“The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized” BKS Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga. “It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages. Sarvangasana is the Mother of asanas. As a mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for harmony and happiness of the human system.” The Hatha Yoga Pradipika suggests that practicing inversions will keep us young, preserve the “nectar” of life. And when once asked “if I were to only practice one pose every day, what should it be?” Geeta Iyengar replied, “do inversions!” If that doesn’t convince you that going upside down is worth the effort, try these variations of Sarvangasana and discover the soothing effects it can have on your body, mind and mood.
If you are new to yoga, you may not be ready to perform many of the inverted poses but you can begin enjoying the benefits of practicing inversions through Sarvangasana, which can gradually and safely be learned by beginners. Once the art of balancing in this pose has been mastered, a yoga practitioner never graduates from practicing this essential yoga asana. Even though it takes effort, the involvement of the entire body as the name of the pose implies, the effects of a good Sarvangasana practice are cooling and calming to the body and mind. Following the below variations will introduce you to and help prepare you for the practice of Sarvangasana. Those of you who are already practicing the pose, these variations can help you to refine your understanding and ability and perhaps your duration in the pose.
Although Sarvangasana means all-limbs pose, it is commonly referred to as Shoulderstand since when done correctly, you are positioned on the top boney part of the shoulders, not on the spine. In all of the variations you will be using blankets for your shoulders to make it possible to balance on the top outer edges of your shoulders so that your neck is in the correct position and free to lengthen. Start with three blankets stacked neatly so that the smooth /folded edges of the blankets line up with each other. If you find that while in the pose, you are resting on the backside of your shoulders and upper back or on the inner edges of your shoulders and are unable to get on top of your front outer shoulder, you can try adding another blanket or two to your stack. While in the pose, keep your head centered and look gently towards your chest.
This pose is quieting and can be practiced towards the end of your asana sequence. If you perform Sirsasana (headstand), balance it with the practice of Sarvangasana at some point later in your sequence. After practicing any of the variations of Sarvangasana (even if you don’t do the final pose with your legs straight upwards), rest on your back for a few moments before sitting up.
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— Rest on your inner shoulders with upper arms turned inwards or elbows splayed.
— Turn your upper arms out and press the outer most edge of your shoulders down. Keep your elbows in, upper arms parallel to each other.
Walking up the Wall
In this variation you will get into the pose by walking your feet up the wall so that you have a chance to adjust your shoulders while only bearing part of your weight on your shoulders.
Fold your mat in half and place it lengthwise against a wall. Place three blankets on the mat with the folded/smooth edges of the blankets neatly aligned at the edge of the mat that is furthest from wall. If you are tall keep the mat flat on the floor. Otherwise, fold the end of your mat over the blankets and bring your blankets closer to the wall. You may need to adjust depending on the size of your blankets. Lie down on your back on the blankets with your feet on the wall, shoulders a couple of inches away from the edge of the blankets and your head on the floor behind the blankets so that your head is lower than your shoulders. Bend your knees and press your heels lightly into the wall to lift your pelvis off of the floor. Clasp your fingers behind your back and straighten your arms as you pull your shoulders underneath you to stand directly on the top outer edge of your shoulders. If your shoulders slip off of the blankets, come down and begin again. The feet should feel more like they are pulling downward on the wall rather than pushing the wall away from you so that you don’t slide off of your blankets.
Once you feel like you are high up on top of your shoulders, lift the sides of your chest straight up and your pelvis up away from the floor. Lift your buttocks away from your lower back until your torso is perpendicular to the floor. Move your back ribs forward into your chest and up and open the chest. You will feel some weight on your head. Sometimes the beginner’s instinct is to resist the feeling of having weight on the head by pushing the back of the head into the floor. Instead allow the back of your neck to lengthen away from your shoulders as you lift your spine up away from the floor. Relax your jaw and throat and look towards your chest.
Let go of the clasp of your fingers and turn your upper arms outwards. Don’t let your elbows splay apart as you bend your elbows and take your hands to your upper back. In the process of bending your elbows, you have to work harder to roll the outer shoulders down and turn the arms out. Place your hands as low (close to the floor) on your back as possible to support the lift of your upper back off of the floor. The hands also should help guide your back ribs forward to support the opening and lifting of your chest.
Don’t let your buttocks and tailbone sink back towards the wall but lift the pelvis up in line with your shoulders. On the inhalation, raise one leg straight up towards the ceiling keeping the buttocks lifted and both sides of the ribcage tall. Straighten the uplifted leg and then raise the other leg up to join it. Now that you are in Sarvangasana, walk your hands lower down your back and lift the whole body upwards. Stretch your legs strongly towards the ceiling so that your body is in a straight line from shoulders to waist to hips to heels.
Breathe normally and hold this position for up to a minute. If you cannot maintain your balance or find it difficult to breathe, you can continue to practice with your feet on the wall. On the exhalation, bend your legs one at a time and place your feet back on the wall. Remove your hands from your back and gently release your back down to rest on the blankets. Then slide away from the wall until your shoulder come off of the blankets to rest on the floor along with your head. Keep your knees bent and rest on your back for a few moments.
Halasana at Wall
In this variation you will learn to get into the pose by rolling into Halasana, Plow pose using the wall to support the feet so that it is easier to reach Halasana and to adjust your shoulders. Turn your blanket and mat set-up 180 degrees around from the last variation so that now the rounded/folded edges of your blankets are facing the wall. Place your blankets one leg’s distance from the wall. If you sit on the floor next to your blankets in Dandasana with the soles of your feet touching the wall, the folded edge of your blankets should be in line with your hips. Keep the mat under the blankets as in the previous variation and fold the end of your mat over half of the top blanket to help keep your elbows from slipping apart. Place a bolster on the floor behind the blankets.
Lie down on the blankets with your head on the floor, feet facing away from the wall and pelvis on the bolster. Turn your upper arms out and broaden your chest. Press your hands on the bolster besides your hips, bend your knees towards your chest and roll onto your shoulders to take your feet overhead to the wall, legs parallel to the floor. If you have tight hamstrings, you can walk your feet higher up the wall. Look towards your chest, stretch your arms straight behind you away from the wall and rotate your upper arms out with the palms of your hands facing away from each other as you roll onto the outer edge of each shoulder. Lift your upper back, sides of your torso and shoulder blades away from the floor. Straighten your legs and lengthen your buttocks towards your heels into the wall. Bend your elbows and hold your back with your hands, scooping your upper back away from the floor and broaden your chest. Relax the throat and jaw as you look towards your chest.
Lift your right foot off the wall and extend it towards the ceiling until the leg is perpendicular to the floor. Straighten the right leg and pull it up to help lift the whole right side of the torso upwards. Keeping your left leg straight, foot pressing into the wall, lift the left side of your ribcage and torso so that the sides of your waist are even with each other. Now lower the right leg, walk your hands lower down your back and change sides.
If you feel strong in this variation, you can take both legs up: Repeat with the right leg up again and then lift the left leg to join it. Stretch both legs straight up and lift your buttocks so that the torso and legs are in line with each other. Keep the legs together and don’t let your thighs turn out as you move your tailbone in. Stretch the front of your thighs up away from your head.
To come out of the pose, take your feet back to the wall. Stretch your arms overhead towards the wall with your palms facing upwards and look towards the wall as your roll out of the pose gradually, rolling first onto your upper back and then middle and lower back keeping your head down the whole time. Once your buttocks are down, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor.
Salamba Sarvangasana Final Pose
Bring your mat and stack of blankets to the middle of the room. As in the previous variation, lie down on the blankets and place your hands besides your hips on the floor. Bending your knees towards your chest, take your legs overhead, this time taking your feet to the floor. If you have tight hamstrings and your feet don’t reach the floor or if you feel breathless with your feet on the floor, you can use the wall again (as in version 2) or a chair to support your feet. Adjust your arms and shoulders as you did previously and then take your hands to your back.
At first learn to get up into the pose with one leg at a time so that you maintain the lift of the sides of the ribcage and don’t jerk the body to get up. When you lift the top leg from the floor, straighten the knee and extend the leg strongly towards the ceiling to pull the torso up towards the foot and then raise the other leg. Once you feel strong and stable in the pose, you can practice coming down from Sarvangasana back into Halasana with your legs together (at first with the knees bent). If you can do that with control, you can begin practicing going up into the pose from Halasana with your legs together (also with the knees bent at first).
When you’re up, keep adjusting the position of your hands by walking them lower down your back towards the floor to help keep the upper back from sinking and to lift the sides of your chest. Broaden your center chest to the sides as you roll your outer shoulders down and pull the elbows in towards each other. If they splay wide apart and you cannot control them, try tying a belt around the upper arms, just above your elbows. Raise your buttocks towards your heels as you lengthen the inner thighs and reach up through the balls of your big toes. Breathe normally and coordinate all of the actions of the pose so that you grow upwards from the base at your arms and shoulders to the pelvis through the lift of your legs up to your toes.
Although you are balancing and working the entire body, keep your throat and tongue soft. Through regular practice, you can build up the amount of time you are able to remain in the pose without strain. After Sarvangasana, you should feel calm and quiet and as if all of the systems of your body that were involved were awakened and are now able to rest.
Join senior-level Iyengar Yoga instructor Marla Apt for a combination of practice that progresses and the settling that occurs on retreat at the Feathered Pipe Ranch that will allow for a deepening of our life experience, July 22 – 28, 2023, “Going Deeper: An Iyengar Yoga Retreat.”
About Marla Apt:
Los Angeles based Marla Apt is a senior intermediate level Iyengar Yoga teacher who has been involved with medical research studies at UCLA on yoga for depression, anxiety and IBS and created the first yoga therapy content to be incorporated into the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine’s curriculum. She is a writer/contributor for Yoga Journal and Yoga International magazines. Marla visited India for the first time while doing research for a degree in Buddhist Philosophy and has since returned numerous times for yoga studies including a year of study in Pune, India with B.K.S. Iyengar, his daughter, Geeta Iyengar and son, Prashant Iyengar. She continues to study annually with the Iyengars at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India.
She is pursuing her interest in making the healing benefits of yoga available to communities in need as a member of the non-profit organization, Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics. She leads workshops and teacher trainings throughout the U.S. and abroad.
Learn more about Marla: yoganga.com
*Special thanks goes to Yoga Journal for allowing re-publishing of this article.