Yoga and Side Shoulder Stand – Go Beyond Asana to Reach Infinity

By Aadil Palkhivala, a Master Yoga Teacher, Co-founder of Purna Yoga and Alive & Shine Center, Bellevue, WA

 

In this magnificent pose, Parshva Sarvangasana (Side Shoulderstand), the shoulders and arms remain rooted to the earth while the legs extend toward the horizon, reaching out to touch infinity.  This suggests the true purpose of yoga:  to be grounded while simultaneously stretching into the vastness of the unexplored Self.  To do yoga is to be fully rooted in the present while at the same time embracing the possibilities of the future – a state in which we are both being and becoming.

Many practitioners of yoga think of asana (the physical poses, or exercises) as the whole of the art.  Yet making them the end defeats the real purpose of yoga.  To practice asana and not reach beyond them is like having a top-of-the-line automobile that we run only on a treadmill in the garage.  Although the vehicle works perfectly, it doesn’t take us anywhere.  Such a car was designed to be on the road, to transport us powerfully into our future, our unexplored potential.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes an ashtanga (eight-limbed) path of which asana is but the third part.  Our work in yoga begins with yama (ethics towards others), five guidelines that help us create and live in a sane and peaceful society.  Then comes niyama (prescribed observances), personal disciplines that help us to become more aware of ourselves.  According to one traditional categorization of yoga’s eight limbs, asana belongs with yama and niyama as part of bahiranga sadhana (external practices).  Pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), and dharana (concentration) are known as antaranga sadhana (internal practices), while dyyana (meditation) and all the different levels of Samadhi (union) are considered antaratma sadhana (inner practices), the work that involves connecting with the Spirit within.

The great Indian Sage Sri Aurobindo once wrote, “When we have passed beyond knowings, then we shall have knowledge.  Reason was the helper, but reason is also the bar.”  A similar shift in status from vehicle to roadblock can occur with the limbs of yoga.  As we move along the way, the yamas, niyama, and asanas remain important, but if we focus entirely on them and make them the end of our endeavor, they become a burden.

We are misguided in our efforts when we dwell on that which is intended merely to help take us to the next level.  The primary purpose of the asanas is to make the body strong, stable, and able to withstand the energy of prana, the life force cultivated in the practice of Pranayama.  Pranayama, in turn, is used to strengthen the nervous system so that it can handle the power of the succeeding limbs of yoga, the withdrawal of the senses and the ever-deepening stages of meditation that lead to the greater purpose of yoga, the communication with the Self.  When we practice with this understanding, the asanas serve as a bridge to infinity, to the vastness of the worlds inside.  The yamas, niyamas, and the asanas are the ground in which we root, while the remaining parts of the eightfold path are the limbs that rise up endlessly in all directions, seeking our true Self.

Reaching Into Infinity

In asana practice, no posture better embodies and teaches this simultaneous rooting in the present while stretching into infinity that Parshva Sarvangasana, one of the most beautiful poses in yoga.  As the legs reach powerfully, the arms and shoulder ground and the chest receives a mighty opening.  The whole body balances on the fulcrum of the sacrum, and an amazing power is generated as you extend out of your center in both directions.

This dual extension creates heat and energy in the body, forcing prana into the cells of the pelvis and abdomen.  In very few poses are the legs completely unsupported as they reach toward the horizon; in most asanas, they’re either rooted or inverted.  In Parshva Sarvangasana, we gain an awareness of the legs that we cannot get from any other pose.  Additionally, it requires a powerful lift of energy from the pelvis toward the heart center.  Parshva Sarvangasana creates a connection between the hands–which are the most powerful physical energy emanatory in the body–and the sacrum–which is the most sacred bone, the center of balance.  The body weight falling through the sacrum onto the hand creates a very powerful grounding, charging the sacrum with the hand’s energy, which can then rise up through the body.

 

© 2008-2017 Aadil Palkhivala