Why are some poses viewed as "good" and others "bad"? In this article, senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land flips the script by sharing which controversial poses she still practices and why she appreciates them.
Like many movement modalities, yoga asana inspires strong, but often opposing, opinions. Some associate incredible physical, energetic, or mental benefits with the practice of specific poses, while others are equally certain that a pose can cause irreparable damage.
As in most cases, the truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes: It’s possible to benefit from asana practice, and equally possible to injure ourselves in it. However, we are all different—we have varied proportions, joint shapes, postures and movement habits, and states of health, so any one single pose is unlikely to be universally helpful or harmful.
Over time I’ve come to ignore popular opinion; I’ve eliminated a few standard poses from my practice, while some of the most controversial poses appear regularly. Here are a few of my favorite contentious poses, and the reasons I continue to practice, and appreciate, them.
Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
This pose appears so routinely in yoga sequences, in every traditional sun salutation, in fact, that you may not have even realized it isn’t universally adored. Actually, the frequency with which we practice chaturanga is probably the main culprit.
Ever felt pain on the front of your upper arm after a class featuring more than the usual number of chaturangas? You’re not alone. The narrow-arm position we take in this pose means that when we stay there, especially with our shoulders below elbow height, a portion of our body weight rests on the front of the shoulder joint. The main structure carrying this load is the tendon of the long head of the biceps, which runs over the front of the humerus to connect into the top of a protective rim of connective tissue surrounding the shoulder joint called the labrum. We load our tendons all the time, so when done on occasion, chaturanga typically creates no cause for concern. But when repeated multiple times, in daily practice, there’s potential for the tendon, or even the labrum, to become irritated.
So why do I still practice this pose? Plenty of reasons. For one, it appears in sun salutations because it offers a natural transition between plank and upward dog (urdhva mukha svanasana). It’s also great training for arm balances, including crow and side crow, and it builds upper-body strength in general, and tricep strength in particular.
Chaturanga isn’t unique to vinyasa flow either. The narrow arm press up is a staple in the workout world too—it’s just not the only upper-body exercise on the list, and we can learn from that approach. While we can reduce the load on the shoulders by practicing chaturanga with knees down, or by keeping our shoulders above elbow height, the key to reaping the benefits of chaturanga safely is to not overdo it. I include chaturanga in my practice, but I also do side plank (vasisthasana), reverse plank (purvottanasana), wide-arm push-ups, and a range of other arm variations to build strength around my shoulder joints.
Wild Thing (Camatkarasana)
This side plank variation is cautioned for similar reasons to chaturanga—primarily the potential to place excessive load on the biceps tendon on the front of the shoulder joint. And given that only one hand is on the floor, there is even more load on the joint.
But to me, wild thing is the perfect expression of Patanjali’s sthira sukha asanam—a steadfast and easeful posture in practice. Especially when I transition into the pose by stepping my top foot back from side plank, rather than rotating into it from down dog, I feel able to tap into key stabilizers on the lower side of my body: gluteus medius on the lateral hip, quadratus lumborum on the side waist, and serratus anterior on the side ribs. At the same time, reaching from fingers to toes and opening my chest toward the ceiling creates a feeling of freedom and space that’s especially beneficial as a counter to sitting.
Given that the biggest challenge in wild thing is the stability of the bottom shoulder, mindful positioning of the joint allows us to enjoy the benefits of the pose while minimizing risk. Two anatomical actions are required to actively support the shoulder here.
The first is to centralize the head of the humerus in its socket with subtle external rotation, almost as if trying to rotate the hand toward its pinky-finger edge, rather than allowing it to roll forward to lean into the biceps tendon; this action engages the infraspinatus and teres minor on the posterior shoulder blade.
The second is to stabilize the shoulder blade by engaging opposing muscles: the serratus anterior and the rhomboids. We engage the serratus anterior by pushing down into our support hand to make our rib cage feel a little more buoyant, hugging the inner border of the shoulder blade against the rib cage. We engage the rhomboids by turning our chest toward the ceiling, maintaining that engagement between the inner border of the shoulder blade and rib cage while retracting the shoulder blade toward the spine. That second movement not only reduces the load on the front of the shoulder, it unlocks the heart-opening benefits of the pose.
Hero and Supine Hero Pose (Virasana and Supta Virasana)
Do an internet search for “virasana safety” and you’ll see post after post unpacking risks to the knee ligaments. The virasana poses aren’t unique in that respect—knee pain is a relatively common issue in asana practice—but hero pose can be particularly challenging for two reasons.
The first reason relates to the position of the knees: in deep flexion, carrying much of our body weight. Many yoga poses incorporate deep knee flexion—for example, bound angle pose (baddha konasana)—but in hero and supine hero, resting our body weight on our knees and shins might push us deeper into flexion than our natural range. And here’s the thing: Normal range of motion in knee flexion is up to 130 or 140 degrees. Sitting with our hips on our heels (as we do in thunderbolt pose, or vajrasana) represents around 150 degrees of flexion, and sitting with hips between our heels (as we do in hero and supine hero) requires even more—up to 170 degrees.
If our range of motion in knee flexion is greater than average, the knee position required by these poses is not problematic, but if it isn’t, the added body weight could push our joints beyond their optimal range.
The second reason stems from the hip joint, rather than the knee itself. In hero and supine hero, around 40 degrees of internal hip rotation is required for the heels to sit a little wider than the knees. Normal range of motion in internal hip rotation is roughly 30 to 40 degrees. If we have less internal rotation than required, but continue to deepen our position by bringing our seat toward the floor, we essentially force our knees to make up the difference between our hip range of motion and our desired shape.
When our legs are straight, the ligaments around our knees allow for little to no rotation, but when our knees are flexed, some of the knee ligaments become slack and allow more movement between the upper and lower leg bones. So if we reach the limit of our internal hip rotation and use body weight to continue lowering our sitting bones toward the floor, we may be rotating our knees in a way that places torque on structures inside the knee joint like the meniscus.
Given all that information, why do I still incorporate hero and supine hero as often as I do other seated poses and hip openers? I am a big fan of offering my body variety. In yoga, and in life, we tend to favor quadricep strengthening over stretching—both hero and supine hero stretch the quadriceps. Supine hero is particularly helpful, as it takes our hips out of flexion, stretching the rectus femoris, the one quadricep that crosses the hip as well as the knee joint, and other hip flexors including the psoas. This makes supine hero a fantastic counter to sitting.
The key to enjoying the benefits of these poses (or any yoga poses, in fact) without troubling your knees is to find a version that fits your unique range of motion. For me, that means setting up for hero pose with a yoga block between my sitting bones and the floor, or taking thunderbolt pose, in which I am sitting on my heels instead. For you it could mean sitting on a couple of stacked blocks, or placing a bolster between your seat and heels.
And I prefer to practice supine hero leaning back on a bolster or two, or even with one leg bent at a time (as shown below), so that I can tilt my hips and reduce the amount of knee flexion required in the stretching leg.
Shoulderstand and Plough (Salamba Sarvangasana and Halasana)
I would guess that in most people’s opinion, shoulderstand would be close to the top of the list of “most controversial yoga poses,” perhaps second only to headstand (sirsasana). And even if you’ve never practiced shoulderstand or plough pose before, you can probably guess why that is.
Both shoulderstand and plough are inversions, offering potential physical and mental benefits related to changes in blood and lymph flow, a shift in perspective, and the feeling of achieving the outwardly impossible. The very benefits of the inversion family require us to do things we don’t normally do: namely to carry our weight on our upper body instead of our lower body. In handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and forearm stand (pincha mayurasana) that means weight-bearing on our arms, but in the case of shoulderstand and plough it means weight-bearing on our neck (along with the back of our head, shoulder blades, upper arms, and in plough pose the toes).
This raises two safety concerns.
The first relates to weight-bearing on the neck in general. All of us are different in our movement habits, but it’s probably safe to say that for most yoga practitioners the neck bones and muscles have adapted to carrying the weight of our head, not the weight of our body. The bones of the neck, or cervical vertebrae, are the smallest in the spine and the joints between them are the most mobile. That fits with the usual role of the neck, being to move our head (and therefore eyes) through a wide arc, but doesn’t make it a very effective or efficient weight-bearing platform. Of course some of our body weight is being carried by other structures, including our shoulders and upper arms, but it’s likely that the neck is carrying more load than it is accustomed to in shoulderstand and plough.
The same concern is often raised in relation to headstand (sirsasana), but a key difference between headstand and shoulderstand is the head position, leading to our second safety concern. In textbook headstand alignment, the head and neck are in a neutral position and the bulk of body weight rests on the elbows and forearms. In shoulderstand and plough, however, the neck is in deep flexion, and even if the load is shared between the neck, shoulders, and upper arms, there’s still potential for the extra weight to push us deeper into flexion than our usual range. In this respect, the concern regarding neck position in shoulderstand and plough is similar to that of the knees in hero and supine hero.
Normal range of motion in neck flexion varies widely but averages around 50 degrees. The range required by shoulderstand and plough (if we adhere to the alignment “ideal” of torso perpendicular to the floor) is closer to 90 degrees. Clearly, for many students there will be a gap between textbook alignment and their natural range. Given the proximity of vulnerable structures, including nerves and blood vessels, to the cervical bones, and the fact that many of us already tend toward neck flexion from increasing time spent looking down at computers or other devices, the risks of these positions might be higher than their rewards.
So why not simply take shoulderstand and plough out of our practice entirely? Many students and teachers do, and I don’t disagree with that stance. If you want to influence blood and lymph flow, or shift your perspective, or challenge your perceived limitations, there are plenty of other inversions and poses in general to choose from (including legs up the wall or supported viparita karani). But shoulderstand and plough are undeniably potent—shoulderstand is sometimes referred to as the queen of yoga poses—and in my opinion can be approached with respectful curiosity rather than fear.
In my own practice, I find shoulderstand and its variations more restorative than other inversions. I appreciate the gentle traction shoulderstand creates on the back of my neck and plough creates down the length of my back body. I don’t incorporate these poses often, but when I do, the key to enjoying them is to set aside textbook alignment and acknowledge my own range of motion instead.
If I want my torso at a right angle to the floor, that means stacking two to three folded blankets under my shoulder blades to reduce the degree of neck flexion required. If I don’t have time for that prop setup, or prefer my shoulders flat on the mat, I simply don’t lift my torso as high and instead rest my hips on my hands or a block, taking inverted action pose (viparita karani, shown below) instead.
Where to From Here
So there you have it: Several controversial poses that I continue to incorporate into my practice. My hope in sharing my insights about them is not necessarily for you to incorporate them into yours, but that they might prompt thought. My enjoyment of these poses often stems from my willingness to modify or use props, or to intersperse them with variations, but your experience will undoubtedly be different than mine.
There are also plenty of contentious poses that I don’t find benefit from—headstand and lotus pose (padmasana) come to mind—that might be your favorites. And there are also some poses considered highly accessible, and which many other people enjoy—like child’s pose (balasana) and warrior I (virabhadrasana I)—that I leave out of my practice.
What I’m suggesting here is that popular opinion, whether positive, negative, or polarized, should not determine which poses we practice. No pose is universally helpful or harmful; its impact comes down to our experience of it, our unique range of motion versus expectations around alignment, and how frequently it appears in our practice.
There may be poses you love but have excluded from your repertoire because you’ve been told they are too dangerous. There may also be poses you repeat because of their reported benefits, despite how they make you feel or times in your practice when you feel restricted by the alignment or sequencing you’ve been taught. Perhaps you should question those assumptions, to make your felt experience, rather than the opinions of others, your guide.
Photography: Andrea Killam