Monday, December 19, 2011

The Queen of Asanas

I've been taking a lot more yoga classes for myself this month than usual.  It's kind of funny, considering I've felt so busy and pressed for time, yet without even trying I've been fitting classes into my schedule.  I'm sure it's my subconscious taking over and protecting my health and sanity in the midst of birthday/holiday madness.

Last Wednesday, Marc and I took a class with one of our all-time favorite teachers with whom we hardly ever get to practice anymore.  Toward the end of the (wonderful) class, she taught what has become one of my least favorite poses: salamba sarvangasana, or supported shoulderstand.

I hardly ever practice this pose anymore.  It feels scary being upside down in that funky way, I have major neck paranoia, the alignment-OCD yoga teacher in me is frustrated that I'm never sure if the positioning of my legs and pelvis and curve of my spine are exactly right, and I often have funky back pain a few minutes after I come down.

Someone remind me why is this called the Queen of Asanas again?

Normally if a teacher starts guiding the class into shoulderstand, I take the restorative variation by placing a block under my sacrum and extending my legs long into the air.  I get a super gentle inversion and a head start on final relaxation - win-win.  However, between my teacher from last Wednesday and another of my favorite teachers (who has her own issues with the pose, and therefore hardly ever teaches it) who taught it in class this weekend, I've decided the Queen merits a second look.

The funny thing is, I really want to like shoulderstand.  It seems like an especially appropriate pose for this time of year.  Despite all the flurry of activity and celebration in the air with all the millions of holidays coinciding at once, this is the darkest time of year, and therefore the time in which our bodies most want to go inward and rest.  (for more on that, here's a great Yoga Journal article on how winter is the most "yin" time of year)  Shoulderstand is the least effortful and involved of all the inversions, except for legs up the wall.  It takes some strength and body knowledge, but it doesn't take the courage, abdominal strength, and sometimes years of practice that it takes to master head, hand, or forearm stand.  It's both active and restorative at once.

The first place I turn whenever I want to dig deeper into any pose is, of course,  Yoga Journal.  They have excellent in-depth asana columns as well as quick looks at any pose.  Reading and studying more about shoulderstand can be helpful, but it's really no substitute for one-on-one attention with a trusted teacher when it comes to conquering a pose you have issues with.

If you've never done shoulderstand before, ask a teacher the next time you go to a yoga class if she or he will devote some time to it in class.  It usually comes toward the end, when you're completely warm and are starting to work your way toward savasana.  Some teachers are big advocates of only teaching supported shoulderstand, using blankets under the shoulders for extra protection of the neck, while others teach without.  If you have a particularly protruding/bony spine like me, I'd definitely recommend some blankets.  Notice not just the physical sensations you experience, but the emotional ones.  This pose can soothe and ease anxiety, but it can also very easily bring it up.  This can change with how often you practice the pose and how you're feeling going into it.

I'm going to continue my own exploration through talking with my teachers, reading through my anatomy books, and reading all the handy dandy Yoga Journal columns on the subject.  As important as it is to me as a teacher and a student to educate myself about this pose and hopefully get comfortable with it, ahimsa is still the first rule in my yoga practice book.  As I'd advise any of my own students - if it hurts, don't do it.  I might discover that this practice just isn't good for my body (not to mention my dinosaur spine).  I have no problem letting go of that, and neither should you - the restorative version of shoulderstand or any pose that doesn't agree with you is always there waiting for us!

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