Fire devours everything. And fire, again, is the food of water. –The Upanishads
Summertime is the season for growth and expansion. During the warmer months, we become more active and creative, and our heart fire is fueled by the treasures of the season – Nature’s ripe juicy fruits, flowers bursting with color, long days of physical activity, and chilling out with friends and family in the cool shade beneath a hot summer sun.
To balance the heat, heart and mind, give homage to the “Mother” or “Queen” of all asanas, Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand). Shoulder stand is said to bring forth harmony in the body because of her unique powers: to restore and rejuvenate, increase circulation of blood and lymph, stimulate detoxification and balance the hormones.
During the yang heat of summer, this longer-held “fountain of youth” pose restores the quality of yin, the cooling, calming and nourishing aspect help to balance the expansive, heating and energizing elements that ensue from summer’s sizzling activity.
Like a cool dip in the ocean on a hot day, Sarvangasana helps to bathe the endocrine system and balance the hormones. The easeful access to Jalandhara bandha at the throat stimulates the thyroid/parathyroid, while the overall inversion can increase blood flow to the heart without strain. Shoulder stand can improve digestion and elimination, help regulate the menstrual cycle, cool the heat of menopause, and increase vitality and strength, all while soothing the nervous system.
Getting in the Pose
Fold 1-3 blankets to support the cervical curve of your neck. The blankets should be wide enough to support the span of your elbows, and long enough that your elbows rest on them when they are bent.
Bring the tops of your shoulders up to the edge of the blankets. Rest your head on the floor. Place your arms alongside your torso, press down, bend your knees and bring your thighs in toward your chest. As you exhale, raise your hips off the floor and bring your hands to the back of your torso. Breathe in and as you exhale, lift your legs up toward the sky.
*You can practice Shoulder stand by first coming into Halasana (Plow Pose), which will stretch the back body more intensely. Press your arms against the floor and bring your feet over your head. Clasp your hands together, roll the outer flesh of your upper arms under, and bring your shoulder blades towards one another without pinching or squeezing the space between them. Tuck your toes under and press through the soles of your feet to help straighten your legs.
Bend your elbows and place your hands against your back. Press down through your elbows and upper arms and press the back of your head into the floor to keep your neck from receiving too much pressure as you lift your legs up toward the sky.
In the Pose
Depending on the natural shape of your neck, the upper back will be on the floor, you will rest on the tops of your shoulders, or somewhere in between. Adjust so that your weight is on the backs of the shoulder blades or the tops of the shoulders, but not the neck.
If the shoulder blades are spread widely apart, the weight can fall through your upper back and neck. If you have difficulty bringing your elbows and shoulder blades together, then consciously keep the upper back on the floor and allow your legs to move toward your head so that your hands are supporting your pelvis. Your legs will not be right above your head, but will form more of an L-shape that supports the natural flexion of your neck.
Keep the base of the ribcage open. You’ll feel the diaphragm and abdominal wall shift their weight towards the head. The breath may become a little shorter or a little shallow. Don’t worry about taking huge belly breaths, but allow your breath to become supportive, sustainable and internal.
Reach through the soles of your feet, firm and tone your legs. Firmly draw your shoulder blades into your back.
Feel the downward flow – blood, lymph and energy – from your feet through your abdomen to your chest and throat. The position of your head and neck introduces Jalandhara bandha, or the net-bearing bond, which coalesces the energy at the glands in your throat. As this pressure builds in the throat and chest, feel the lightness of your legs and continue to harness that levity by floating them up.
You can hold shoulder stand anywhere from a minute to twenty minutes or longer. As you gain stability, turn your attention to the inner universe of your inverted body. The true inverted poses help to reorient the body so that the energy that normally flows down (apana) will flow up, and the energy that normally flows up (prana) will flow down to unite at the navel center. Here, the union of these opposites creates combustion – or heat – and fuels the fire that transforms everything – food, experience, emotion – back to its essential energy, which fuels the flame of your Awareness.
Feel warmth and energy at the navel, especially as you lightly tone your navel to your spine. See a flame resting at your navel center, and the flame turning upside down so that it is pointing toward your low belly and pelvic region. Visualize the flame slowly feeding off and transforming any inertia or blockages in your body. Feel the warmth of the flame healing and nourishing the first three chakra areas and anything related to your survival, your creativity and relationships and your personal power.
Then, sense the cool, heavy downward flow of that refined energy towards your chest, throat and brain, soothing the heat, cooling and calming your whole being. Bathe in this protective and nurturing calm, and allow it to fill your entire being.
Chrisandra Fox Walker teaches weekly classes at Yoga Tree and leads the Heart of Renewal Retreats. She is a core teacher in Yoga Tree’s 200-hour Teacher Training Program. Email Chrisandra@gmail.com
Photography by Ryan Scott