Have you ever been in a yoga class and, while practicing Setu Bhandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose), been instructed to roll your shoulders toward each other and away from your ears? This instruction may have been useful at some point in our history but is no longer relevant, rather, it is counterproductive to a safe and healthy curve in your neck. Here is why:
First of all, we do not need to lengthen the back of the neck. Most of us sit in front of a computer or hover forward all day, which has overly lengthened the back of the neck while shortening the front. We are losing the natural curve of the neck because of our lifestyles. As Aadil would say, “We are no longer fruit pickers.” We are not doing the same things we did a hundred years ago, so why would our practice look the same? It must evolve to suit our current circumstances, and currently we need to open the muscles in the front of the neck to maintain or bring back a natural neck curve.
This posture is the “bridge” to Sarvangasana, or shoulder stand—the most powerful and necessary posture in our practice. Sarvangasana represents the feminine. It’s cooling, softening, calming, healing but to achieve these effects requires a tremendous amount of flexibility. It’s one of the most beneficial postures and also one of the most injurious if practiced without awareness. Shoulder stand is performed correctly when C7, the base of your neck, is off the ground. Only then can the shoulders safely bear the weight of the pose. This is why we use pads to support the neck in Sarvangasana; it creates a neck curve that fully supports C7. Most people do not have the flexibility necessary to bear the weight of the body on their shoulders without straining the neck. Even though you are not bearing the full weight of your body while in Setu Bhandha Sarvangasana, the opening required to achieve the pose is similar and prepares the body for Sarvangasana. In both postures, the potential is high for the neck bones to drop out of their natural curve if weight is placed upon them. If practiced for years in this way, the neck can be seriously damaged.
As a teacher, you should look for two things in your students’ necks:
- C7 is off the ground, indicating that the student is maintaining a natural curve in their neck.
- The back of the neck is soft and you cannot feel the bones of the neck. Examine your students’ positioning regularly, and modify by adding blankets or pads under their shoulders until they develop the flexibility necessary to do the pose safely.
Other position points: Check to see that your students’ feet are hip distance apart, knees are hip distance apart and situated directly above the ankles and shoulders are rolled under.
Once correct position is established, teach actions.
Actions: Press heels into the floor and lift sacrum up and away from head. Lift the pit of the abdomen towards the chest. Press upper arms into the floor and lift the sides of the waist. Externally rotate shoulders and drop the weight of the shoulders into the floor. Soften the throat and face. Smile!