If shoulderstand isn’t already integrated into your practice, it may be one day so understanding how to keep this inversion safe will keep you on your mat. First things first, know your body; every pose is not right for everybody. Certain conditions are contraindicated for inversions. If you have a detached retina or any other condition where you know you should avoid an increase in pressure in the head or chest, you will want to eliminate shoulderstand from your practice. If you have a headache, women on their cycle, or those with neck issues, generally want to avoid the pose as well.
When deciding if shoulderstand is right for you, work with bridge first. Lying on your back with your knees bent, feet hip width apart. Press your low back into the floor tilting your pelvis up, and then continue to lift your hips off the floor. Clasp your hands underneath your buttocks and then roll each shoulder underneath the torso. Notice that the weight of the pose is now on your shoulders, arms and the back of your head. You should have enough room to slide a pencil between your shoulder blades. This is exactly how shoulderstand should feel, on the shoulders, not in-between them. If rolling the shoulders underneath your body is difficult for you, work with bridge a while before moving on to shoulderstand.
Most students roll into shoulderstand on a clean mat, with nothing underneath them. First of all, if you are unable to roll the shoulders underneath you, all the weight of your body is now on your cervical spine, your neck. Even if you do master getting the weight on your shoulders the back of the neck is flattened on the floor with most of your body weight pressing down on just a couple vertebrae. Over time shoulderstand will flatten the natural curve in your neck by overstretching the nuchal ligament that runs along the cervical vertebrae and helps support the weight of the head.
So how can you do shoulderstand safely when there seems to be so many contraindications? A supported shoulderstand, like taught in the Iyengar system, is much safer for the neck. The only change from your beloved pose is adding 2-3 blankets. Most blankets at the studio are already folded the way you need for the pose so just stack at least 2 on top of your mat. Have the folded edge facing the back of the room and the fringe edge towards the front. You can always flip the end of your mat on top of the blankets to give you some extra traction. Lie back on the blankets with your head on the floor, not the blankets. Feel that you have about two inches between the edge of the blankets and your shoulders. Now roll into your shoulderstand. Look at the ceiling to avoid turning the head to either side. The extra height of the blankets may seem strange at first but now your neck can maintain it’s natural curve while the weight of the body is distributed to the shoulders and the back of the head.