Monday, 5 January 2015

INVERSIONS: Krishnamacharya's Head and Shoulderstand variation 1934 (Mysore) - 1980s (Chennai).

It is often noted that Krishnamacharya appeared to change his teaching drastically after leaving Mysore in 1950s. One suggestion is that this was in response to no longer being on a salary from the Mysore palace. The suggestion being that in Mysore he was free to teach exactly what he wanted to teach whereas after leaving Mysore he had to take into account his paying customers and perhaps soften his approach or focus more on therapeutic benefits.

However when we look at Sarvangasana and Sirsasana (shoulderstand and headstand) in Krishnamacharya's teaching we see little change perhaps between the early Mysore and post Mysore years.

NOTE: Most of the information we have regarding Krishnamacharya's teaching in Mysore is to the young boys of the Mysore palace where perhaps a highly structured and disciplined approach may have been required. Krishnamacharya's family mention that he would however have assistants (for example the teenage Pattabhi Jois, who would often take the main class through their practice, perhaps while Krishnamacharya himself taught individual students/patients in a side room). The Maharaja of Mysore himself was of course a student and patient of Krishnamacharya as was Indra Devi. 


Yoga Makaranda Part I  (1934)

Below, the pictures found at the front of Yoga Makaranda showing a photo shoot at Krishnamacharya's Yoga shala in the Mysore palace.

In Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda (1934) written while in Mysore and teaching the young Pattabhi Jois as well as BKS Iyengar, we find Shoulder stand and Headstand variations that we are perhaps familiar with from modern Ashtanga. The headstands below are found at the end of the current 2nd/Intermediate Ashtanga series, four of the seven variations.

Here's an old video of mine of the seven headstands (sometimes lovingly called the seven deadlies)

However at the back of Yoga Makaranda we also find this, niralumba sarvangasana, unsupported shoulderstand and this doesn't appear in any of the modern Ashtanga series.

The headstand variation below seems to have come from the same photo shoot as that conducted for Yoga Makaranda although the picture didn't appear in the text.

Yoga Makaranda ends with the photos of head and shoulder stands above but not the instructions for how to perform them, these are promised in a planned 'part II'. Why would Krishnamacharya leave these handful of head and shoulder stands out of the text unless perhaps there were many more variations that he was planning on sharing, too many perhaps to be included in the 'first Part'.


1938 Fim footage (Mysore)

In 1938, only four years after Yoga Makaranda, we have the documentary footage filmed in Mysore. The full movie runs to around 45 minutes and includes demonstrations by Krishnamacharya and his family including BKS Iyengar, Krishnamacharya's student and son-in-law. the section below featuring Krishnamacharya mostly concentrates on inversions.

Sarvangasana variations demonstrated by Krishnamacharya
Krishnamcharya sarvangasana variations 1938

Krishnamcharya sarvangasana variations 1938

Krishnamcharya sarvangasana variations 1938
Sirsasana variations demonstrated by Krishnamacharya
Krishnamcharya sirsasana variations 1938
Sirsasana variation demonstrated by Krishnamacharya's wife.

More Sarvangasana variations demonstrated by krishnamacharya's wife. 1938
Sirsasana variation demonstrated by BKS Iyengar
Sirsasana mandala variations demonstrated by Krishnamacharya's student and Son-in-law, BKS Iyengar. 1938


Salutations to the teacher, the eternal one/ Yoga Makaranda Part II (date unconfirmed possibly 1950's)

This text includes a section on Shoulderstands and headstands and is considered by AG Mohan to constitute Part II of Yoga Makaranda

Here are a couple of sample pages, the full 41 page text can be downloaded from my Googledocs page.

Notes from Yoga Makaranda part II

"In designing the SIRSHASANA and SARVANGASANA the rishis have automatically removed the above difficulties by adopting the topsy-turvy posture by which gravity will now aid in the free flow of blood to the organs of perception and also aid in restoring the organs in the lower part of the body to their normal places. 

These two asanas are both preventive and curative. In the case of those, however, who are unduly fatty, it is imperative that the body should first acquire some suppleness in the movement of the limbs by practicing mudras and pranayamas, before attempting these asanas.

Sayanacharya in his commentary on Patanjali’s YOGASUTRAS has given a lot of practical details to be observed in the practice of asanas. The main objective of SIRSHASANA and SARVANGASANA are not merely to arrange for a copious supply of blood to the head and upper part of the body but also to slow down the respiratory rate. 

When SIRSHASANA has been sufficiently mastered, the breathing rate which normally is about 15-18 a minute, automatically comes down to four a minute. The aim should be to reduce it to, two per minute. Thus at this rate, 24 rounds of breathing in SIRSHASANA will take 12 minutes.

It is laid down that SIRSHASANA should be done only in the mornings. This should always be followed by SARVANGASANA. The proper procedure is to do SIRSHASANA with 24 deep inhalations and exhalations. Take two minutes rest. Then do SARVANGASANA with 24 rounds of deep breathing. Take two minutes rest. Follow with some sitting asana. 

In SIRSHASANA the organs in the head and the brain get a copious supply of blood, the internal organs in the body get displaced upwards. The two minutes rest normalizes. In SARVANGASANA the blood supply to the head is restricted by resting the body on the neck and making the chin lock. The thyroid and the upper part of the internal organs of the body get displaced upwards. The two minutes rest normalizes. When a sitting asana is now done the internal organs regain their proper positions. This is the reason behind doing the asanas in this particular order.
Sayanacharya has mentioned six specific asanas for daily practice. He however prescribes that along with these some other asanas (this may vary each day) should be done.

In SIRSHASANA, normally no kumbhakam need be done (in the beginning), though about two seconds ANTHAR and BAHYA kumbhakam automatically result when we change over from deep inhalation to deep exhalation and vice versa. During the automatic pause, kumbhakam takes place. When after practice has advanced and kumbhakam is deliberately practised, ANTHAR kumbhakam can be done up to 5 seconds during each round and BAHYA kumbhakam up to 10 seconds.

In SARVANGASANA, there should be no deliberate practice of ANTHAR kumbhakam, 10
but BAHYA kumbhakam can be practiced up to 5 seconds in each round.
These deep breathings along with the asana help in slowing down the breathing rate with a consequent elongation of life. Sayanacharya prescribes that the number of deep breaths one should practice per day should not be less than 320. This number could be spread out during the day-some may be done along with asana in the morning and evening, some along with pranayama, morning, noon, evening and at midnight, or whenever some spare time is

There are instructions for a few of the sarvangasana subroutines in Yoga Makaranda part II

from Yoga Makaranda 1934, Mysore

This asana tones up all the centres, nerves, organs, joints etc. and hence is called SARVANGASANA. The asana is of two kinds with support and without support, the former is dealt with below.

1. Lie flat on the back, with legs stretched, knees close together and toes pointed. Raise the head and align the toes, knees and hand and return the head to the floor placing the chin on the chest. The arms lie stretched close by the side of the body with the palms touching the floor, fingers closed.
2. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply with a rubbing sensation in the throat, through both nostrils three or four times.
3. Slowly exhale and raise both legs together. Bring the body to an upright position, the neck resting on the ground. Bend the elbows and bring the palms up to support the back on either side of the backbone, the palms being placed as near the shoulder blades as possible. The elbows should not spread out but be placed as close as possible, the distance between them will be about 12 inches.


Yoga Makaranda, 1934, Mysore


1. Take three steps of Salamba Sarvangasana, so that the body is now resting on the back of the neck.
2.Reach the halasana position variation 2. 
3.While inhaling, raise both the legs together, legs being kept together and stretched, to an upright position, the arms still continuing to lie stretched behind the head.
4. Do deep breathing and try and balance the body so that the weight is supported by the shoulders. Try and lift the arms so that the palms rest on the thighs.
5. Take deep breaths.

Note: Start with 3 deep breaths. This number may slowly be increased by one round each week. Every care should be taken that there is no strain. The number of deep breaths can be increased to a maximum of 64.
6. Retrace the steps; the arms being taken to the position behind the head, the legs lowered to the Halasana positon, then raised to the upright position and get to the Sarvangasana with support position. The body is brought to the lying down position flat on the back, by a rolling movement as in the case of Salamba sarvangasana.
Note: This asana should not be attempted before mastering the Salamba Sarvangasana, halasana, ekapada Sarvangasana.
Benefits: Of the various types of Sarvangasana this gives the maximum benefits. The thyroid gets special benefits. The waist line is reduced. The liver is toned. This asana cures gastric troubles and piles. It also prevents these diseases.


After Sarvangasana, Halasana has to be mastered before taking up the practice of Niralamba Sarvangasana. Hence Halasana is being dealt with at this stage. The final posture resembles the plough and hence the name.


1. After coming to the Sarvangasana position, with the back upright, legs stretched and chin locked, Halasana is done as an extension.

2. The palms which support the back are brought down to touch the ground, so that the arms lie stretched with the palms down i.e., touching the ground, the fingers together and stretched. The distance between the palms should be about 12 to 18 inches.

3. While slowly exhaling, bring both the legs together slowly so that the toes touch the ground as far as possible. The back of the toes should touch the ground and not the tip of the fingers. This is done by bending at the hips, the back being as upright as possible and maintaining the chinlock. The legs have to be kept together straight and stretched, the knee together, the toes pointed and together, the thigh and calf muscles stretched.

There are a number of variations and these are given below. These are progressively more difficult.

1. In this variation the fingers of the outstretched arms are interlocked with the palms turned outwards and the thumbs touching the ground.

2. In the next variation the outstretched arms are brought behind the head, with a circular sweeping motion, the arms touching the ground till they are in a line with the shoulders. The palms are now upturned and the sweeping motion continued till the palms are near the toes.

3. After reaching the position in 2 above, the elbows are bent and the forearms are brought together to rest at the back of the top of the head. The right palm to catch the left elbow and the left palm catching the right elbow.

4. The next variation is where the forearms instead of being taken to the top of the head, are taken above the knees at the back of the legs. Thus the forearms are locked over the legs above the knee joint. The knees should not be bent.

Note: The positions described above give the final positions to be reached. But this may not be possible at the beginning of the practice. No attempt should be made to reach these positions by force. The bending should be made to the extent conveniently possible. With the deep inhalations and exhalations, the abdominal muscles get toned up and the body becomes more and more supple as practice advances. It is important to watch that at no stage is the body strained which will be indicated by the breathing getting laboured. By aiming to lower the toes by not more than 2-4 inches a week there should be no strain and the final position will be attained as practice advances.

4. Slowly and deeply, inhale and exhale, through both nostrils with rubbing sensation in the throat. The number of these deep breaths should in no case exceed six times.

5. While slowly inhaling the legs are raised together and brought to the upright position.

6. The body is brought to the lying down position flat on the back, by a rolling movement as in the case of Salamba Sarvangasana.

7. Rest for at least a minute.



1. Take the first three steps of Salamba Sarvangasana. The body is now resting on the nect, the legs are lifted in an upright position and the back is supported by the palms.
2. Lower the stretched legs by bending at the hips, and by giving a slight twist at the hips, so that the toes which should be pointed, touches the ground at a point 21⁄2 feet to the right of the right ear. This movement is done while exhaling. The legs should be together and kept stretched throughout. The right palm should firmly support the body at the back, so that when the legs are lowered to the right of the body, the trunk of the body may not also bend to the right side, the trunk should remain upright, and facing to the front.

Note: This asana should be done with the movement in step 2, always, first towards the right of the body.
3. Take three deep breaths. There should be no holding of breath. 
4. Swing the stretched legs with the hips as centre, so that the toes describe an arc of a 
circle on the ground, at the back of the head, till the toes reach a position, 21⁄2 feet to the left of the left ear.
5. While inhaling, lift the legs to the upright central position. 
6. Take two deep breaths. 
7. Now repeat the previous movements, by lowering the legs to the left of the body. 
This is steps 2 to 6 exclusive, except that “left” should be used wherever the word “right” has been used, and the word “right” where the word “left” has been used.
8. Do the normal Halasana, Central with the toes just behind the head. 
9. Take three deep breaths. 
10. While inhaling raise the legs to the right position. 
11. Take two deep breaths. 
12. Exhale, bend the knees, so that they approach the throat, remove the support of the 
palms, lower the hips so that the back rests on the ground, and then stretch the legs so that the whole forms a rolling movement.

13. Take rest.

Note: This asana can also be done as practice advances, without supporting the back with the palms. In this variation the arms are kept stretched as in step 1.


1. Tones up the liver and spleen. Prevents the disorder of these organs and effects a cure if these organs are disordered.
2. Reduces excessive urination.


Though this is a variation of Parsva Halasana-A it is introduced only here, as there will be greater facility in doing this asana if the asana previously described viz., Suptha Konasana is practised first.

The first two steps are the same as in the case of Parsva Halasana.

3. Move only the left leg in an arc, the toe always touching the ground, till the leg takes a position as far to the left of the body as is conveniently possible. The leg is moved while exhaling, and inhaling is done while the leg is at rest. The movement of the leg may be done by stages at first. As practice advances, the leg may be moved in a single movement.
4. Take six deep breaths. 
5. Bring the left leg back to the right, till the two legs are together. 
6. While inhaling, lift both the legs together, till they are upright and in the central 

7. Repeat on the right side.

8-10. These steps are the same as in steps 
11, 12 and 13 of Parsva Halasana.

Note: The palms of the hands support the hips throughout the asana.


1. After reaching the position indicated as the second variation of Halasana, hold the toes with thumb and forefinger of the respective hands.
2. While inhaling raise any one of the legs to the upright position as in Sarvangasana. The palm of the hand on the same side as the leg raised is also lifted so that when the leg is upright, the palm of the land rests on the thigh.
3. Do Pranayama. 
4. While exhaling lower the leg and move back the hand to the same position as at the 
5. Now repeat with the other leg.

Note: In the beginning the position described may not be possible. Some support to the back may be necessary at the beginning. The asana may therefore be done by starting with the first position in Sarvangasana when both legs are upright and the back supported by the palms and while exhaling slowly bring down one leg at a time, so that the leg reaches behind the head as in Halasana. The palms of the hands will still continue supporting the back. The necessary rounds of Pranayama are done in this position. Now repeat with the other leg. Bring the body to lie flat on the back with the usual rolling motion as described in Sarvangasana.
The pranayama in stage (3) will be done both holding in of breath after inhalation and holding out of breath after exhalation. The period of holding in of breath will be 4 seconds and the period of holding out of breath will be 2 seconds. The number of rounds of pranayama for each leg will be 3 rounds at the beginning which will be gradually raised as practice advances to six rounds.


This asana has to be practised as a preliminary measure before taking up the practice of the next asana to be described - 

1. Start with Sarvangasana, with the legs upright, stretched, knees together, the back supported by the palms.
2. Exhale and spread the legs still keeping them stretched, so that both legs spread equally on either side.
3. Inhale and bring the legs together. 
4. Rest. 
The number of turns should be only 2 rounds in the first week, and three rounds from the second week and four rounds after a month. 

After this asana has been mastered, 



1. Start with the Sarvangasana position where both the legs are upright, stretched, knees together, and the back supported by the palms.
2. While exhaling, bring one of the legs to the side. The left leg to the left side, and the right leg to the right side. The leg is kept stretched and leg lowered till the toe touches the ground and the leg is at right angles to the body. It will be necessary slightly to twist the leg for the toe to touch the ground. All this while the other leg should continue to be kept upright.
3. While inhaling the leg is brought back to the upright position. 
4. Some deep inhalations and exhalations are made in this position to give some rest. 
5. Repeat with the other leg. Each leg should be alternately exercised, and each leg 
moved the same alternatively exercised, and each leg moved the same number of times.

6. When both legs have come together after the necessary number of rounds, reach the lying flat on the back position with a rolling movement as in the case of Sarvangasana.

7. Rest.
Note: In the beginning it will not be possible to bring the leg down enough for the toes to reach the ground. No attempt should be made to force down the leg to reach this position. On the other hand effort should be made so that the leg does not sink down to a position so far down as to strain the muscles. It is important to see that the other leg is kept upright and stretched. As practice advances the final position will be reached.


This is the name given to this asana according to Raja Yoga. According to Hatha Yoga the same asana has been classed under Supthapada Angusta Asana.

This is closely related to Sarvangasana. It has a number of variations and some of them are given below.
1. Start with the first three steps of Salamba Sarvangasana. 
2. Get into the position of Halasana variation 2.
3. Now bring the palms of the hand to support the hips. Note the position of the palms and the fingers in this asana carefully. The palms are at the hip level and the fingers are pointing to the front. The position of the palms and fingers therefore differ from these of Sarvangasana. The position is such that the body can effectively be supported when finally it takes a horizontal position. the elbows in this asana will be closer than in Sarvangasana. 
4. While inhaling, lift both the legs together, so that the legs get to the vertical position and the movement continued till the heels touch the ground the body forming an arch, and is supported by the heels, elbows, shoulders and the back of the head.
Note: For beginners lifting the legs keeping them stretched may be difficult. For them to make the movement easier, the legs may be bent at the knees, the heels brought near the buttocks, and the bent legs now lifted so that the thighs occupy a vertical position. The movement is further continued by bending the body further at the hips, so that the body forms an arch. The legs are also somewhat straightened, so that the soles of the feet rest on the ground. Each leg is then straightened, till both of them are stretched, toes pointed and knees together. As practice advances, the position can be reached without bending the knees.
6. Lift the head and the shoulders, so that the body is supported only by the heels, and the two elbows.

Note: For beginners lifting both the head and the shoulders may not be possible. They should therefore try to lift only the head at first, so that the shoulders may act as supports. As practice advances, after the head has been lifted, and the body balanced, the shoulders should also be lifted 
and the final position reached.

7. In this final position not more than three deep breathings should be done. There should be no retention of breath.
8. Rest for some time.


Yogasanagalu 1941 (3rd edition 1972)

In the asana table in Krishnamacharya's second book Yogasanagalu (1941) Krishnamacharya seems to be referring to those headstands introduced pictorial in Yoga Makaranda part I.

However for the third edition Krsihnamacharya seems to have had new pictures made up especially for the new edition.

 "In order to publish the 3rd edition of the book “Yogasanagalu” and to help men, women, youth, old and patients practice appropriately, I used a new set of photos and expanded and altered many the topics regarding the practice". from the preface ( Yogasanagalu translation here)

Head and shoulder stand variations are treated extensively, many we have seen demonstrated in the 1938 film footage suggesting a consistency of practice and pedagogy.

Krishnamacharya demonstrating Sarvangasana variations, Yogasanagalu 4th edition (1984)

Krishnamacharya demonstrating Sarvangasana variations, Yogasanagalu 4th edition (1984)

Krishnamacharya demonstrating Sirsasana variations, Yogasanagalu 4th edition (1984)

Krishnamacharya taught the above variations and more besides to his long term student Srivatsa Ramaswami who collected them together in his books Yoga for the three stages of Life and  The complete book of Vinyasa Yoga following Krishnamacharya's own suggestion for the arrangement of the asana into groups. On Ramaswami's TT course at LMU in 2010 I showed him the pictures in the photocopy of Yogasangalu that I had just been sent and he mentioned that he remembered the photo's being taken as he was personally given a set at the time.


Vinyasa Krama Shoulderstand and Headstand sequences as presented by Srivatsa Ramaswami, student of Krishnamacharya for over 30 years, from 1950s-80s

Practice sheets from my Vinyasa Yoga Practice book.
Available on Amazon, in print and on kindle

See also my other blog

Below is a speeded up practice closely based on Ramaswami's presentation of inversions.

Krishnamacharya recommended to Ramaswami that he practice inversions following these general guidelines.

1. Preparatory supine asana
2. Legs relaxed for 3-5 minutes in Sarvangasana
3. Pratkriya ( perhaps salabhasana, danhurasana)
4. Sirsasana practiced as mudra, viparita Karani ( ie no variations)
5. 2nd Sarvangasana , this time with variations
6. Pratkriya (counterposture(s) 
7. 2nd Sirsana, with variations.
8. Seated asana

See my earlier blogpost replicating a section from my practice book on preparing for shoulder stand

Practice sheets from my Vinyasa Yoga  Practice book

Practice sheets from my Vinyasa Yoga  Practice book

Practice sheets from my Vinyasa Yoga  Practice book

Practice sheets from my Vinyasa Yoga  Practice book

Sharath, director of KPJAYI and Pattabhi Jois' grandson has mentioned in several recent 'conferences'  that longer headstands may be beneficial ('...although not in the shala, too busy'). An evening, rest day or moon day may be an opportunity to explore Krishnamacharya's variations in inversions especially upon consideration that they can be traced back to all the other elements of the current Ashtanga system. 

Benefits of Shoulderstand and headstand are outlined in Ramaswami's newsletter 


The next two pictures seem to be earlier than those shot for the 3rd edition of Yogasanagalu, 1960's perhaps


from Questions to Krishnamacharya from his students in 
Yogacarya Krishnamacharya - The Purnacarya. Edited by Mala Srivatsan.

20. How long should one stay in Sirsasana and Sarvangasana?

The time spent in each asana should be the same. The number of breaths taken in Sirsasana should be equal to the the number of breaths taken in sarvangasana. The length of each breath should also be equal. The postures are like the eyes of yoga. They strengthen the senses and the respiratory organs. A person with a heart problem should approach the practice of these asana-s with the utmost care. Only when a student is capable of doing sarvangasana should the teacher think of teaching him Sirsasana. people with asthma will have problems in practicing these postures. In the beginning these people should stay for two or three breaths only

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