Richard's April 2015 Newsletter
The Sanskrit word mrita means "death." If we then add the negating prefix "a-" to it we get amrita, literally "no-death" or immortal. According to the yogis there’s a subtle center in our head which exudes an equally subtle fluid called amrita (also soma, "juice," sudha, "good drink," amara varuni, "immortal liquor," and piyusha, "nectar") which, if properly preserved, will extend our lives far beyond the normal span of years. The problem is that, unknowingly, when in the upright position, in which most of us spend most of our waking hours, this precious liquid drips down into the fiery maw of our solar plexus, where it’s burned up and so wasted.
What to do? Well, if we could somehow prevent it from dripping down into ... wait! Here’s an idea. What if we tipped ourselves upside down, then the amrita would be preserved in our head where it could do its intended job (NOTE: in some texts it’s advised to retain the fluid in the head, in others to "bathe" the entire body with it, see Hatha Pradipika 4.53). Here then is the origin of what we today call sarvangasana, the "all" (sarva) "limb" (anga) pose, or shoulder stand (NOTE: it’s not exactly clear in the old books if the instructions given apply to shoulder stand or head stand; generally they’re interpreted as the former, which is how we’ll treat them). Five hundred years ago, however, because of this function of "sealing" the amrita in the head, shoulder stand was classed not as an asana; instead it was included among those exercises, many of them asana-like, called mudras ("seal") and so known, appropriately enough, as the "inverted action seal" (viparita karani mudra, hereafter VKM) (NOTE: you may be most familiar with mudras as certain symbolic hand gestures, these are technically known as hasta or "hand" mudras; there is, however, another group of mudras known as kaya or "body" mudras, to which VKM belongs).
According to the Gheranda Samhita (3.32), regular practice of VKM will prevent aging (jara) and death, will in fact allow us to survive the great dissolution at the end of the current world cycle, though this may be a bit of an exaggeration since that’s millions of years in the future. Nonetheless it’s worth the old college try, but don’t expect a quick fix. The Hatha Tatva Kaumudi informs us that for the position to work its magic, it should be held for one yama, which is three hours (!), presumably every day for six months.
Nowadays, the VKM has been re-purposed for modern consumption. No longer is it touted for its ancient promise of life-extension; after all, who believes anymore in elixirs of immortality raining down from the brain? (You do?) Instead we’re assured that the position benefits things we can all relate to, such as certain organs or glands like the thyroid, and a wide range of medical conditions, including asthma and bronchitis, chronic headaches, the common cold, hypertension, insomnia, constipation, ulcers, even epilepsy (see Light on Yoga, the entry on shoulder stand). To be honest, while we shouldn’t dismiss any of this out of hand, we should also season it with a few grains of salt, because there isn’t much "scientific" research (that I know of) to give it credence (NOTE: Mr Iyengar may have taken a few of these benefits from a study made in the 1920s on VKM by Svami Kuvlayananda and reported in his center’s quarterly newsletter, Yoga Mimamsa).
There’s been lots of back-and-forth recently in cyberspace regarding the pros and cons of shoulder stand and head stand. This isn’t, of course, a new issue. Longtime teacher Arthur Kilmurray acknowledged the "potential dangers" of these positions more than 30 years ago in an article in Yoga Journal (November/December 1983). There are a number of teachers and therapists who strongly believe that they should be avoided altogether by everyone. They insist that no matter how "safely" we imagine we’re performing them, ultimately bearing the weight of the body on the cervical spine is detrimental to its health. Others though, as Arthur did, while acknowledging the need for caution (and recognizing the poses may not be appropriate for everyone), just as strongly believe in the enormous benefits of a safe and sane practice of the pair. In the end, the decision to do or not to do is up to you, though if you decide on the former, it should always be undertaken with the guidance of an experienced teacher.
We can talk about this a little more if you like this coming Sunday morning, when my first Sunday class congregates at (yawn) 8:30 am (yes, ante meridiem) at 3966 Piedmont Avenue (You and the Mat). Click here to sign up now. We’ll go for 105 minutes until 10:15, after which we might head over to Trieste for a breakfast bagel. Hope to see you then. Richard