Oh! The horror! I know!
I've read numerous times that some schools of yoga consider this to be the ULTIMATE yoga pose, the pose of all poses, the pose that will bring physical bliss and spiritual enlightenment and all sorts of good fortune. I saw something about essence and sweet nectar and divine peace and other random, seemingly profound (but ultimately vague) words and phrases in regards to shoulderstand the other day.
As my friend Nick is fond of saying, "cool, dude."
Cool, dude, because I think shoulderstand is pretty scary for the general population, and if you weigh more than a feather, and even if you don't, it can potentially be disastrous on your cervical spine.
You think I'm being overly cautious in my teaching and my practice? Okay, take it from Yoga Journal: "What happens if your student forces her neck too far into flexion in Shoulderstand? If she is lucky, she will only strain a muscle. A more serious consequence, which is harder to detect until the damage is done, is that she might stretch her ligamentum nuchae beyond its elastic limits. She may do this gradually over many practice sessions until the ligament loses its ability to restore her normal cervical curve after flexion. Her neck would then lose its curve and become flat, not just after practicing Shoulderstand, but all day, every day. A flat neck transfers too much weight onto the fronts of the vertebrae. This can stimulate the weight-bearing surfaces to grow extra bone to compensate, potentially creating painful bone spurs. A still more serious potential consequence of applying excessive force to the neck in Shoulderstand is a cervical disk injury. As the pose squeezes the front of the disks down, one or more of them can bulge or rupture to the rear, pressing on nearby spinal nerves. This can cause numbness, tingling, pain and/or weakness in the arms and hands. Finally, a student with osteoporosis could even suffer a neck fracture from the overzealous practice of Shoulderstand."
I think that being "advanced" in your yoga practice isn't about any levels or progressions of postures or working up from shoulderstand to being able to balance on only your head. In fact, I think balancing on only your head is kinda crazy, and for 99.9% of the population, potentially dangerous.
Let's face it. We are not all built like my favorite yoga teacher, Kathryn Budig. She's essentially a world-class athlete. If there was yoga in the Olympics (oh, lord, don't even get me started) she'd be on the American team. She very well may have the prowess and natural ability that, had she pursued it, could have landed her a spot on the Olympic gymnastic team, all yoga aside.
Yes, you can build strength, you can increase flexibility, you can develop balance, and you can find deep peace and relaxation by practicing yoga. If you want to work toward a certain pose that you don't currently have the strength or flexibility or balance to do, that's great. Goals are good. Getting stronger is good. Using yoga to transform your body, your mind, your spirit - it's all good. And for some people, shoulderstands are good. Headstands are great. Arm balances are extraordinary.
But you can't look at Kathryn Budig's ToeSox ads and decide that one day, come hell or high water (or a slipped disc or two) you're going to have a photograph of yourself looking exactly the same. It's not gonna happen. Why? Because Kathryn Budig is Kathryn Budig. She has HER body. You have YOUR body. And having taken a copious number of her yoga classes, I'm pretty sure that she'd be the first to say that there are probably things that come easy to you, maybe even physically, that she absolutely struggles with. She manages to balance teaching "advanced" classes while remaining compassionate and encouraging and playful, and that's why she's really incredible. And if yoga is about compassion (and, at least, KRIPALU yoga IS about compassion - the world kripalu MEANS compassion) then pushing past what is natural for you, to get your body to do what another person's body does, is NOT compassionate. Not when ego and obsession are involved. Not when force is involved, period. Not when your anatomical structure and physical reality mean that if YOU were to do shoulderstand on the regular you could do severe damage to your cervical spine.
I'm worked up about this because an article appeared in the New York Times this week about the dangers of yoga. "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" made me feel really anxious at first, even about my own practice, especially about my teaching of a general population in western Kentucky that, for the most part, has never heard of yoga outside of a scary, hippie-dippie, new-age, against their religion thing that people in big cities do. (To be fair, there are some really wonderful, very well-studied yogis here, too.)
And then I realized two things. First of all, that this article is written as though asana, or postures, are the only aspect of a yoga practice, and that mastering versions of said postures that involve "extreme bending and contortion" is the only goal of that asana practice. Secondly, I realized that the common thread between the numerous examples the author cited of yoga causing horrible injuries and conditions was that each one was an example of someone who was clearly pressing their body past obvious, reasonable limits. It specifically mentions "extreme bending and contortion" - and not all yoga is "extreme bending and contortion." It mentioned someone doing full shoulderstand for five minutes a day, I can only imagine despite some sort of discomfort. It mentioned someone pushing their heels down with so much force in downward facing dog that they tore their Achilles tendon.
Okay, come on. Why would you do that? I don't understand.
Do you want to know how Kathryn Budig cues pressing the heels down in downward facing dog? How I cue it? She (and I) usually says something along the lines of "take a deep inhale and come high onto the balls of your feet, feel your hips float toward the sky, internally rotating your triceps so that your arms extend and your armpits pull in toward the body. Lift your shoulders away from your ears, letting your neck relax. Exhale as you slowly ALLOW the heels to descend, to melt toward the earth." Do you hear anything about FORCING your heels to touch the ground? No. Kathryn will specifically, and repeatedly say that it doesn't matter how close your heels get, that it's just the energetic intention, and ALLOWING the natural ability of your muscles to open. So maybe one day your heels meet the ground, maybe your heels NEVER get anywhere close the ground, and IT DOESN'T MATTER. It's your body. Your yoga.
It really sounds to me as though these are all examples of people NOT approaching themselves - their body or their spirit - with non-judgmental, compassionate self-awareness. And that is what I believe to be the key to a healthy, safe, beneficial asana practice. In fact, I'd argue that learning non-judgmental, compassionate self awareness IS the reason to practice yoga at all.
Michael Taylor wrote a wonderful response to the NYT article, and says, "Injuries aren't part of yoga. Injuries are part of "not yoga." Yoga, just like life, is ours to create. It's ours to create yoga that's struggling, striving, pushing and forcing; a life that reinforces the strain and difficulty in our bodies and minds. It's also ours to create a yoga that is calm and peaceful. And a life that is capable and easy in any setting, under any challenge."
My goal as a yoga teacher is to find a way to balance giving my students the opportunity to challenge themselves, to grow as practitioners, to work toward those more "advanced" postures that our competitive culture seems to covet, while holding onto a practice, as Michael says, that is calm and peaceful.
And it's a good reminder in my own practice, in this challenge I'm writing about, too. My reality as a yoga practitioner is that too many chaturangas start to bother this old shoulder injury I have. There is nothing for me to gain by forcing my way though a level 3 class without modifications just so I can blog about it. But don't worry about me. I'm a master of taking child's pose whenever I want. I'm pretty sure listening to other people chaturanga through a level 3 class while I take numerous child's pose breaks has just as much benefit as doing them all myself. ;)
ps - If you ADORE shouldstand, if it is your favorite of all favorite poses, please accept my humble apologies. We're all different. It just doesn't float MY boat, so much. I think Legs Up The Wall is a perfectly acceptable substitute. Yummy. =)
pps - Here is a really compelling response to the NYT article entitled Yoga and Injuries. One of many good points is "Ultimately, the Times article provides no evidence that yoga classes on the whole are any more dangerous than other exercise classes. I haven’t been able to find any statistics on the prevalence of injuries from yoga classes versus from running, lifting weights, P90X, CrossFit, step aerobics, Zumba, deep knee bends, silly walks, etc. But if those statistics have indeed been collected somewhere, my bet would be that yoga comes out among the safest exercise options, because of the point made above: only in yoga are you actively encouraged to practice mindfully and sensitively."