doing please.

  12. yogifunk says:

    use them props, props, props.
    that picture on the side is actually a very bad and dangerous picture!

  13. Kelly says:

    I agree with many of your points. I have been practicing for about 10 years now and I don’t practice shoulder stand often, however, when I do I use folded blankets underneath my shoulders to help create space for the neck and it makes all the difference in the world for me in this pose.

  14. Milena says:

    I am the living example that a great damage could come from these poses. I have been in excruciating pain for almost a month now, due to a possible cervical hernia (I am unable to do MRI because to this day, I still cannot lay down), I had brachialgia and I can tell you it is not fun. It will take a long time to recover and this will change my entire approach to yoga. I have been practicing for 10 years and I hurt myself during my Yoga Teacher Training….great lessons come from pain, that is for sure.

  15. Ananda Akash says:

    Yoga asanas only have one reason, to prepare ourself to meditate. Now you know. Blessings

  16. David Lewis says:

    My partner had a yoga teacher that said she needed to do the shoulder stand EVEN THOUGH THE TEACHER KNEW SHE HAD A SEVERE NECK PROBLEM…by severe I mean cervical stenosis with disc degeneration as seen and diagnosed on an MRI by a radiologist, physician and neurologist…..I’m stopping now because the words I feel coming up are not cool….Iyengar teacher that one was…

  17. David Lewis says:

    In other words WARN the teachers to know the history of their students and if they do know the history they should NOT be putting their students in harms way….don’t only blame the student

  18. Barbara Bartels says:

    I have not had a problem with shoulder stand though I used to do it with blanket support. I say used to because when I turned 66, I gave up shoulder stand and headstand — though I bought myself a head stand stand that puts the weight on the shoulders, but not on the head, so I can still do a headstand-like inversion. I decided it was time to no longer put weight on — or near –my cervical spine. Even though I can, I won’t. I find it very difficult (challenging) to begin to do less after years of doing more. Another posture I avoid — and have never liked — is fish pose.
    I teach women my age, and have never brought up any of these poses as possibilities.

  19. Robb Ball says:

    Brilliant. My beloved daughter and mentor/teacher sent me this cautionary liking as my current teacher is proposing a routine for me. At 62 w/many musculoskeletal issues from arthritis to injuries in military service & 43 years of working as an RN, I have a good many modifications needed in many Asana to make my practice possible. This article and it’s frank insight ticked my nurse’s heart. We like blunt French phrases.

  20. Kevin says:

    I have not personally practiced shoulder stand for many years. I had cervical fusion surgery done 24 years ago and I am convinced poses such as this and plow contributed. My training was at the Himalayan Institute and we were taught to teach this pose with as high a support of blankets as possible so the shoulders are well off the floor and the cervical spine is not so aggressively compressed. The bottom line, as I have always tried to follow but is even more critical at 61, is to listen, listen, listen to your body, don’t be competitive, with self or otherwise and seek a practice that emphasizes sukkha. That doesn’t mean not work hard, as appropriate, just working smarter I guess.

  21. Julia says:

    It’s quite surprising to see all this criticism of the Shoulderstand asana. I have recently begun practicing Yoga much more intensely. In contrast to much of what is stated above, I have found that unsupported Shoulderstand and Plough have helped my back a great deal, strengthening it and dissolving backache.

    • Hi Julia, we are always happy to hear when people are benefiting from their practice. One question to think about: Is my spine supposed to be straight? How do I preserve the shape of my cervical spine while it bares weight in this posture?

      Ok, 2 questions.

  22. Adelaide campbell says:

    Response in general and in particular to Barbara Bartels above.
    For a couple of years now I’ve done shoulder stand after a fitness class instead of legs up the wall. I’m 72 and it’s an ego thing. I do it because I can. I’m gradually working towards it being completely unsupported, and I never use props.
    Now I’m suffering vertigo. I’m ashamed. I have brought this on myself, as I’m pretty sure it’s come from shoulder stands.
    i can’t currently do my fitness classes as moving my head up and down in e.g. Sit ups …. well, it’s just horrible. I have to hope this gets better, and “learn to do less”. Great article.

    • Adelaide, I’m sorry for the experience. Are you sure it’s the shoulder stands? Just want to cover all bases. We don’t want you to feel ashamed! There’s always something to learn from our experiences, but don’t batter yourself over it!

  23. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this. Just came across your article, having had a new (to me) yoga teacher force me into a fully upright shoulder stand in class last night. I told her I couldn’t go completely straight but she moved me into it anyway. I’ve strained my neck, my lower back is sore and I’ve decided to quit shoulder stand completely.

  24. Pingback: how to do and teach shoulderstand (sarvangasana) safely {yoga 101} - Waking Up in Wonder

  25. Kezza says:

    I am the sad result of inexperienced shoulder stands. After 6 months of Iyengar and 2 retreat I ended up in hospital with a severe cervical stenosis, vertigo, dizziness, motion sickness, weakness in my arms numbness hyperactive reflexes walking problems. Directly after the retreat. Very scary. My spinal cord was so compressed in one place there was only a mm for the spinal cord compared to 10 mm. I now have had two disks removed , cages in their place so the bone eill fuse and a pkate screwing it all together and a changed life. Still not able to drive 5 weeks aftervthe operation. I wish I had found you and you advice before. My life is irrevocably changed for a few silly shoulder stands.

    • We’re really sorry to hear that your story has reached such a devastating level of change for your body and life. But…BUT it is not over!!! You are still in charge of how your story plays out and how your body adjusts. Give yourself time and don’t stop exploring your body in movement. You can recover and thrive moving on to a new place of awareness and strength.

      • Kezza says:

        Thank you Melissa . Yes when the bone has fused I will try again without inversion. I love tze feel of yoga in some many ways it has done more benefit than damage. This was partly bad luck and poor practise. But I am grateful you recognize tgis as an issue and practiceand teach accordingly. I live in Germany otherwise I eould xome to you.

  26. Rebecca says:

    Well- I discovered your article after a desperate google search. It’s been 7 days since my novice attempt at shoulderstand, and I have been dealing with (as of now undiagnosed) acute/severe neck and shoulder pain, numbness and loss of strength in my arm. Muscle relaxers are my new best friends while I navigate our healthcare system and get in for an MRI.
    I’m frustrated and in pain! Thinking back to how casually my instructor had us moving into shoulder stand is beyond infuriating. Ugh.

  27. Dani says:

    I feel grateful for this information but also sad cuz this pose is really cool.I love to be upside down lol
    After reading about some yoga injuries I’m rethinking if I should practice or not.

  28. Hi Dani,

    Just try practicing with support, like a rolled up blanket under the shoulders. This can make a huge difference in terms of safety.

  29. I have been practicing yoga for over forty years and, even though I don’t bleed rainbows the shoulderstand is one of my favorite asanas. I only occasionally do the headstand because I do feel the pressure on the cervical spine, I do the scorpion instead. I understand that inversions help drain the lymph and found them helpful if I feel a cold coming on.

    • It’s always good to have someone share their positive experiences about the pose! We hope you continue to enjoy it as part of your practice (40+ years?! Respect!). You sure you don’t bleed rainbows…

  30. Jetnny says:

    Have only started doing yoga 3 months ago.
    Have been doing shoulder stands for a short amount of time. I’ve hurt myself this week and I’m really unimpressed.
    I will not be doing shoulder stands again.
    It’s a stupid thing to do really when you think about how our bodies are designed.
    As my trusty chiro said we have large bones at the bottom of our spine to support ourselves and little ones at the top. Why would you put your bodies weight on the little bones that arnt designed for it. Mehhhhhhh….. in pain.

  31. Judy Venegas says:

    I was instructed that shoulder Ann head stand were not to be done if you have eye problems. My teacher was a student and friend with Swami Vishnu-devananda. Would you give your thoughts on this? Namasta

  32. Linda Britt says:

    I am convinced this pose damaged my thyroid gland. I became hyperthyroid and have had to have treatment ever since. I wish I had never done it. It was horribly uncomfortable and I never enjoyed it. Big mistake! Don’t do it!!!

  33. JT O'Neill says:

    I really appreciate this post. I am relatively new to yoga but have been a consistent participant in a thrice weekly Iyengar yoga class. The teachers are pretty insistent on the shoulder/head stand thing and I am dubious. I am 64 years old, physically very active, and in good health yet my intuition says stay away from this. My neck has always been vulnerable to injury or muscle issues and I am not willing to risk more issue. I appreciate the down to earth tone of the original post and yet your supportive replies to all the comments. I don’t understand why the teachers (who appear knowledgeable and supportive) at this studio really push the head stand thing.

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