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

About a year after I got my first yoga mat in 1998, I invested in other Iyengar props (including blankets, blocks, and strap). I purchased them from San Francisco’s Yoga Props (buy local!), and I still use those props at home.

Today I bought a bunch of new props (more blankets, blocks, and straps, plus those Canadian chip foam blocks and two 10-pound sandbags) from Vancouver’s Halfmoon (buy local!). I bought them to use at my first workshop with Gabriella Giubilaro, a big favorite among Iyengar practitioners at the Yoga Space.

We local students are required to bring our own props (there won’t be enough for the almost-60 students registered). I decided that I want different sets of props for “inside” and “outside” my home (like wearing different shoes indoors and outdoors).

While I love Halfmoon’s local production (when possible), I was disappointed with the blanket selection. Due to their wool-blanket supplier’s price hike, they currently carry only thinner cotton ones.

Iyengar yogis have strong personal preferences about props. Here are my picks (focusing on type, not on brand):

  • BLANKETS Despite the slight scratchiness, I prefer wool to cotton for the thickness and density (I like weightiness). My favorite (which I should have tracked down in advance): heavy military wool blankets.
  • BLOCKS I prefer solid wood, but they must be commissioned. So my second choice are cork blocks (dense and skid-proof) or hollow wood blocks (light and hardy).
  • STRAPS I “grew up” on 1.5-inch belts with snap buckles, but I now prefer the minimalist one-inch traditional belts with metal sliding buckles. As for length, I’ve learned from experience that an eight-foot strap is superior to the six-foot.
  • CHIP FOAM BLOCKS Who the heck invented these nifty thingamajigs? They’re ideal for teaching sitting poses (most, if not all, beginners cannot keep a straight spine while sitting unsupported, and this two-inch prop is a quick fix). (Halfmoon’s are made in Canada with recycled foam.)
  • MATS I was tempted to try Halfmoon’s rubber mat (which is apparently similar to the Jade mat) but I opted to continue using my family of pebble-grained PVC mats (made in Germany, I believe) till the end of their lives. The other mat enticing me is the Manduka ProLite, although it’s not biodegradable. But, considering my current mats’ probable lifespans, I won’t experience any “premium” mat for a decade or more!


“Best sticky yoga mat”

“Old mats never die…”

“Solid Wood”

Image: Uncle Sam’s Army Navy Outfitters wool blankets; Halfmoon chip foam blocks