Recently I’ve been asking people, especially in classes with hot rooms and minimal props, not to do shoulder stand and plow in my class. I’ve gotten more than a few questions about this, and I wanted to take a moment to share my reasons. (I should note that I’m not alone in this admonition, I know several other teachers senior to me in the area who are doing the same. But I speak only for myself)
I’m meandering my way through William Broad’s controversial book The Science of Yoga: Risks and Rewards; I just finished his chapter “Risk of Injury”. The one issue he keeps coming back to in case studies from decades back to now, is of serious yoga students who sustain injuries from putting undo strain on their necks. Students who spend a lot of time in headstand, shoulder stand, the “traditional” version of upward facing dog where the head is thrown back, etc. present with injuries from neck pain to bulging discs all the way to strokes.
So far I have mixed feelings about both Broad’s conclusions and his methodology, and I think some of his presentation is alarmist, but on this point I agree with him. Frankly, I didn’t need Broad to tell me this. In his book “Yin Yoga”, master teacher Paul Grilley speaks of substantial upper back pain which ceased when he stopped doing plow pose (“snail” in Yin parlance). There are stories which I can’t confirm of a senior teacher holding students in shoulderstand for a half-hour, and them getting whiplash soon thereafter.
Unsupported shoulderstand asks a practitioner to put his/her whole body weight on the shoulders, and inevitably the neck. As anyone who’s taken health knows, most of the neural networks that control movement in the body are transported through the nerves in the neck, so pressure on these nerves doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. (Broad goes into some detail about similar concerns about the blood vessels that pass through the neck, hence the stroke risk.)
Furthermore, most of us (myself included) have a tendency to roll our shoulders (hunch) from doing much of our work at desks and computers. This pattern ingrains itself literally in our bodies, so if I’m teaching a twenty person class, often fifteen of them are presenting some kind of hunch. If someone with that posture enters shoulderstand, the odds are that they will be less equipped to put much weight on these rolled-forward shoulders, so even more of the weight ends up in their neck, particularly on the C7 bone (the bone that sticks out at the bottom of your neck.)
But what about the student who is very practiced and trusts their shoulderstand? The problem is that newer students tend to imitate what they see, thinking that if an advanced student does it, it must be a good idea. And those are the folks most likely to do it in an unsafe way. So, since I don’t have the time in a large class to tweak it for everyone, I feel it’s best to err on the side of safety.
Now, I’m not in a position to say that unsupported shoulderstand (or any asana) is a bad pose, or that no one should do it. But my first responsibility as a teacher is to keep my students safe, and if more than half of my students are presenting with a hunch, I’m feel confident in saying that shoulderstand probably isn’t safe for them, and if I’m calling shoulderstand I’m not keeping them safe. There are other poses that bring most of the benefits of shoulderstand and plow with none of the risks, notably viparita karani in one of several variations. And when I do shoulderstand these days, it’s always with props to keep my neck happy. (In an ideal world, I’d teach in a studio where we could have an anti-grav machine for everyone in class, for 10 minutes a class, but I’m not there right now…)
I know folks who know their bodies well, who I trust who swear by shoulderstand without props; I believe them. I’ve thought about it, and this is how I feel I have to do it.