Leslie Kaminoff brings up an excellent point in his video: yoga sequencing is not the same as choreography. In choreography the goal is artistic expression and choices are dictated by elegance and aesthetic appeal. Of course, it’s nice when a yoga class flows gracefully, but that is not he main goal. We do not practice yoga to look pretty while we are at it, but to get some benefit, whether it’s physical, physiological of psycho-emotional. The way we arrange poses and other elements in a yoga practice is determined by what we want to accomplish and how we can get there effectively with minimum risk to the body.
Let’s use the Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) to illustrate the process of class planning for maximum benefit and minimum risk. We’ll call it a 5-step sequence planner (it’s applicable to any other posture).
Step 1: Pose analysis
Shoulderstand is a risky posture because your neck is placed in a vulnerable position. It can strain the muscles, ligaments and nerves of the neck. To minimize the risk for you neck, you might choose to place a blanket under the upper back (as in Salamba Sarvangasana) or shift the weight from the neck more toward the upper back (as in Viparita Karani).
Whichever option you choose, it’s not safe to start with it and it is not safe to put it at the very end of the practice. To do Shoulderstand safely, you need to have strong upper back and lower back muscles, as well as core musculature. Traditional presentation of a yoga practice involving inversions (outlined by Sri Krishnamacharya) looks like a bell curve with Shoulderstand at the top. We do other poses to both prepare the neck and upper back for the load that they are about to bear and compensate for it.
Step 2: Preparation
It might take some time to develop the strength of the upper back, lower back and core musculature (not within a space of one class). We call it “long-term preparation” and it involves using other, less risky poses to strengthen the target areas.
“Short-term preparation” describes the choices you make within the space of one class leading up to the Shoulderstand. The minimum preparation that we have to do before attempting this pose includes:
- Forward bends to stretch the lower back
- Twists or lateral bends to warm up neck, shoulders and upper back
- Some “legs up” pose to introduce the inversion effect
- Bridge pose to stretch the upper back and neck right before the Shoulderstand
Contrary to popular belief, Halasana (Plow pose) is NOT a good preparation for Shoulderstand because it puts the neck and spinal extensors into a MORE strenuous position.
Step 3: Assessment
It is important to include poses that will demonstrate whether or not the student is ready to do Shoulderstand on that particular day. We use Ardha Uttanasana and Salabhasana to access the strength of the neck, upper back and lower back. The student should be able to hold each one of them in good form for at least three breaths. If it’s not possible, Shoulderstand is not recommended.
Step 4: Compensation
Compensation basically means taking steps to help the body return back to a neutral state. If you bend deeply one way, afterwards bend the other way to balance it out. A common compensation pose for Shoulderstand is Matsyasana (Fish pose), but it isn’t the best choice. Yes, Fish pose places the neck and upper back in the opposite position from the Shoulderstand. The problem is that you lock your upper body in place, and the muscles at the back of the neck stay passive. A better option is to MOVE the body in the opposite direction (instead of locking it there) to restore the contractile power of the muscles that were intensely stretched in Shoulderstand. In other words, we need to actively engage posterior neck muscles and upper back to increase blood flow to the area and do it in a way that is not as stressful and passive as Fish pose. Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) is an excellent choice. But Cobra pose is not enough; we also need to mobilize the arms that were locked in Shoulderstand with some arm-sweeping motion, and to rebalance the relationship between the neck, shoulders and upper back with some simple twist.
Step 5: Reevaluation.
Once we look at the poses we’ve selected so far, we will notice that we need to include some other compensatory poses to neutralize the effect of the more difficult postures. For example, we usually put some sort of a forward bend after a deep back bend or a twist. In addition, we might need a bit more warming up before we attempt poses like Ardha Uttansana; and will also include Savasana at the end to rest and integrate.
And there you have it. This is a basic outline of the Shoulderstand practice with adequate preparation, compensation and no random elements. Theoretically, this kind of thinking should go into the design of every yoga practice. Of course, even with all those elements in place, Shoulderstand is still not safe for everyone. Some contraindications include disc problems, high blood pressure, glaucoma, sinus blockage, obesity and general weakness in the upper back/shoulders/neck. Read more about risks and benefits
If you choose to teach and practice Shoulderstand, please be mindful of those risks and take care of yourself and your students!