I don’t think any particular movement or yoga pose is inherently dangerous, but I do think that certain movements or yoga poses can be dangerous if done carelessly and mindlessly. Each asana is a challenge to contort the body, and therefore the mind, and some more than others. I’ve been reading about the demonisation of salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and salamba sirsasana (supported headstand) for a while now and I fail to understand the particular problem with these poses. Meanwhile, I don’t see anyone talking about the dangers of super deep back bends, arm balances, or nasty twists, not to mention handstands. If anything, I have to scroll through numerous handstand photographs on Instagram or Facebook! But no-one is writing blogs about how they stopped teaching chaturanga dandasana or phalankasana because the shoulders and wrists have to carry a lot of weight and might easily get injured, instead we talk about the ways to perform such poses safely. Although, one obvious reason for this maybe the relative importance the neck and the head compared with the wrists and the shoulders!
I get that people want to be cautious, and I am all for caution. The problem, I believe, lies in the fact that many people mistake anecdotes and their experience for data, and that think their non-random collection of “anecdotes” adds up to (empirical) data; it does not. Most studies on salamba sirsasana focus on the weight that the cervical spine and the head have to bear. For example, a recent study (Hector & Jensen, 2015) indicates that entering the pose with both legs straight as opposed to both knees bent or single bent knee is a safer option with regard to the weight loaded on the neck during entry to the pose. This suggests that to perform salamba sirsasana safely, the yoga practitioner has to have enough core, shoulder and pelvic support to lift the legs up in that way. Developing enough core, shoulder and pelvic support, as well as the physical awareness for balance, takes a long time and sustained practice. I agree with the authors that the practitioner should be aware of the weight that is about to be put on the head and the neck, and that they should enter and remain in the pose with steadiness and control. The person described here is not a beginner; it is someone who is quite athletic and has a very-well trained skill to focus their attention.
Although it has not been studied as much as salamba sirsasana, I would think it is fair to say similar physical and mental requirements are needed to perform salamba sarvangasana. To me it is clear that salamba sirsasana and salamba sarvangasana are for late intermediate to advanced yoga practitioners who have sufficient muscular strength, a good physical awareness and a strong mind. So much so that I don’t understand the fuss, because such yogin can and will choose the poses they want to practice in terms of what is appropriate to them.
Having said this, I think these two poses are not just any poses. They are iconic. They are so-called the king and the queen of yoga poses. Everybody wants to be able to do them. They are as symbolic of a devoted yoga practice as they are deceptive. Unlike, for example handstand (adho mukha vrksasana), they often seem to be achievable when they really are not. Because an approximation to the physical form of these poses “can” be achieved, people think they are in the pose. You can see people kicking up to a headstand, falling over due to weak shoulders and lack of balance; you can hear shortened breaths during shoulderstands, elbows flared out to the sides carrying no load whatsoever, etc. It then of course becomes dangerous to perform these poses.
These poses trigger a level of competitiveness in people and they fail to stop themselves at the point from which they could get injured. Deciding to stop short of a pose and doing a prep pose in the build-up to the full pose, when you think you can do the pose, is a huge challenge and not many can do this. It requires a lot of humility and self-acceptance. This is probably why they are the king and the queen of yoga poses – because of the colossal challenge they pose, namely the patience and the self-acceptance required to do them safely.
I teach classes that are for late beginner to early intermediate practitioners, so I don’t teach sirsasana. I sometimes teach a very modified version of salamba sarvangasana, if it is a group of people that I know are capable of doing it. Personally, I love these poses. They are a regular part of my own practice. Like the rest of my practice, I do what feels right and fun for that day and time. So, it is sometimes a half-headstand with my toes on the floor where I just balance, or a very angled shoulderstand with my feet almost down to my face, where I support my lower back and carry my weight on my arms. On other days, when I feel strong and focused enough, I do the full poses.
Yoga asana practiced to prepare the person for further practice involving a deeper (higher?) layer of self-knowledge. Some believe that the 8 limbs of yoga stack up in hierarchy, where asana comes after yamas and niyamas. Yamas are principles that guide one’s attitude towards the world, herself no less a part of it. The very first one is ahimsa (non-harming). Non-harming, like the other principles, involves not just others but one’s self, too. It will necessarily involve kindness and non-harming towards one’s self.
The key to advanced yoga practice is not a yoga pose. It is just one of the steps in a larger journey of a deeper understanding of one’s self and a motivation to accept and cherish and to grow it further. Only with that essential kindness, can yoga wield its transformative powers. Without it, yoga asana is just another exercise for acrobats.