Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners


“The pose is called Sarvangasana because it influences the thyroid and through it the whole body and its functions. In Sanskrita, Sarva means the whole and Anga means the body.”

— Swami Kuvalayananda, in Popular Yoga Asanas, p. 65.

The shoulderstand is the queen of postures and the headstand is the king, the yogis say—the former nurtures the body and the latter celebrates power and consciousness. These concepts will resonate with anyone who has had a lot of experience with both postures. Together they make a team. The headstand needs balance, and the shoulderstand, with its variations and sequelae, makes the best complete practice for providing that balance.

The Sanskrit name for the shoulderstand is sarvangasana, which means the “all-member’s pose.” Not only do all four extremities participate in creating it, the posture, at least in its fullest expression, also requires muscular effort throughout the body. This gives it an entirely different character from the headstand, which is a balancing pose. Placing your weight on a combination of the shoulders, neck, and head, as you must in the shoulderstand, requires that the full posture be supported either with your upper extremities or with a powerful internal effort.

We can learn a lot about the shoulderstand by looking at how it differs from the headstand. The most obvious point of contrast is that in the headstand the weight of the body is on the top of the head and has its primary skeletal effect on the neck. The headstand compresses its vertebrae axially; the shoulderstand stretches the neck. Put another way, the neck acts to support the headstand, and is acted upon by the shoulderstand.

Another difference is that in the headstand the entire spine from C1 to the sacrum is inverted but straight, and the posture is balanced simply by standing up. By contrast, all the variations of the shoulderstand and its associated postures include forward bending somewhere in the body: the cervical region is flexed in the shoulderstand, and the cervical region, lumbar region, and hips are flexed in the plow. This continuing theme of forward bending explains why these postures are often followed with backbending in the bridge, the fish, and the wheel.

One last way in which the shoulderstand differs from the headstand is that significant time and commitment is required to learn about the nature of the posture and do it justice. We can get most of the common physical benefits from the headstand by practicing that posture 3–5 minutes a day, but any serious student who wishes to get acquainted with the postures in the shoulderstand series is well advised to practice them for 20–30 minutes a day for at least three months. After that a more abbreviated practice will suffice.

In this chapter we’ll first summarize the anatomy that is pertinent to the most advanced expression of the shoulderstand. Next we’ll discuss the entire shoulderstand series, starting with the easiest postures, and then we’ll examine the plow series. We’ll then cover the aspects of circulation and respiration relevant to these poses. Finally, we’ll look at exercises and postures that usually follow and balance the shoulderstand and plow, and end with a brief discussion of benefits.


To understand the complex anatomy of the shoulderstand, we’ll begin with a brief description of the posture in its most extreme expression—the candle posture. This is an advanced pose, however, and should not be attempted until you are warmed up and have mastered the preliminary postures which follow. In this pose the feet are swung overhead from a supine position, and the arms, forearms, and hands are placed in a neutral position alongside the thighs (fig. 9.1). The body is balanced on a triangular-shaped region comprised of the back of the head, the neck, and the shoulders. The chin is pressed into the sternum, and the pose is held internally, mostly with the muscles of the torso and lower extremities. This is not easy. Few students will have enough back strength to keep the sternum tightly pressed against the chin, but unless they can do that they will not attain the full benefit of the posture.


Even though the anatomy of the advanced posture is complex, it is straightforward and easy to analyze. In the neck, most of the structures in the cervical spine are stretched, including the posterior longitudinal ligament on the back of the anterior functional unit, the interspinous ligaments between the spinous processes, the ligamenta flava between the vertebral arches, and the ligamentum nuchae, a fibro-elastic ligament which runs from the back of the head to all the spinous processes between C1 and C7 (fig. 4.13a). The synovial articulations between the adjacent superior and inferior articulating processes will be stretched to their limits as well. Also stretched by this posture are the muscles that attach to the upper thoracic and cervical spine: the trapezius muscles; the levator scapulae; and the strap muscles between the head and upper back, especially the semispinalis capitis between the cranium and C7–T6, and the splenius capitis between the mastoid process and C7–T6 (figs. 4.14, 5.5, 8.12, and 8.14).

The spinous processes (figs. 4.10a, 4.10c, and 4.13a) are the first bony points of contact with the floor in the shoulderstand. They are easily located, and are the hard structures that can be palpated directly in the midline of the body at the nape of the neck. Two of them generally stand out from all the others. The higher of the two bumps belongs to C7, and the lower one belongs to T1, which is also called the vertebra prominens because it usually protrudes more than any other (fig. 4.13a). You can confirm their identities for yourself if you find someone on whom these two bumps are pronounced, ask them to flex their neck, and then in the flexed position to twist their head right and left several times. You can distinguish C7 from T1 because C7 moves from side to side as your subject’s head twists back and forth, while T1 is relatively stable. Once you see and feel the relative mobility of the tip of C7 on someone else, you can easily locate it and T1 on yourself. And once C7 and T1 are located, the tips of the spinous processes in the rest of the spine can easily be felt, especially in those who are slender and not very muscular.

Figure 9.1. The candle posture is the most advanced expression of the shoulderstand. It is balanced on a combination of the back of the head, the neck, and the shoulders, and is maintained by muscular effort throughout the body. The body from the shoulders to the toes is stiff as a board, and acts as a pry bar to stretch the cervical vertebral column from a fulcrum at the junction of the chin and the sternum. Never attempt this advanced pose until you have mastered all the less extreme variations of the shoulderstand series and are accustomed to at least a 20 minute practice of the series.

How far the spinous processes protrude can be a practical problem if you are lying on a hard floor, and anyone who has little subcutaneous fat and who is lightly muscled should do the shoulderstand on a pad, especially if they wish to roll down from the posture one vertebra at a time.


A combination of the spine, deep back muscles, proximal muscles of the extremities, abdominal muscles, and the respiratory and pelvic diaphragms support this version of the shoulderstand. More than any other, this middle segment of the body maintains the pose, and the brunt of the effort is carried by the erector spinae and other deep back muscles (figs. 4.14, 5.5, and 8.14), which are situated posterior to the ribs and transverse processes of the vertebrae. When these muscles are maintained in a strong state of isometric contraction, they hold the spine straight.

The most obvious role of the deep back muscles is to counter the tendency for forward bending in the lumbar region. The temptation is to swing the lower extremities enough overhead to balance the body without much muscular effort, but this obviously can’t be done without forward bending in the lumbar spine. And even though that makes the pose easier, it deprives us of its main benefit. If you allow the spine to flex, you lose the essence of the posture, and it would be better to concentrate on the more elementary inverted postures.


To do this advanced version of the shoulderstand successfully, the tendency for forward bending also has to be supressed at the hips, which means keeping the hips extended. The main muscle responsible for this is the gluteus maximus. As seen earlier (figs. 3.8, 3.10, 8.9–10, and 8.12), this muscle takes origin from the back of the ilium and sacrum and has two insertions, one into the iliotibial tract (which as suggested by its name bypasses the knee and attaches to the tibia; figs. 3.8 and 8.12), and the other directly onto the femur (fig. 3.8b, 3.10, and 8.12). The gluteus maximus is the heaviest muscle in the body, and you can immediately feel it tighten up on both sides as you try to hold the thighs extended in the advanced shoulderstand. The effort that tightens the gluteus maximus also squeezes the hips together, with the result that this posture holds the sacroiliac joints in a position of counternutation—that is, with the ischial tuberosities pulled toward one another, the ilia spread apart, and the promontory of the sacrum rotated between the ilia to the rear.

As you try to bring the body straight in the candle pose, you will not at first feel much tension on the front of the thighs, but as you increase your efforts to extend the thighs with the gluteus maximus, the quadriceps femoris muscles (figs. 1.2, 3.9, 8.8–9, and 8.11) finally counter that effort antagonistically, which you can easily confirm with your hands because they are nearby. From the knees down, you have options: if the feet are extended, you will be mildly stretching the muscles on the front of the leg, and if they are flexed, you will be stretching the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles in the calves (figs. 3.l0a–b, 7.6, 8.9–10, and 8.12).

Since the arms and forearms are positioned along the chest and thighs, you wouldn’t think they were contributing to the posture. But the upper extremities also include the scapulae, and when you come into the candle pose you are adducting and depressing these two triangular bones. This ultimately results in lifting your weight off the nape of the neck and taking some of the pressure off the spinous processes of C7 and T1.

This version of the shoulderstand is the definitive all-member’s pose. From head to toe, muscles are either activated isometrically or stretched. Extensors of the hips and spine straighten the body, acting synergistically with muscles of the upper back that depress and adduct the scapulae. In combination, the back and hip extensors also resist flexion of the spine and hips. The body becomes like a pry bar pushing the sternum against the chin, and the resulting tension creates significant traction in the neck. How different from the headstand, in which you hold only enough muscular activity to balance on the top of the head.


The candle posture described above is demanding, and should not be approached without a lot of preparation: gradually getting accustomed to being in postures in which the hips are higher than the shoulders; gradually getting accustomed to more and more flexion of the neck; slowly becoming confident in balancing the body as a whole in a posture that is more and more perpendicular to the floor; and becoming familiar with the different methods of actuating and supporting the dozen or so postures that make up the shoulderstand series and its sequelae. We’ll begin with the inverted action postures.

Technically, inverted action means upside down, but in most yoga traditions, “the inverted action posture” refers to viparitakarani mudra, in which the lower extremities are perpendicular to the floor, the torso is at a 45–60° angle from the floor, and the pelvis is supported by the elbows, forearms, and wrists. We’ll first examine some easier variations that can lead systematically to the shoulderstand.

Even though most of the inverted action postures are not as difficult as the shoulderstand, they confer some of the same benefits and are particularly useful for older people. The first two variations that follow are of special value to anyone who is fearful of being upended. And like the headstand, the shoulderstand and the inverted action postures are contraindicated for anyone with high blood pressure, for women who are pregnant or in their menstrual period, or for anyone with osteoporosis. Being substantially overweight is another obvious contraindication. Those who are uncertain as to whether or not they should proceed will find the following two variations safe for beginning experimentation.


Safe means simple and safe means conservative, and a good place to begin to learn the shoulderstand is to squirm your pelvis onto the top of a bolster, draw the knees toward the chest, and simply lift the feet into the air, straightening the knees so that the thighs and legs end up perpendicular to the floor. Once you get your pelvis in position, you do not even need to use your arms to help you get your feet up. Those who are more adventuresome can try supporting the pelvis on the edge of a couch, positioning the torso at a 30–45° angle from the floor depending on the height of the support and length of the torso. These postures provide excellent training for the full inverted action pose and for the postures in the shoulderstand series because the hips are higher than the shoulders, the neck is slightly flexed, the lower extremities are perpendicular to the floor, and the posture is supported passively by a prop.

If your balance is good, you can also support yourself with an 8 ½ inch playground ball (chapter 5), or better yet, a bigger one 10–13 inches in diameter. Placing a supporting bolster or ball at different sites creates different effects. If the support is placed under the lower part of the sacrum and coccyx, the back will be rounded to the rear and mostly against the floor; if it is placed under the upper part of the sacrum, the pelvis will be raised higher and the back will be straighter; if it is placed under L4–L5, the back will be straight; and if it is under the junction of the lumbar and thoracic regions, the lumbar region will be arched forward in the other direction and the pelvis will drop, creating a passive backbend (chapter 6). This last position places an unusual stress in the lumbar region and is contraindicated for anyone with a tender back. With this exception, students can be fairly relaxed in all of these variations except for the effort needed to keep the knees extended.

An even more passive inverted action posture involves flattening the thighs and legs against a wall with the pelvis again supported on a bolster or ball. You do not have to use much effort to keep the knees straight, and you can combine the posture with a passive adductor stretch by letting the thighs rest in an abducted position.


This next posture prepares you for both the shoulderstand and the plow. It is relaxing once you get into it but it requires more strength, flexibility, and athletic prowess than the propped postures just described. It is the logical next step for those who are trying to build confidence for doing more advanced inverted postures. Except for the fact that the legs are sticking out, it resembles a ball whose circumference is formed by the head, back, pelvis, thighs, elbows, and arms (fig. 9.2). To begin, lie supine on a padded surface with the top of the head about two feet from a wall, or a little less depending on your stature. Pull the knees toward the chest, place the hands against the floor below the hips, palms down, and in a single movement tighten the abdomen, push strongly against the floor with the hands and elbows, and lift the hips up and the feet overhead, straightening the knees slightly at the same time.

The feet should touch the wall lightly in the final position, and you may now have to adjust your distance from the wall to make that comfortable. The knees, hips, and back are all comfortably flexed. Interlock the fingers lightly at the top of the head, and brace the thighs with the elbows just above the knees, or place your hands against the lower back and pelvis (fig. 9.2). Adjust the posture for maximum comfort and relaxation.

This is a relaxed posture once you get into it, but getting there may be a challenge for those whose spinal and hip flexibility is poor. And another consideration for novices is that even though there is no pressure on the neck, and even though your body weight is so close to the floor that you do not have to worry about falling over, the weight of the lower extremities can compel so much flexion of the hips and spine that it shocks the uninitiated. Once in a while the extra weight on the chest prevents someone from inhaling in this posture, especially if an insensitive coach has lifted them into it. I witnessed that error once in a class of partnered hatha yoga for older but athletic beginners. Fortunately, other classmates were observing and quickly intervened, crying “Stop, stop, she can’t breathe!” The opposite problem is a lack of weight from the waist down, as in barrel-chested men with skinny legs. If that is the case, you may want to try coming into the pose wearing heavy shoes or ankle weights in order to pull enough weight overhead to stabilize the posture. In any event, if you come into the pose but are not confident that you can balance gracefully, just roll down keeping the knees as close to the chest as possible.

Figure 9.2. This relaxed inverted action posture with the feet against the wall is easy for most people, and the head is freely movable for twisting from side to side, but the pose should still be monitored watchfully in the case of those who are trying it for the first time.


In the full inverted action posture (viparitakarani mudra), the weight of the lower part of the body is supported by the elbows, forearms, and wrists. Come into the posture from a supine position flat on the floor with the arms alongside the body, palms down. Lift the lower extremities by pressing the hands and forearms against the floor, tightening the abdomen, and pulling the feet overhead, all the while keeping the feet together and the knees straight. As you pull your weight to the rear, keep your arms against the floor and place your hands under the pelvis where they can steady you. Then, supporting yourself with your hands, complete the posture by bringing the thighs and legs perpendicular to the floor (fig. 9.3a).

Because you will have to support much of the weight of the torso as well as all of the weight of the lower extremities with the hands and forearms, the inverted action posture is difficult for many students. Depending on the length of the forearms and the exact placement of the hands, the torso will be at about a 45–60° angle from the floor. That is easy enough by itself, but instructors who want the posture done rigorously also insist that the thighs and legs be exactly perpendicular to the floor, and the combined weight of the extremities and lower torso may be hard on the elbows unless they are well cushioned. If you flex the thighs a little more, swinging the lower extremities overhead about 30° off axis from perpendicular (fig. 9.3b), the posture becomes easier but it begins to lose its original character.

Figure 9.3. Viparitakarani mudra, or the inverted action posture (a), is a famous pose, but it places so much weight on the forearms that many people find it troublesome. The pose on the right with the feet slightly overhead (b) compromises the posture but is useful for beginning the process of getting acclimated to the formal pose.


Now we are ready to look at the shoulderstand proper, in which the body (exclusive of the head and neck) is positioned more or less perpendicular to the floor. Since this requires that the cervical region be strong and flexible, we’ll work up to it gradually. Before starting, however, you may want to explore and become familiar with the resistance neck exercises discussed in the last section of this chapter (“Sequelae”). Once you have done that, you are ready for the quarter plow.


To make a safe and easy transition to the shoulderstand, especially for beginners, the quarter plow (not illustrated) should come next. You come up into this pose exactly as you came into the inverted action posture, by pushing with the hands from a supine position, tightening the abdominal region, and swinging the feet overhead, all in a single coordinated movement. Then you simply let your feet hang far enough overhead to balance your weight while bracing the pelvis with the hands. The lower extremities will now be at an angle of 45° off axis from perpendicular instead of the 30° illustrated in the last posture.

The main point of this posture and what makes it good for beginners is that you will not have to support as much of your body weight with the arms as you do in the inverted action pose. You can steady the hips with the hands or, for a sharper-looking posture, you can brace the hands on the thighs just proximal to the knees. It is especially easy to support the legs in this position.

The quarter plow is another posture you can do with the feet lightly touching a wall, but whether you use a wall or not you can now begin to get the feeling of the shoulderstand. The torso is practically vertical and the sternum is pressing lightly against the chin. This is starting to become a balancing posture, but at the same time it is a pose that requires some musculoskeletal activity for resisting forward bending in the spine and hips. It’s worth serious study.


Now you can begin working with the shoulderstand itself. To come into the pose follow the same sequence to which you have become accustomed. From a supine position bend the knees comfortably and swing the hips overhead, using the hands to lift and steady the pelvis as it comes up. Then balance on the upper back and shoulders. You can best support the pose by wrapping the fingers around to the rear against the sacroiliac region and pushing the hands against the back, keeping the thumbs to the front just superior to the crests of the ilia. This is a comfortable position for most people because the neck is not under tension and because you are still not stretched straight up into the air. You’ll end up with an obtuse angle of about 140° between the thighs and the torso (fig. 9.4a).

From this position you can start to explore. Gradually straighten the body, including the knees, hips, and spine, shifting your weight each day and placing the hands higher and higher on the back. Allow yourself several weeks of daily practice, making sure you are secure with each shift to a straighter position before going on. And be especially careful to monitor the feelings in the neck. In the initial position with your weight balanced mostly on the upper back, no stress is placed on the cervical region, but as you straighten the body the head and neck will have to become more sharply flexed. Soon you will be pressing the sternum against the chin, and as that happens your position becomes more tenuous. It is therefore important to adapt to the posture without haste.


To transform the beginning shoulderstand into the classic shoulderstand you will have to make the pose more dynamic, and for this there are four requirements. First, instead of swinging up with bent knees, press the lower back against the floor, do a double leg left with straight knees (fig. 3.17), and lift your feet toward the ceiling (and only slightly overhead) using the abdominal muscles. While coming up, don’t press your hands against the floor any more than you have to. Second, once you’re up, straighten the body by pressing more insistently and with the hands higher on the back than in the beginning pose. Next, tighten the erector spinae and hip extensors, creating a forward thrust in the pelvis that complements the efforts from the hands. Finally, with the body supported in a straight line by the hands and the muscles of the trunk and hips, lean the sternum against the chin (fig. 9.4b). If this is uncomfortable, adopt a more moderate hand position for the time being. Alternatively, defer further work on the classic posture for several weeks and temporarily limit your efforts to the lifted shoulderstand, which will be described later in this chapter. The resistance neck exercises listed under “Sequelae” will also be helpful.

When you have completed the posture, pressure from the entire body is pushing against the chin. The sternum presses the lower jaw against the upper jaw, and the neck and skull as a whole comprise a unit that cannot twist or budge in any direction. And since the whole body is stiff, it acts as a lever that exerts traction on the cervical vertebrae. You do get many important benefits by simply lifting up with the body slightly curved, but this does not elicit the intense energy associated with the classic shoulderstand.


If your strength and balance permit, assume the classic shoulderstand and then remove your hands from their supporting position on the upper back. You can place them in one of three positions: behind the back against the floor, with the arms and forearms extended as much as you can manage; overhead against the floor, with the arms flexed 90°; or alongside the thighs, with the arms adducted to a neutral position.

Figure 9.4. The beginning shoulderstand (a) is a straighter version of the inverted action pose, with the head still freely movable, the feet slightly overhead, little or no traction in the neck, and the hands situated comfortably to support the posture. The classic shoulderstand (b) is a more advanced posture. It is strongly supported by bracing the hands higher up on the back, and for the first time we see the sternum pressing firmly against the chin, thus creating traction in the neck. The hips should be tightly contracted, and the lower extremities held straight, so the body as a whole is not passive but aids the upper extremities in maintaining the posture.

For the first variation interlock the fingers behind the back, pressing the palms together; then straighten the elbows and press the arms and forearms against the floor (fig. 9.5). This places uncommon demands on the upper extremities from the scapulae to the hands, and if the position is too difficult you can just interlace the fingers leaving the palms apart. Those who have good strength and flexibility for extending the arms will find that this posture braces the back almost as effectively as bracing the posture in the conventional manner with the hands pushing against the upper back. And once you are in the posture with the arms only moderately extended, you can easily feel how extending them another 20–30° straightens the body into a vertical posture. Only those who are strong and flexible enough to press their arms and forearms forcefully against the floor will find this variation comfortable and rewarding.

After experiencing and analyzing your limitations for straightening the body with arm and forearm extension, you can start supplementing those efforts by tightening the deep back muscles (figs. 4.14, 5.5, and 8.14) and the gluteus maximus, the main hip extensor (figs. 3.8, 3.10, 8.9–10, and 8.12). The main difficulty with this is inadequate strength, and the only way you can work with the posture, apart from extending the arms more fully, is to try even harder to contract the hip extensors and deep back muscles. As soon as you reach your limit this becomes an isometric effort.

Figure 9.5. This pose is similar to the classic shoulderstand except that the extended arms and forearms are supporting the posture by pressing firmly against the floor. You can easily sense how important this support is by lifting the hands and noticing that the pose deteriorates immediately. By the same token, those who are unable to extend their arms a full 90° will find it difficult to keep their bodies straight and will almost certainly have to permit some flexion of their hips and backs.

One characteristic of this version of the completed shoulderstand is that the tips of C7 and T1 are now lifted away from the floor. The scapulae are adducted, and you are supporting the posture more on the back sides of the arms than on the shoulders and the nape of the neck. If you find this variation difficult, try to work up a little extra enthusiasm for it. Try it once, then rest in the relaxed easy inverted action posture, and try it again. Remember, this is the all-member’s pose: it will augment your efforts for doing many other postures.

For the second variation bring the arms and forearms overhead in the opposite direction, along the floor behind the top of the head instead of behind the back, that is, with the arms flexed 90° instead of extended. Either interlock the hands or simply hold the arms and forearms against the floor (fig. 9.6a). This position is not as demanding of the upper extremities as the previous variation, but neither does it brace the shoulderstand, for the simple reason that the flexed arms lie passively against the floor. Trying to flex them further overhead will push them harder against the floor, and this can only push you out of the posture, but flexing them less can only mean lifting them away from the floor, which leaves you supporting the posture purely with the hip extensors and deep back muscles. So if it was difficult for you to hold your body straight in the last variation, it will be even more so in this one. If you cannot remain vertical, simply hold the back and gluteal muscles isometrically for a few seconds, and then either support the back again with the hands or rest in the relaxed easy inverted action pose.

Figure 9.6. With the arms flexed overhead, the pose on the left (a) is just as difficult as the candle pose (b and fig. 9.1). In both cases the postures must be maintained internally, and flexion must be resisted by the deep back muscles, gluteals, and hamstrings.

For the most advanced shoulderstand—the one we used earlier to illustrate the anatomy of the posture—bring the hands up alongside the thighs after you have come into the classic pose. Be content at first with keeping the hips and back slightly flexed, with an obtuse angle of about 160° between the thighs and the chest. Balance in this position every day for a week without trying to complete the posture. Notice that you are not distracted by the upper extremities and that this pose follows naturally from placing the arms against the floor overhead. The final stage—straightening the body and pressing the sternum against the chin—is no different from what you have been doing all along except that now you are doing it entirely with the gluteal and deep back muscles, which acting together thrust the pelvis forward. Then pull the shoulders to the rear one side at a time by adducting the scapulae. With consistent effort over a period of time you can straighten the body like a stick and master this most advanced and purest variation of the internally supported shoulderstand (figs. 9.1 and 9.6b).


The rationale for calling the shoulderstand the all-member’s pose should now be clear. It’s not a balancing posture: the body position is maintained by muscular effort. The internally supported shoulderstands in particular require a constant influx of nerve impulses to muscles throughout the body. You straighten the back by contracting the erector spinae, you press the front of the pelvis toward the wall behind the head by tightening the gluteal muscles, you extend the knees by tightening the quadriceps femori, and you press the heels toward the opposite wall by creating even more extension in the hip extensors.

If you analyze this effort from head to toe, you will find that extensor muscles throughout the body resist flexion and pull you straighter into the posture: the erector spinae extend the spine; the gluteus maximus muscles extend the thighs at the hip joints, aided in that effort by the hamstrings acting as synergists; the quadriceps femoris muscles act as agonists to keep the legs extended at the knee joints and also act as antagonists for countering the tendency of the hamstrings to flex the knees; the triceps brachii muscles extend the forearms; and extensors of the hands and wrists point the fingers toward the ceiling. The only option you have is deciding what to do with the feet. You can extend the ankle and toes toward the ceiling, flex them toward the head, or leave them relaxed. The only place where extensor muscles are both relaxed and stretched is in the neck.


If you work only with the basic shoulderstand postures you may find that you are improving only so much and that insufficient strength and flexibility continue to stop you in the same place. A serious commitment to a program of active backbending postures can help correct this situation, but the best remedy is to do additional twisting and bending exercises from within the shoulderstand itself. Some of these have already been discussed in chapters 5–7; working with them and with the exercises to follow will enable you to find new limits.

The simplest exercise is to twist in the classic (supported) shoulderstand. After coming into the posture twist to the right. (Here “twisting to the right” means from the perspective of the practitioner looking toward the ceiling.) Such a twist pulls the right side of the pelvis posteriorly and the left side of the pelvis anteriorly. Intensify the twist by pressing higher on the back of the chest and more forcefully with the left hand (fig. 9.7). This not only helps the twist, it also aids extension of the spine. Repeat on the other side, and then rest in the relaxed easy inverted action posture. If you come back up in the shoulderstand a second time, you may find yourself straighter.

Figure 9.7. In this simple twisted shoulderstand, the left hand is pushing the left side of the pelvis anteriorly and is assisting the effort to keep the body straight. The direction of the twist is referenced from the point of view of the practitioner looking toward the ceiling, since those are the terms in which someone in a class would follow directions. Here the model is twisting to his right.

You can also combine twisting and forward bending from the classic posture. The easiest and most natural exercise is to assume the position with the hands high on your back, and then twist to the left (pushing the right side of the pelvis anteriorly) and lower the right foot slowly overhead and across the body toward the floor while keeping the left thigh and leg extended. Ideally, the right knee will be extended and the right thigh will be flexed to its limit. Unless you are unusually flexible you will not be able to flex the right hip joint more than 90°, which would bring the thigh parallel to the floor. Slowly come back up and repeat on the other side, twisting to the right and lowering the left foot overhead.

This forward bend and twist stretches the hamstring muscles of the thigh you are lowering overhead, and because the upright thigh keeps the pelvis and lower back stable, the hamstring stretch does not compromise the back or sacroiliac joints. You can come into the posture slowly and stay there for a while, or you can go back and forth one foot at a time at a faster pace. As long as you use the best form you can manage most of the time, it is all right for those who are less flexible to bend the overhead knee and lumbar region enough to bring the big toe to the floor.

Now try a series of three (soon to be twelve) exercises that can form the basis of a comprehensive practice of the shoulderstand. The first one might be called a twisted half lotus one-legged plow. From the shoulderstand, twist right, pushing the left side of the pelvis anteriorly. Then flex the right knee and right hip, rotate the right thigh laterally, and place the right foot and ankle in the half lotus position against the left thigh as close as possible to the groin. To complete the posture lower the left foot overhead and across the body to the floor, or at least as close to the floor as possible, keeping the left knee straight (fig. 9.8). Repeat on the other side. This posture is rewarding if you want to rest between other poses in the shoulderstand series, and is also an excellent preparation for the full spinal twists that are accomplished from the half lotus position (fig. 7.33a) or from the full lotus (fig. 7.33b).

Next, and again from the classic shoulderstand, twist left, pushing the right side of the pelvis anteriorly, and flex the right knee and thigh while keeping the left knee and thigh fully extended. Then slowly bring the right knee diagonally across the body to the floor beside the left ear. Try not to twist your head to the right in order to reach the floor with the knee. This exercise requires a lot of concentration, a substantial torso twist, and excellent hip flexibility, but since the right knee is bent, the posture doesn’t stretch the hamstrings. To bring the right knee all the way to the floor, most people will have to flex the torso to some extent, and perhaps the left thigh. As far as possible, keep the left thigh extended and the back straight (fig. 9.9). Come back up in reverse order, first extending the right thigh while keeping the knee flexed, then extending the right knee, and finally coming out of the twist. Repeat on the other side.

The last exercise in the series is to twist left, again pushing the right side of the pelvis anteriorly; then slowly flex both knees in isolation; and then flex the hips. Finally, bring both knees down together until the right knee ends up beside the left ear (fig. 9.10). This is easy in the supported posture because the upper extremities can easily accommodate the extra weight of the feet and legs when they are lowered. Come back up in reverse. Extend the thighs without extending the knees, then extend the knees, untwist, and end up again in the shoulderstand. Repeat on the other side.

Figure 9.8. To come into this twisted half lotus one-legged plow, twist right, pushing the left side of the pelvis anteriorly. Then flex the right knee and hip and place the right foot in the half lotus position. Last, drop the left foot overhead and across the body to the floor.

Figure 9.9. To come into this twisted knee-to-the-opposite-ear posture, twist left, pushing the right side of the pelvis anteriorly, flex the right knee and thigh, and bring the right knee across the body to the floor beside the left ear, all while bracing the right foot against the left knee, allowing gravity to flex the left thigh (which pushes the right knee toward the floor), and trying not to twist your head to the right.

Figure 9.10. To come into this twisted knees-to-the-floor pose, twist left, pushing the right side of the pelvis anteriorly. Then flex both knees, then both thighs, and finally bring both knees down so the right knee is beside the left ear. Come up in reverse order, first extending the thighs, then the knees, then untwist to the shoulderstand.

Now repeat the last three exercises, each one of them with the three different arm positions listed in the section on the internally supported shoulderstand: first with the fingers interlocked, palms pressed tightly together and forearms flat on the floor behind the back; second with the arms overhead (flexed 90°) and with the forearms extended; and third with the hands alongside the thighs. The main difficulty these exercises all share is that you are no longer supporting the back with the hands. Keep the sternum pressed against the chin, and do the nine additional exercises slowly, without compromising any more than you have to. They are challenging because it takes a great deal of strength in the extensors of the back and hips to keep the body straight. The first set of exercises with the arms and forearms extended is easiest because the arms support the posture. The second set is more challenging because the relaxed and passive arms are unable to prevent flexion of the torso. The third set is difficult for the same reason the internally supported shoulderstand with the arms flexed overhead or alongside the thighs is difficult: you have to maintain the posture entirely with the back muscles, keeping the body straight without the aid of either the hands pressing against the pelvis or the arms extended and pressing against the floor.


The plow posture is named for the way the head and shoulders together resemble a plowshare cutting through soil. We might also characterize the posture as a shoulderstand forward bend because the hips and spine are flexed and the feet have been pulled overhead. And yet, as in the shoulderstand, you are balancing on some combination of the shoulders, upper back, neck, and head. In the classic posture the feet touch the floor and the knees are extended. This is an intermediate level pose that requires good flexibility of the spine and hips, but for beginners there are several variations that will lead up to it comfortably. We’ve already done two—the relaxed easy inverted action posture and the quarter plow—in order to introduce the shoulderstand. We’ll continue with the half plow.


To come into the half plow, begin in the supine position and lift up as though you are going to come into the shoulderstand, but pull the feet further overhead. Try to keep the knees extended, at least on the start. The idea is to bring the lower extremities parallel to the floor, approximating a 75° angle from the chest (fig. 9.11). If that is beyond your capacity you can bend the knees slightly to take tension off the hamstring muscles. You can also flex the hips and spine a little less, so that the thighs end up at an angle somewhere between the horizontal position in the half plow and the 45° angle for the quarter plow. You can also place the feet against a wall and search out any comfortable position.

There are endless variations on this posture. If you lie supine on the floor and roll over backward with the toes making contact with a mattress or a thick pad, the half plow becomes a propped classic plow. Notice that the further to the rear you bring the feet the more you will be supporting your body weight on the shoulders and the tighter will be the bend in the neck. And if you permit the thighs to lift up from their position parallel to the floor, your weight will end up more on the upper back and there will be less flexion in the neck. Finally, if you bend the knees and take them closer to the floor, you will be approaching the knee-to-ear posture and yoga nidrasana, which will be described later. All in all it is easy and rewarding to spend twenty minutes or so just on the half plow and its many variations.


The plow posture, like the shoulderstand, can be expressed in many different ways, but for most beginning and many intermediate students it can be done only one way. You come into the posture by lifting the feet overhead as though you were planning to come into the half plow, and then you keep going until the toes touch the floor. There is no middle ground for the knees. To qualify for the plow, they have to be completely extended. As with the shoulderstand, you can either extend the arms behind your back with the hands clasped or flex them overhead toward the toes. The latter is easier. You can either flex or extend the feet, but the posture is easiest with the toes and ankles flexed, for the simple reason that the heels are slightly higher and you do not have to flex the spine and hips quite as much to come into the posture. Try to keep the feet and knees together.

Doing the plow posture is comparable to touching your toes in a sitting forward bend, which you accomplish with some combination of hip and spinal flexion, with the addition here, of course, of forced flexion of the neck. If you have limited flexibility for forward bending in the hips, you won’t be able to do the plow except by pushing the feet all the way to the rear and raising the chest so that the sternum is locked against the chin and the head is at a 90° angle from the sternum. If the chest is perpendicular to the floor, and if the thighs and legs run in a straight line from the hips to the floor, you will have to flex forward a total of about 110°, possibly combining 80° of hip flexion with 30° of spinal flexion, which is usually within the range of intermediate students. If you have to strain to reach the floor with your feet, prop the posture with a thick pad under your toes.

Figure 9.11. For the standard half plow pose, the thighs and legs should be parallel to the floor, but the posture can and should be modified to meet individual needs, such as moderate flexion of the knees, less flexion of the hips, or more flexion of the back.


The most flexible students can work with three variations of the classic plow. And because it’s natural to follow a sequence from the first to the last, we can consider them stages of the plow as well as complete postures in their own right. In all three postures you can either extend the arms behind you, flex them overhead, or use them to support the back.

For the first stage lie supine on the floor and bring the feet overhead with the heels and toes together and the knees extended. Keep as much weight on the upper back and as little on the shoulders as possible, which means trying to keep the spine (including the neck) straight as you lower the toes to the floor. If you choose to keep the feet and toes flexed, you can stretch the hands overhead toward the feet and grasp the toes. Alternatively, you can extend the toes while extending the arms behind you and interlocking the fingers (fig. 9.12a). In any case, the more hip flexibility you have, the closer the thighs will be to the chest and face and the more limited will be flexion in the neck. Instead of 110° of flexion between the chest and thighs, as we saw in the half plow, this posture shows more like 160°, perhaps 120° in the hips and 40° in the lumbar region. The lower part of the chest will be lifted off the floor, creating an angle between the neck and the sternum of about 30° (fig. 9.12a). This is a useful posture in its own right, especially for stretching the hamstrings.

You can come into the second variation of the plow from the first. If they are not given specific directions, this is the one most students will do for the simple reason that it is the only one they can do. The posture will look different depending on hip and spinal flexibility. Those with excellent hip flexibility will ordinarily hold the back straight, flex the hips 120°, and lower the feet overhead (fig. 9.12b). The angle between the neck and the sternum will be about 80°. They can either grasp their toes with their fingers or extend their arms behind their back, fingers interlocked (fig. 9.12b). In any case, this posture allows those with excellent hip flexibility either to make full use of it or to flex their hips 70–110° and make up the difference with spinal flexion. In the latter case, the posture will obviously leave the back more rounded posteriorly and will push the feet further to the rear. In that case, students may not be able to reach their toes with their fingertips. Compared with the first variation, the average intermediate student will reveal about 90° of flexion in their hips and about 70° of flexion in their lumbar spines, again for a total of 160°. More weight is on the shoulders, the chest is lifted to a more perpendicular position, and the angle between the neck and the sternum will be 60–90° depending on individual constraints.

The third variation takes you into a completely different posture. For this one you push your feet even more to the rear and press the sternum against the chin for the first time, creating a 90° bend between the head and the chest. It is now more convenient to extend the ankles (plantar flexion of the feet) and rest on the upper surfaces of the toes. In this stage both the hips and the lumbar region will be less flexed than in the second variation, perhaps 60° each in the hips and lumbar spine, for a total of 120° instead of the 160° that is characteristic of the first two variations (fig. 9.12c). The chest will now be fully perpendicular, at a 90° angle from the floor and from the neck, and if you want to do so you can take the option of pressing the hands against the back exactly as you did in the classic shoulderstand and for the same reason—to keep the sternum locked tightly against the chin. Alternatively, to sharpen the pose, instead of bracing the chest by pressing the hands against the upper back, flatten the arms and forearms against the floor behind the back with the fingers interlocked and the palms pressed together. That arm position lifts your weight even higher on the shoulders and pushes the extended toes even further to the rear (fig. 9.12c).

Figure 9.12a. For the first variation (or stage) of the plow, the feet are pushed minimally overhead, the hips are flexed maximally, and the mid-back is kept as close to the floor as possible.

Figure 9.12b. For the second stage of the plow, the feet are pushed further overhead, hips are flexed moderately, and the back is now perpendicular to the floor.

Figure 9.12c. For stage three (third variation) of the plow, the feet are pushed maximally overhead with the toes extended, the hips are flexed minimally, and the back is flexed enough to permit the feet to reach the floor.

Notice that the first variation is more like the inverted action posture with respect to neck flexion, and that only in the last variation of the plow series is the head and neck in the full 90° shoulderstand position. Notice also that all three variations are relatively passive, even though you are stretching muscles on the back side of the body from head to toe, and that this makes the poses especially useful for those who have difficulty with forward bending. In contrast to the sitting forward bend, gravity aids the plow series whether you are flexible or inflexible, so be watchful that your body weight does not pull you further into the posture than is prudent.


No matter what version of the plow you are working on, if you wish to lengthen the hamstrings, keep the knees extended as a first priority; if you wish to work on adductors, abduct the thighs; and if you wish to improve hip flexibility without being impeded by either the hamstrings or the adductors, bend the knees, bring them together, and pull the thighs closer to the chest. Notice that if you support the thighs with the elbows in this last variation, you will be moving into what may now be an old favorite—the relaxed easy inverted action posture.

With the thighs abducted in the plow you can work with certain stretches that are not accessible in any other posture. First, to work specifically on hip flexibility, come into the pose with maximum abduction and flexion of the thighs: you will be stretching both the hamstrings and the adductors. Notice how far you can abduct the thighs. Then with the thighs abducted, push more to the rear into a posture that is comparable to variation two of the plow, and notice that when you do that the thighs can be abducted even further. The reason for this is simple. The shift from flexion in the hips to flexion in the lumbar region takes tension off the hamstrings and those adductors which have a posterior origin along the inferior pubic rami, and this in turn permits more abduction. This situation becomes increasingly pronounced the further to the rear you plant your feet. These are great stretches. After the struggles many students have with sitting forward bends in which the thighs are abducted and gravity is thwarting rather than assisting the bend, working with the abducted thighs in the plow or propped plow is a pleasure.

Next, keeping the feet together, bring them to one side and then the other as far as possible. This combination of a twist with a deep forward bend can be done from any stage of the plow, but try it first with the hands overhead in variation two, which is a comfortable intermediate balancing position. Slowly lift your toes just off the floor and slide them to one side as far as is comfortable. Then slide both feet slowly to the opposite side, again barely touching the floor. Keep the knees as straight as possible, don’t hold your breath, and try not to bounce from one side to the other.

The only way you can develop the tension needed to raise the toes just off the floor in this posture is to tighten the back muscles and hamstrings. But as you raise the feet the hamstrings come under tension and tend to flex the knees, and that has to be resisted with the quadriceps femoris muscles. This is an exercise that can only be done inverted.

The last exercise in this series is to combine the plow with sitting forward bends and leglifts in a dynamic sequence. If you are slender and lightly muscled it should be done on a mat or soft surface. Start in the usual supine position with the hands beside the thighs, palms down. Then do a slow double leglift and come into the plow without using your upper extremities any more than you have to. This is an abdominal exercise. As soon as your feet touch the floor overhead come out of the posture by rolling slowly down, one vertebra at a time. Try to keep your head on the floor instead of raising it up as the middle segment of your back rolls down (which is easier said than done), and hold enough tension in the abdomen and arms to keep your pelvis from plopping down. Then, as soon as the pelvis reaches the floor, slowly lower the feet while keeping the knees extended. Keep going. When your heels touch the floor, roll slowly up into a sitting forward bend and reach forward with the hands. Don’t try to bend from the hips or to establish sacroiliac nutation as a priority. It is more natural just to roll forward and down. Keep moving. As soon you are in an easy full forward bend, roll back down to a supine position one vertebra at a time, do another slow double leglift, and again come into the plow. Repeat the sequence as many times as is comfortable.


In the lifted shoulderstand and plow, you raise the shoulders higher than the head with a blanket or extra-firm mat to make the poses easier and to remove stress from the neck. This makes the lifted postures useful alternatives for students who are not prepared for the intensity of the full poses. For an initial trial, the mat should be an inch thick, long enough to accommodate the entire torso, and about three feet wide.


Try the lifted shoulderstand first. Lie supine with the edge of the mat at the mid-cervical region, the head off the mat and against the floor. Ever so slowly press the hands against the mat and lift the torso up and the feet overhead. Support the back with the hands as usual, but be watchful of your balance. The posture is unstable because the sternum is not compressed against the chin, and if you’re not attentive you’ll fall to one side or flip over into a backward somersault, which is difficult in the regular shoulderstand unless you are trying to do it.

After you have worked with a one-inch-thick mat you can try the lifted shoulderstand with one or more additional thicknesses. But the higher the support, the more unstable the posture, and the more care you must take not to fall. Many yoga teachers recommend and even insist on the use of a significant support—perhaps a 5-inch thickness of firm matting, or sometimes even more. But even though the lifted shoulderstand will protect the neck, the remedy can be worse than the cure if you lose your balance and fall. This is why, if you are having students use extra thick mats, you should lead them into the lifted shoulderstand guardedly, making sure that their shoulders are solidly placed and that they have done some preliminary experimentation with a thin mat. In the lifted shoulderstand illustrated here (fig. 9.13), a 2.5 inch thick wrestling mat provides substantial support.

We call this pose a lifted shoulderstand, and that is fair enough, but it is no longer sarvangasana, the all-member’s pose. It is a shoulderstand because your weight is still placed mainly on the shoulders, but unlike the classic shoulderstand it is more of a balancing posture because the erector spinae and muscles of the lower extremities do not have to maintain nearly as much activity to stabilize it. In comparison with the classic shoulderstand, it takes almost no effort to straighten the body, especially if your mat is 2–4 inches in thickness. The three internally supported versions of the classic posture are also easier with this prop: since the chin is not compressed against the neck, the cervical vertebrae are not placed under traction and the sensations of intensity and energy associated with the classic shoulderstand are either absent or markedly reduced. It is not an exaggeration to say that in this posture we lose almost all of the defining characteristics of the classic shoulderstand.

In the lifted shoulderstand the torso is vertical but the neck angles off downhill, about 10° more than a right angle if you are minimally supported, and more like 45° beyond a right angle if your shoulders are lifted up by 3–4 inches of firm matting. And the more the head is directed downward at an angle, the more the neck will be supporting the posture (as in the headstand) rather than being acted upon by the posture (as in the classic shoulderstand).

The empty space behind the neck in the lifted shoulderstand presents one potential problem: it allows the cervical region to round to the rear, creating a reverse cervical curvature, in other words a curvature that is convex posteriorly instead of anteriorly. In general, the posture is not harmful for a limited time, but if you have this condition in your neck before you start working with this series, the lifted shoulderstand should not be done at all. It can only make a reverse curvature worse. The classic shoulderstand, on the other hand, can be therapeutic because that posture flattens and stretches the cervical region.


If you are not quite ready for the intensity of the classic plow, the lifted plow is a useful alternative. Find just the amount of lift needed to allow the feet to reach the floor. The lifted plow not only takes stress off the neck, it also makes the posture easier than the classic plow because you do not have to have as much hip and back flexibility to lower the feet to the floor while keeping the knees straight. The same cautions apply here as for the lifted shoulderstand. The higher the support, in this case two, 2.5 inch mats combined (fig. 9.14), the more unstable the posture. Proceed with caution.

Figure 9.13. To work with the lifted shoulderstand, start with a one-inch thick mat and then increase the thickness to 2–5 inches or even more. Here the shoulders are supported by a 2.5 inch wrestling mat. Be watchful. The lifted pose is much more of a balancing posture than the standard shoulderstand, and students who have never tried this before, even those who are experienced with the regular shoulderstand, may unexpectedly (and quite suddenly) tip over backward, just as sometimes happens if you try to come into the shoulderstand on a slope with the head down.


Circulation and respiration go hand in hand. When athletes speak of cardiorespiratory fitness they are talking about both functions: getting air into the lungs and transferring oxygen from the lungs to the tissues of the body (chapter 2). Inverting the body affects these processes profoundly and in different ways depending on the specific posture. We’ll look at six postures that illustrate some of the differences: the headstand, the shoulderstand, the inverted action posture, the lifted shoulderstand, stage one of the plow lying with the chest almost flat, and stage three of the plow with the feet pulled fully overhead.

Like the headstand, the shoulderstand and related postures drain blood and excess fluids from the lower extremities and abdominopelvic organs, and for this reason they are excellent practices for anyone with varicose veins or sluggish circulation in the lower half of the body. The effects on circulation in the head and neck, however, are different and more complex in the shoulderstand than they are in the headstand (fig. 9.15). The most obvious point of contrast is that blood pressure in the head is lower in the shoulderstand because the vertical distance between the heart and the brain is only a few inches, while it is roughly 12–16 inches in the headstand, depending on your body type. If we calculate that average blood pressure in the brain during the headstand is around 130 mm Hg (figs. 8.2 and 9.15) instead of the 100 mm Hg (average) at chest level, we can estimate that blood pressure in the brain during the shoulderstand will be more like an average of 110 mm Hg (fig. 9.15).

Figure 9.14. The lifted plow is a special pleasure for those whose flexibility cannot quite accomodate to the classic plow. Here the shoulders are supported by two, 2.5 inch mats combined. This is not as much of a balancing posture as the lifted shoulderstand because the feet reach the floor, but there is still a tendency for the uninitiated student to tip over in a backward somersault.

It is obvious that blood pressure in the head decreases in the shoulderstand in comparison with the headstand, but the situation in the neck is a separate question. One might expect a decrease in blood pressure here as well, and for the same reason—because in the shoulderstand, the neck is not as far below the heart as it is in the headstand. This is not, however, borne out experientially. Unlike the headstand, when you are in the classic shoulderstand there is a localized sensation of extra, rather than reduced, pressure and tension in the neck. Exactly what these sensations mean has not been tested in the clinic or laboratory, but the lore in hatha yoga is that some of the major arteries supplying the brain are slightly occluded in the shoulderstand because of the severe flexion in the neck. And if that is what happens, constrictions in those major arteries could cause increased blood pressure in any nearby region that is supplied by arteries that branch off just before the hypothesized constriction.

Figure 9.15. Comparisons of postulated regional blood pressures in standing and various inverted postures. For each posture (from the left), the average arterial blood pressure (systolic/diastolic, over time) is estimated locally for the head, neck, chest, and ankles.

We can gain insight into this puzzle and find a possible solution to it by comparing the inverted action pose with the shoulderstand. The distance between the heart and the neck, and between the heart and the head, are almost the same in both postures, so any differences in blood pressure due to the pull of gravity should be minimal. But anyone who has compared the postures experientially notices two things about the inverted action pose: in the neck there is dramatically less local tension and pressure than in the shoulderstand, and in the eyes, ears, and face, there is an increased sensation of pressure. There is only one way to explain these findings easily—by postulating that, compared with the classic shoulderstand, the inverted action posture releases constrictions in the great vessels of the neck, which in turn allows blood to course more easily into the head.

The lifted shoulderstand has its own special effects on circulation (fig. 9.15). With the shoulders elevated the heart is lifted even higher than in the shoulderstand, and this will increase the blood pressure in the brain in accordance with the height of the lift. You do not notice this so much if you are using a one-inch mat, but it becomes pronounced as you raise yourself higher. Lifted up five inches you feel a rush of pressure in the head which is almost identical to that felt in the headstand.

The plow postures, with the feet touching the floor overhead, have still a different effect on circulation. Here there is no pronounced drainage of blood from the lower extremities, but once blood is in the abdominal region it will be recirculated quickly back to the heart. As far as effects in the head and neck are concerned, if your hamstrings and hip flexibility allow you to draw the feet overhead without lifting the chest very far off the floor (as in variation one of the plow), the heart will be just a little further off the floor than it is in the corpse posture. The feet and lower extremities will not be very far up in the air, and the posture will affect blood pressure in the head only mildly (fig. 9.15). But if you are flexible enough to take the plow to variation three by pushing the feet to the rear and flexing the neck maximally, the expected effect on blood pressure in the head and neck will be similar to what we see in the shoulderstand (fig. 9.15).


In the shoulderstand and its related postures, some of the effects of breathing are similar to what we found in the headstand, but we also see several important differences. For one thing you are generally more at your leisure in the shoulderstand and plow series; for another you can watch your abdomen as you breathe, evaluate the character of exhalation and inhalation, and time your rate of breathing with the second hand of a watch.

Starting with the classic shoulderstand, repeat the experiment we did earlier with the headstand: breathe normally for several cycles and then relax the respiration suddenly at the end of a normal inhalation. As in the headstand, you will notice that air is expelled with a whoosh and that the abdomen caves in suddenly as the diaphragm relaxes and the abdominal organs drop without restraint toward the head and neck. Anyone who understands how the diaphragm works can then return to normal breathing and sense how it ordinarily restrains exhalation in the shoulderstand by lengthening eccentrically and restraining the fall of the abdominal organs toward the floor.

The most important difference between breathing in the headstand and in the classic shoulderstand is that the headstand allows slower, deeper breathing. As we saw in chapter 8, it is easy to acclimate to as few as 3–4 breaths per minute in the headstand; in the shoulderstand it is inconvenient to breathe at rates of less than 6–8 breaths per minute, and 20 breaths per minute feels more comfortable. Why this happens is a mystery. As in the headstand, you can’t breathe thoracically or paradoxically, but abdominal breathing feels free and easy. For whatever reason, in the end, the tidal volume seems to be reduced in the shoulderstand, and the more you reduce the tidal volume, the faster you have to breathe to get enough air. The question is, why is the tidal volume reduced? One possible answer is that expansion of the chest is even more restricted in the shoulderstand than it is in the headstand. We know that diaphragmatic breathing cannot take place if the base of the rib cage is constricted (chapter 2), and we know that we depend on diaphragmatic breathing to reduce our respiration to 3–4 breaths per minute in the headstand. The confounding element in the classic shoulderstand is possibly that your hands are pushing so insistently on the lower border of the rib cage that the diaphragm cannot easily enlarge it from its base.

The lifted shoulderstand is still different. This is a more relaxed posture than the ordinary shoulderstand, but for reasons that are not entirely clear the rate of breathing increases, especially if the posture is lifted 3–4 inches. Come into this pose after timing your rate of breathing in the shoulderstand, and you will suddenly feel a sense of urgency to breathe faster. If your normal rate of breathing in the classic shoulderstand is 20 breaths per minute, it may go up to about 30 breaths per minute in the lifted shoulderstand. The source and neurologic mechanisms for the increased rate of breathing are not clear, but it feels like a reflex, and it may have something to do with the fact that the neck is no longer flexed 90°.

Respiration in the plow is similar to that in the shoulderstand but somewhat slower, especially if you are able to make yourself comfortable. The whole-body forward bend creates a situation similar to that seen in the sitting forward bend in which each inhalation lifts the body and each exhalation lets you drop further forward. The same thing happens in the plow except now it is the body that is fixed in position and the lower extremities that can be lifted. And that’s what we find. Come into the second stage (variation) of the plow posture, and you’ll find that each inhalation tends to lift the toes off the floor. If you are not convinced, inhale as deeply as possible in such a posture and the picture will become clear.

Although there are differences in breathing among the various inverted action postures, most of them increase the rate of breathing to around 30 breaths per minute. This is particularly noticeable in the passive inverted action postures supported by a ball or by the edge of a couch. In most of these postures you are so relaxed that you breathe out most of your expiratory reserve in a quick burst as the abdominal viscera press against the diaphragm from above. It’s like a mild, automatic kapalabhati (chapter 2) in which the short bursts of exhalation are followed by longer inhalations. The difference here is that the exhalations are passive instead of active. You can breathe evenly if you want in passive inverted action postures by consciously restraining exhalations, but doing so requires constant attention.


Now we turn to a variety of exercises and postures that in one way or another closely relate to the shoulderstand and plow series. Some of them strengthen the neck and others pamper it; some prepare you for the formal postures and others counteract their stresses; and often the same exercise confers more than one of these benefits. The threading-the-needle and knee-to-ear poses are good training tools for both the plow and the shoulderstand, limbering the upper body to prepare you for the plow, and accustoming you to stress in the cervical region. The arch and bridge are also excellent training postures which can either be used in preparation for the shoulderstand and plow or as follow-up postures, along with the fish, to provide counterstretches for the back. We’ll end with yoga nidrasana, the last posture before embarking on relaxation and meditation poses in chapter 10, and a supremely comfortable forward bend for those who can do it without stress and strain.


In chapter 7 we looked at neck exercises in which you simply take the head through its full range of motion, differentiating among the movements that are possible between the cranium and C1, between C1 and C2, and between C2 and T1. In all such exercises minimal muscular activity is needed until you come to the end of the excursion, at which point joint and ligament restrictions permit no more than an isometric effort. Such work is useful, but it is even more effective to create some form of resistance to neck movements from beginning to end, and this is the definition of resistance neck exercises.

These exercises can be done at any time during the course of inverted postures. Doing them before the shoulderstand will prepare the neck muscles, joints, and ligaments for the unusual stresses and stretches to follow. They are also helpful after the headstand because that posture places a constant, isometric stress on the muscles of the neck, and the best way we can counteract that static condition is to challenge the muscles throughout their full range of motion. Use moderation, however, especially in the beginning. Although these exercises are safer than ordinary neck movements, it can’t hurt to be cautious.

Ten resistance neck exercises will get you started. First press the right hand against the right side of the head and at the same time bring the right ear toward the right shoulder by tightening the muscles on the right side of the neck. Resist this movement with the right arm. Then slowly raise the head, still pushing with the hand and resisting with the neck. As soon as you reach the upright position keep going to the other side by pressing the left ear toward the left shoulder with the right hand, still resisting all the way with the muscles on the right side of the neck (fig. 9.16). Go from side to side as far as possible two or three times. Second, repeat the exercise from the other side with the left hand pushing against the left side of the head as the muscles on the left side of the neck resist. Third, bring both hands to the forehead and slowly pull the chin toward the sternum and then to the rear as far as possible, creating resistance with the hands in both directions all the way. Fourth, repeat with both hands behind the head. In all of these exercises move slowly enough so that the tension has an isometric character at any given moment.

Figure 9.16. This is the first of ten or more resistance neck exercises. Here the model is resisting lateral flexion of the neck and head to his left with his right hand. That is, he is pushing with his right hand and resisting with the muscles on the right side of his neck. This is followed by slowly pulling his head to his right as far as possible, still resisting all the way with his right hand. The movements should be done slowly enough that they have an isometric character. Number two in the series is done with the left hand, and the rest follow logically.

For exercise number five, twist the head 45° to the right and then move it from right front to left rear, resisting the movement with the right hand placed on the forehead; for number six twist the head 45° to the left and resist the movement from left front to right rear with the left hand. For number seven and eight repeat with the fingers interlocked behind the head, first with the head twisted 45° to the right and then 45° to the left.

For number nine twist the head and neck axially as far as you can in both directions, resisting the movement with the right hand on the left temple and with the left hand behind the head almost to the right ear. Your hands are trying to twist the head to the right and the neck muscles are resisting; you can go all the way to the right, but you are limited when you go to the left because the left forearm stops the twist before you reach your limit. For number ten, switch hands and again twist while resisting. Now you can go all the way to the left but are limited when you go to the right.

From here on you are limited only by your imagination. You can twist first, and then go forward and backward, or you can take your head forward, backward, or to the side, and then resist a twisting movement. Or you can resist large arcs of movement, looking under the axilla on one side and creating an arc up and back to the other side.

Muscular resistance is a time-tested agent for protecting the body as well as strengthening it, and combining strength-building exercises with those that improve flexibility can help a lot in building confidence for doing the headstand and shoulderstand. The exercises are safe provided you build your capacity for them slowly. Interestingly, after you have done them for a few months the neck will be stronger than the upper extremities, and no matter how hard you push with your hands you will be able to stop the movement with the neck muscles.


Most of the inverted postures place unusual stresses on the neck, and anyone who spends a lot of time with them should coddle the associated muscles, ligaments, and bony structures. One way is to administer some self-massage by pressing the neck down against the same 8 1/2 inch playground ball discussed in connection with passive backbending in chapter 5.

Start by placing the ball under your upper shoulders just below the nape of the neck at T1. From that position you can roll the body down so that the ball is in contact with successively higher regions of the neck and head, ending with the back of the skull where the strap muscles insert on the occipital region of the cranium. Or you can start in the middle and work both down and up. Starting in the mid-cervical region, you can either press your weight straight backward into the ball or twist the neck one way or the other while pressing the head to the rear. The former will affect the insertions and origins of muscles that attach to the back of the head and to the spinous processes of the vertebrae; the latter will massage muscles whose tendons attach both to spinous processes and to transverse processes. In either case you will be manually stimulating the Golgi tendon organs and relaxing their associated muscles.

In company with the resistance neck exercises, this self-massage not only strengthens and relaxes the neck, it also gives you effective feedback as to right-left imbalances. You will sense differences in tenderness or mobility on the two sides, and this will enable you to plan a more effective practice. After you have toughened up the joints, muscles, and ligaments, and after you have adapted to an 8 1/2 inch playground ball, you can graduate to a harder volleyball, soccer ball, or basketball, which is where wrestlers and bodybuilders can begin.

No matter what your stage of practice, as you become familiar with the sensations created by the resistance neck exercises and self-massage with a playground ball, you will gain more sensitivity to the inverted postures that you need to approach with caution as well as to those you can approach with more enthusiasm. These are great exercises for engendering self-awareness.


The threading-the-needle posture and its variants can be done at any time in a sequence of inverted postures. They prepare you for what is yet to come and relax you from what you just did. The threading-the-needle posture could also be called the moldboard plow posture, named for a modern plow that throws the dirt in only one direction. Another name for it is the trapezius stretch, named from how it stretches and stimulates that muscle (fig. 8.10). It is also one of the best postures for stretching the muscles on the side of the neck, for flexing the spine in a moderately twisted position, for working with hip flexibility unencumbered by hamstrings and adductors, and for preparing you for advanced spinal twists. And if you are stressed out by your job and find yourself wanting a massage for the muscles in your neck and upper back, you will find this posture a special friend.

Start out on a mat or other padded surface in a hands-and-knees position. Then bring the point of the right shoulder against the pad, and stretch the right arm and forearm under the body to place the right elbow against the lateral edge of the left knee. Place the right temple in a comfortable position against the pad and roll the head against the floor, twisting it to the left and looking up toward the ceiling. Roll the head back to a neutral position with the weight against the temple on the right side. Twist it back and forth as far as is comfortable, rocking and soothing the cranium. Repeat on the other side with the left elbow beside the right knee. These exercises are preliminary to the next stretch.

Begin as before. Reach down with the right hand again, but this time lift the left knee and foot over the right forearm and then push the body forward with the left foot so that your weight settles on the back side of the right shoulder. If you can keep both knees down, fine, but if you are not very flexible you may not be able to keep your balance while you roll onto the back of the shoulder. If this is the case, you may have to stretch the left foot out further to the side and then forward to keep yourself from toppling over onto your right side. You also have to keep the right knee bent (the right knee represents the rolling cutter of the moldboard plow). Now stretch the left foot out to the side so that the right arm and forearm (the thread) end up lying on the floor between the two legs (the eye of the needle). Alternatively, you can ease yourself slightly out of the posture and place the right elbow to the right side of the right knee (fig. 9.17a). From that position swing your right hand even further around behind you, and that will both keep you from toppling over and help you roll over onto both shoulders combined. Explore the posture to find the position in which you are most comfortable.

Flattening both shoulders against the floor is the most rewarding position for stretching the trapezius and strap muscles of the neck. If you topple over, the main reason is that your outside knee (or foot) is not pulled far enough out and forward. And if, in spite of all your efforts you still keep falling over, try doing the posture on a soft mattress. The shoulder you first apply to the mattress will dig in, and it will be easier to press the other one down as well. This way you will be able to feel the essence of the posture, and as you become more flexible you can use a harder surface. Repeat on the other side.

If you find this posture difficult, don’t rush. Approach it in a spirit of play. Once it starts feeling comfortable you will value it greatly for relieving stress in the shoulders and neck and for serving as a bridge between more demanding postures. It is a special help for those who are not quite able to do the classic plow. It is also valuable as a counterbalance to the headstand, especially if that posture is held for more than 3–5 minutes. And after you have acclimated to the simplest threading-the-needle version you can search out small variations. You can work on lowering the outside knee closer to the floor, and after you are confident you can swing around from one side to the other. First bring the legs in line with the body, remain for a moment in any relaxed easy inverted action posture with the knees bent (fig. 9.2), and then keep on going by swinging the knees to the other side.

This next variation of threading the needle could be called the half lotus threading-the-needle (fig. 9.17b) because one foot is pulled into the half lotus position in the final pose. It is especially valuable as preparation for the full spinal twist (fig. 7.33b). From the beginning hands-and-knees position, again bring the right elbow to the lateral side of the left knee and place the right temple against the floor. Lift the left knee over the right forearm and thread the needle by pushing over onto the right shoulder with the aid of the left foot. So far everything is the same as in the basic posture. Now grab the right foot with the right hand and pull it forward, and at the same time straighten the left knee and pull the right foot to the front side of the left thigh in a half lotus position. Pull the right foot as close to the top of the thigh as possible and slowly flex the left thigh, lowering the left knee to the floor or as far down as it will go (fig. 9.17b). If you can’t get the right foot all the way up to the crease between the thigh and the torso, you will obviously not be able to flex the left thigh. Don’t rush it.

Figure 9.17a. This is one of several possible variations of the trapezius stretch. In this case the right elbow is located to the right side of the right knee (from the practitioner’s perspective). For the mulboard plow, or threading the needle, the right elbow and forearm would be between the two knees. Everyone should experiment freely to make this posture a special, personalized joy. In time, many variations will suggest themselves to you.

Figure 9.17b. This pose might well be called the half lotus trapezius stretch. It is exactly like the one shown in fig. 9.17a except that the right foot and ankle are placed in a half lotus position near the top of the left thigh. Because the body is twisted markedly, this posture is especially valuable as a training tool for the full spinal twist.


It is natural to follow the threading-the-needle posture with the knee-to-ear posture, although if your flexibility is limited, you may wish to delay this until after you have gotten comfortable with the plow, the bridge, and the fish. To do the posture you simply lower down from the shoulderstand or plow, or swing over into the midline from the threading-the-needle posture and place the knees on the floor beside the ears. You can simply reside there or you can wrap the hands around the thighs and pull them further into the posture (fig. 9.18). The hamstring muscles do not limit the knee-to-ear pose because the knees are bent. And because the adductors are also not stretched, the posture is limited solely by the hip joint and the soft tissues of the groin. If you are close to completing the pose you can temporarily interrupt your efforts, do some forward bending and hip-opening postures, and the knee-to-ear pose will then come more easily.

The threading-the-needle and knee-to-ear postures complement the shoulderstand and plow in that they are mild but effective neck stretches and do not require too much of the lower extremities. They are especially helpful as preparatory postures for the plow, limbering the upper body so that it is flexible enough for you to be able to attend more single-mindedly to stretching the hamstring muscles.

Figure 9.18. The knee-to-ear posture is not limited either by the hamstrings (because the knees are flexed), or by the adductors (because the thighs are mostly adducted), and this means the pose is especially valuable for pushing the hip joints to their maximally flexed positions. You can come into this posture from the shoulderstand, from the plow, or from threading the needle.


We discussed the fish pose with backward bending (fig. 5.28) because it is a backbending posture, and we described the superfish leglift with abdominopelvic exercises (fig. 3.19b) in relation to abdominal strength. Traditionally, however, the fish is practiced after the shoulderstand and plow because it gives the neck an effective counterstretch and because it opens and releases the chest after the stress of those two postures. Several variations are common. The lower extremities can be crossed in either the easy posture (fig. 9.19) or the lotus posture (fig. 5.28), but the fish posture that is usually taught to beginners is sharper. It simply involves keeping the feet outstretched, with the heels and toes together, lifting up on the forearms, arching the back and neck, and placing a little of your upper body weight on the back of the head (fig. 3. 19a). As soon as you are confident that the neck is strong you can reside in the posture with the hands in the prayer position. And as soon as the neck gets really strong you can do a wrestler’s bridge, supporting the entire body between the feet and head, arching up as high as possible, and extending the head and neck (fig. 9.20).

The superfish leglift (fig. 3.19b) is excellent both for building strength and for complementing the shoulderstand and plow. It counters your inclination to flex the back in the shoulderstand and to flex both the back and the hips in the plow, and it balances the emphasis on counternutation of the sacroiliac joints in both postures. From a supine position lift the torso partially up, supporting yourself with the forearms, and place the palms under the hips. Then lift the lower back and chest maximally, draw the toes toward the head, extend the knees fully, and raise the heels an inch or two. As in the fish, your head should barely touch the floor.

Figure 9.19. This fish pose using the easy posture is supported mostly by the forearms; little weight is borne by the head and neck (also see figs. 3.19a and 5.28).

Figure 9.20. The wrestler’s bridge is excellent for improving flexibility for backbending, for strengthening the neck, and for stretching the hip flexors and quadriceps femoris muscles.

Raising the thighs is accomplished by the psoas and iliacus muscles, aided by the rectus femoris muscles acting as synergists, and since the psoas lifts directly from the lumbar lordosis with little help from the abdominal muscles, the spinal origin of the psoas should be stabilized in the forward position before you attempt to lift the lower extremities. To get the most benefit from this exercise, be sure to start the leglift with the sacroiliac joint in full nutation. Keep that attitude along with the deepest possible lumbar arch as you start to flex the thighs. You probably can’t go very far: unless you have excellent hip flexibility, you will not be able to lift up more than an inch or two before you feel the back begin to flatten down against the floor.


The arch and the bridge postures extend the back from the chest down, and except in the neck they counter the forward bending tendencies of the shoulderstand and plow. You will find that after doing either the bridge or the fish for a minute or so you can come back up into the shoulderstand and use your back and gluteal muscles for that posture with renewed energy. Although the arch and the bridge look as if they are related, their musculoskeletal dynamics are quite different.

The arch is the simplest of the two postures and the best one for beginners. Begin in a supine position and grasp the feet or the heels with the hands and lift the pelvis as high as possible with the deep back muscles, the gluteus maximus muscles, and the hamstrings (fig. 9.21). The deep back muscles are contracting concentrically between the chest and the pelvis, the gluteus maximus muscles act between the pelvis and the thighs, and the hamstrings act between the pelvis and the legs—and all are working in concert to lift the pelvis toward the ceiling. In those who are least flexible, the arch is resisted by the rectus femoris muscles, which act between the pelvis and the knees to restrict the pelvis from being lifted very far. In those who are stronger and more flexible, the arch is resisted by the hip flexors and abdominal muscles. You produce a natural ashwini mudra in this posture, pulling inward with both the gluteal muscles and the pelvic diaphragm.

Figure 9.21. The arch posture is a good preparation for the more demanding bridge pose. Lift the pelvis as high as possible to stretch the hip flexors and the quadriceps femoris muscles.

We have seen that anyone who has knee problems may find that placing tension on the knees when they are flexed causes pain, so the arch posture is contraindicated in that case. Except for that, it is safe for beginners because it is supported so completely with muscular activity. To come out of it you just drop back down to the floor.


Like the arch, the bridge posture counteracts some of the effects of the shoulderstand and plow by arching the back. But unlike the arch, the bridge supports the lower back with the forearms and hands. This has two effects: it allows the deep back muscles to relax, and it requires additional extension. The posture is also a good preparation for the shoulderstand and plow, and it can even be used as a substitute by those who are wary of being fully inverted. The main difference is that the bridge does not require you to pull the lower half of the body straight up in the air (as in the shoulderstand) or overhead (as in the plow). Even so, students will experience many of the same sensations in the neck, shoulders, and upper back that will be found in more intense form in the other postures.

Figure 9.22. The bridge posture in its final form demands a healthy back. Placing the hands with the thumbs in and the fingers out is easier than the position shown here with the fingers directed toward the center of the back and thumbs coming up the sides. At first keep the knees bent to make the posture easier, and come into the pose from the shoulderstand. Come back up into the shoulderstand one foot at a time before trying to come in and out symmetrically (both feet down and back up at the same time).

The easiest, although the least elegant, way to come into the bridge is to start by lying flat on the floor, lifting the pelvis, and working your hands into position under the lower back. At this point you have two options for the hand position and two for the feet. Those who have wrists they can trust for maximal extension can point their fingers medially; if that is too difficult, they can support the posture with the heels of the hands and let the fingers extend laterally around the lower back. For foot position, those who have excellent strength and flexibility can stretch their feet straight out in front of them, keeping the knees extended (fig. 9.22), but a more moderate position is to bend the knees 90° and plant the feet flat on the floor.

If you want to come into the bridge from the shoulderstand, which is the usual choice, you will probably need to learn it in stages. And the way to do this is to assume the shoulderstand and then simply bring one foot down as far as you can, going slowly and remaining certain that you will be able to come back up under control. Do the same with the other foot, and repeat the exercise over and over until you are confident that you can reach the floor with one foot and still return to the shoulderstand.

The next stage is to lower the second foot to the floor and then bring both feet (but still one at a time) back up into the shoulderstand. There is no substitute for trial and error in doing this exercise. Once the lead foot is most of the way down, you are committed to bringing it all the way down. And once you get one foot down, you will want to get the other foot down gracefully and then get both feet back up without having to toss them into the air. If it is beyond your capacity to come back up into the shoulderstand the same way you came down (meaning slowly and under control), you can always release the hands from the back and support the pelvis instead, or as a last resort you can lower down into the arch and from that safe position ease yourself to the floor.

The most advanced bridge is to lower both feet at the same time toward the floor in front of you. Then, after remaining in the pose for a minute or so, gather your energy and slowly raise both feet straight up in the air, again at the same time, in order to come back into the shoulderstand. To make this easier, you can keep the knees bent and drop down only on the balls of the feet, which requires keeping the ankles extended and the toes flexed. Both this and the hand position with the fingers pointing laterally will lessen the extension required of the back.


In yoga nidrasana you are not resting on the triangular region formed by the back of the head, the neck, and the shoulders (as in the shoulderstand), but on the upper back (as in variation one of the plow). In fact, if you envision that posture with the sacroiliac joints in full counternutation, the knees slightly bent, the thighs placed against the sides of the chest, the legs placed behind the head and neck, and the ankles interlocked, you will be envisioning yoga nidrasana.

To come into the pose, you can either begin with variation one of the plow, roll down a little more onto the back, and pull the legs behind the head from that position, or you can come into a supine position, cradle the legs one at a time, and again pull them into position. In either case, rest the head on the crossed ankles and complete the posture by bringing the arms outside the thighs and interlocking the hands behind the back (fig. 9.23).

Yoga nidrasana is challenging. To do it you must have enough hip and sacroiliac flexibility to press the knees to the floor alongside the chest in the supine position, and your hamstrings must be long enough to permit the ankles to be interlocked behind the head. This posture is named after the meditative practice of yoga nidra (yogic sleep) although it will probably be rare than anyone will be able to do that practice in this demanding pose. Most pupils will attempt exploration of yoga nidra in the corpse posture. Even so, the association of yoga nidrasana with the practice of yoga nidra makes the pose a fitting conclusion to what we have learned so far and points the way to the next chapter on relaxation and meditation.

Figure 9.23. Yoga nidrasana is especially demanding of hip flexibility, and is a fitting end to a practice session of hatha yoga and to beginning a practice of relaxation and meditation.


The shoulderstand creates intense sensations throughout the neck, but the medical correlates of this are not obvious. It is an article of faith and experience among hatha yogis that this posture has beneficial effects on a wealth of functions: regulation of metabolism and mineral balance by the thyroid and parathyroid glands, beneficent influences on the larynx and speech, and salutary effects on immune function in the thymus gland and tonsils. But aside from anecdotal reports that practicing the shoulderstand is a good remedy for sore throats and nervous coughs (especially in children who are unable to fall asleep), and that vigorous practice of the classic posture and its variations enhances thyroid function in those who have mild hypothyroid conditions that are not due to iodine deficiency, we do not have much to go on. And without data reported in the peer-reviewed literature, there is little we can say other than agree that such effects are possible but unsubstantiated.

“Symptoms of old age due to the faulty functioning of the thyroid are counteracted by means of Sarvangasana. Seminal weakness arising from the degeneration of the testes in the case of males and sexual disorders arising from the degeneration of the ovaries in the females can be extensively controlled by the practice of Sarvangasana. Dyspepsia, constipation, hernia, visceroptosis can be treated by Sarvangasana as well as by Sirshasana.”

— Swami Kuvalayananda, in Popular Yoga Asanas, p. 67.