Although the word sarvangasana translates as “all limbs pose,” the posture is commonly referred to as Shoulderstand because your body weight rests on the top outer edges (the bony parts) of your shoulders. Blankets for the shoulders make it possible for the neck to be free to lengthen and get a mild stretch, while the rest of the body lifts straight up in one line. The blankets also prevent you from putting pressure on the delicate vertebrae in your neck. Without this propping, the pressure can, over time, flatten the neck’s natural curve.
Start with three stacked blankets. If, while in the pose, you find that you stand on the backside of your shoulders and upper back or on the inner edges of your shoulders, try adding another blanket or two to the stack. It’s important to center yourself on the blankets, not turn your head, and look gently toward your chest to avoid injuring your neck. Directing your eyes toward your chest also keeps the pose calm and your neck soft.
The first variation at a wall builds a foundation that begins with the proper placement of the shoulders and upper back, and an opening of the chest. Here, you can also work on outwardly rotating your upper arms and bringing your outer shoulders closer to each other while lifting the upper back, sides of the chest, and tailbone away from the floor.
One challenge of Shoulderstand is entering the pose. It’s easiest to position your shoulders, arms, and back for Shoulderstand while in Halasana (Plow Pose), so the second variation at a wall uses a Plow Pose modification to prepare you for going up into the final pose in the middle of the room.
If you find the wall variations challenging, continue to work on them until you feel stable and strong. You can also try using the variations to enter full Sarvangasana. In the beginning, you may be able to hold the variations and final pose for a minute or two. You can gradually build up to 5 minutes, and eventually to 10 to 20 minutes. For those who already practice Sarvangasana, these variations will refine your understanding and skill, and may boost your ability to stay longer in the pose. After practicing any of the variations of Sarvangasana, rest on your back for a few moments before you sit up.
Bring your mat and stack of blankets to the middle of the room. Lie down on the blankets and place your hands beside your hips on the floor. Bend your knees and take your legs into Halasana so your feet touch the floor behind you. If your feet don’t reach the floor, use the wall or a chair to support them. Adjust your arms and shoulders, then take your hands to your back. Come into the pose one leg at a time to maintain the lift of your rib cage. (If you lift both legs at once, you might harm your shoulders and neck.) When you lift your right leg, straighten your knee and extend your leg strongly toward the ceiling to pull your torso up. Raise your left leg. Lift the fronts of your thighs straight up and away from your pelvis.
When you’re up, continue adjusting your hands by walking them up your back toward the floor to prevent your upper back from sinking and to lift the sides of your chest. Broaden the chest as you roll your outer shoulders down and pull the elbows in toward each other. If they splay apart, try looping a strap around your upper arms, just above your elbows.
Raise your buttocks toward your heels as you lengthen your inner thighs and reach up through the balls of your big toes. Breathe normally and coordinate the actions of the pose so that you grow from the base at your arms and shoulders up through your legs to your toes.
To open your chest, move your back ribs forward. Some weight will be on your head, and you might feel as though you want to push the back of your head into the floor. Instead, allow the back of your neck to lengthen as you lift your spine up away from the floor. Relax your jaw and throat and look toward your chest.
Practice coming down into Halasana. Through regular practice, you can stay in the pose longer without strain. After Sarvangasana, you should feel calm and quiet, as if all of the systems of your body are awakened and now able to rest.
Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article A Beginner-Friendly Inversion: Shoulderstand by Marla Apt