the shoulderstand : salamba sarvangasana

how climbing a plum tree leads to the practice of salamba sarvangasana

thea metcalfe

As I am reading, I start to feel my left foot tighten and hold. I try to rotate the ankle and wriggle away the locked-in feeling but the pain only intensifies. “Please loosen up, let go.” But it doesn’t. An image of lying with my legs up the wall flits in. I follow the suggestion and it helps.

I think of Swami Radha’s advice to hold an injured part and send Light through my hands, like a mother caring for a child. Perhaps I am injured? How could I be? I’ve been walking, working, biking today without problems. As I hold my foot it feels a little better. I remember seeing people wrap tensor bandages around an aching part, and I ad lib with a spandex undershirt. By this time, I am not able to walk or even stand.

“Ice” comes to mind and I resist. I’m already so cold, and as I lie down I’m shivering. But I remember reading that the nerves can’t communicate both pain and cold—and at this point, I need freedom from pain. I try to stand up but realize it’s better to crawl. No ice, but frozen plums in the fridge. I pop three in a Ziploc bag and crawl to bed.

What happened? I trace it back—back to the plum tree earlier today, the big tree whose branches I can’t reach. Climbing the tree easily with my bare feet, feeling strong and limber. I remember my foot in an awkward position between branches, but equally compelling were the plums within reach. I hold the pain, with images in mind of the yogi in the Mahabharata enduring pain without indicating it—a sign of his yogic prowess. My mind remembers me as the girl who can climb trees easily, the girl who can balance on her brother’s knees by adjusting and digging in her toes, the hero girl who can hold a position against all odds.

Now I can’t move my foot even the slightest in either direction. It wants to be absolutely straight and still. I shift between applying the ice, lifting my leg, wrapping the shirt around my foot. After a few hours, I sleep, aware of every urge to move. In the morning, I am amazed and grateful for how much it has healed itself. Today I limp—is it needing rest or am I compensating? I give myself the benefit of the doubt.

Memories of observing others arise to offer remedies, which I later discover are the exact treatments recommended by medicine (rest, ice, compression, elevation). Yet this same faculty of memory that helped heal me also led me out on that limb in the first place and kept me there, despite a foot twisted between branches.

I’ve learned what I teach in yoga all the time: listen to the body. I am struck by the distinction between will, even for a good cause (if I don’t pick them now, those plums will get overripe and be wasted), and listening (this hurts!). The trouble with the conscious mind is its ability to override the very real messages from another level. When I start enacting the girl-child super-yogi, I can ask: What about other options?

I am grateful that Divine Mother gave me the lesson so gently.

practice: salamba sarvangasana (the shoulderstand)

I see how memory arises in images, which then offer choices. Choice leads to actions that can have a powerful impact. How much are my actions based on memory-laden images? Can memory confuse the body about what it is actually feeling?

Yoga teaches me to treat my body with respect. My teacher said that if there is pain, it is not yoga. I offer the Shoulderstand in gratitude for the relief of elevating the legs, and in appreciation for the feet and their dedicated service.

how to do the pose

  1. Relax your neck and shoulders, warming up with neck rotations, lying twists, little bridge, shoulder and chest openers.
  2. From a relaxed supine position, lift the legs and hips, tucking the shoulder blades together and supporting your back with your hands. Find your balance, keeping the weight mainly on the shoulders. Lengthen through the torso while keeping the neck relaxed. Hold the pose as long as is right for you.
  3. To come out, gradually lower your spine to the floor, then bring your feet down, bending the legs if necessary. Try to keep the back of your head on the floor. Follow up with the Fish Pose (Matsyasana).

Note: Not recommended for those with high blood pressure or neck injuries. Use discretion during menstruation. An alternative is to lie with legs up the wall.


  1. What burdens can I put down? What images from the past lead to pain in the present? Can I let them go?
  2. How do I know when pressure is healthy or unhealthy? Listen to your body as you do the pose. Engage in a dialogue, adjusting your pose exactly to your body’s needs.
  3. Visualize yourself filled with Light, keeping that image in and around you as you lift up. Can you reinforce this image of Light until it becomes a source of strength to draw on?

Thea Metcalfe lives in Montréal and is a Hatha/Vinyasa instructor and illustrator, drawing on her fine arts training from Concordia and ECIAD in Vancouver. She is interested in exploring the relationship between yoga and art and their application in daily practice and physical expression.

Swami Lalitananda's latest book,The Inner Life of Asanas,is a collection of her hidden language hatha yoga columns, from timeless books . She is a resident teacher and part of the collective at radha yoga & eatery - a yoga centre, cafe, arts and events venue at 728 Main Street in Vancouver, BC. Contact her at .

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