Unsupported shoulderstand?

DAVEY supported shoulder standA friend pointed me to a blog post, “Please, NO Lifts in Shoulderstand,” by Sandra Sammartino, a yoga teacher based in White Rock, BC. My initial response? No way. In Salamba Sarvangasana the overwhelming majority of people need shoulder support, such as folded blankets.

Then I stopped and caught myself. In my prior post, “Learning on your own,” I wrote about the necessity to learn independently. This means being open-minded about teachings, techniques, rules, and majority opinions. Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with an established idea, your conclusion should be your own.

OcciputSo I read Sammartino’s piece more slowly. She studied with BKS Iyengar in 1977 when she traveled to India at age 36. And she initially practiced supported shoulderstands.

Scrutinizing the photo of Sammartino’s current, unsupported shoulderstand, I recognized that she does an upright pose, not the typical banana-shaped version, resting on the shoulder blades, as illustrated above by the cat (who is doing a remarkable job considering no strap and slippery fur). She did this rounded version, which she calls “half shoulderstand” only during her recovery from neck pain allegedly caused by supported shoulderstand.

If she is doing unsupported shoulderstand as pictured daily at age 73, I’m impressed! But I have questions about her rationale for not using support, which she calls a “lift”:

  • Does using support cause cervical compression? Sammartino assumes that using support tilts the head backward, thus compressing the spine. In my experience using support, the head is neutral, as in Savasana–unless range of motion is limited in the upper back, chest, shoulders, or neck. Therefore, the assumption of cervical compression seems to be an overgeneralization. (Perhaps there’s confusion about the head position when using support because the head is tilted backward in the prep stage (lying on the set-up before raising the pelvis into Halasana or Sarvangasana). But, once the pelvis is raised above the torso, the head releases into a neutral, horizontal position.)
  • Where should the occiput should be grounded? Sammartino likes the base of her occiput (posterior skull) to touch the mat. To me, that would flatten the cervical spine too much. The head should be neutral, resting on center of the occiput. (Stiffer individuals can end up resting too high on the skull, with the head thrown back. I agree with Sammartino that this is risky.)

I get the impression that Sammartino was a beginner (and less strong and flexible than she is today) when she tried supported shoulderstand decades ago. Over the years, she has probably trained her body by doing “half shoulderstand” and has progressed into upright shoulderstand. She is lucky that her neck can tolerate major cervical flexion. But would she develop neck pain if she used support today? I don’t think so.

Of course, I’m just hypothesizing. For a firsthand experiment, I’d need to try unsupported shoulderstand myself. Never say never, but for now I’m happy with my stack of blankets!

Below is a video by senior-level Iyengar yoga teacher John Schumacher demonstrating Salamba Sarvangasana using support:


Images: Cat in shoulderstand, Yoga Cats; Occiput, The Free Dictionary



  1. Luci, John Schumacher says to bring your hips over your forehead before straightening the legs. Do you think he means toward the forehead, maybe? It doesnt look like his hips come anywhere near his forehead. Did I just hear it wrong? I used to do unsupported sarvangasana, with my hips resting in my hands and a rounded back, when I was at the gym and didn’t have blankets, but would not do a full sarvangasana without my blankets, and I’m liking 4 blankets more than 3 these days :).


    1. Jill, I’ll replay Schumacher’s video when I have a moment but, either way, the pelvis should align over the ribcage. His demo form is excellent. Maybe a picture/video is worth a thousand words, as they say. I appreciate your questioning and experimenting (and, of course, your commenting on my blog post!).


  2. I’m so glad you brought this up. I had a couple of people show me Sammartino’s blog too, wanting to know what I thought about it. While I couldn’t really comment on her experience, I know that in order for myself to be in proper alignment I need to use props/blankets. I feel that without them I am more in danger of putting pressure on my neck and hurting myself.


  3. Just noticed the comments on my article about “Please NO Lifts for Shoulderstand.” Both photos in the article are of me in Shoulderstand. (One when I was 69 and the other at 73.) In both photos my chin is neutral. It is NOT pulled into my chest, which would lock the cervical spine. The weight is on the base of the occiput. This gives room for the cervical spine to lengthen.

    To see a very recent photo of me in Shoulderstand go to http://sammartinoyoga.com/ Notice how relaxed my face is.

    This is because my chest (sternum) is soft, so my head easily turns from side to side. Because my weight is in my elbows, I can easily lift my shoulders off the floor, if needed, and my weight is away from my cervical spine.

    I would LOVE to personally show you. If you, or your readers, are in White Rock BC (hour drive from Vancouver BC) please call me (604-724-9423) and I will show you how to safely practice Shoulderstand.

    I am passionate about Shoulderstand and Headstand. They get such a bad rap due to misunderstandings on how to practice these Asanas safely.


    1. Many thanks, Sandra, for your comment. I’ll make it a point to drive to White Rock later this year, to meet with you about shoulderstand. I’m also curious about your backstory, regarding yoga. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to meet people who have practiced yoga for 10+ years, but what about those, like you, with 30 or 40 years of practice. I’m interested about their/your experiences over time.

      Luci, YogaSpy


  4. That would be wonderful, Luci. I would love to meet with you. Please contact me before hand to make sure I will be around. My email address is sandra@sammartinoyoga. com and my cell phone is 604-724-9423.
    Look forward to our time together. So much to share…..


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