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Salabhasana (Locust pose) - Issues and solutions

Nomenclature note: In my experience as a student and teacher of yoga, I have come across two quite different interpretations of what locust pose is. In one, starting from the prone position, the head and arms remain in contact with the floor and the legs are lifted as far as possible away from the floor – in the full version of this, legs are lifted so far that the abdomen also lifts off the floor and the legs curve over the head with the feet possibly reaching as far as the floor. In the “Light On Yoga”, B.K.S. Iyengar gives this pose the name of Viparita Salabhasana : these notes do not refer to this pose! The other pose is where the legs are lifted, but the abdomen remains resting on the floor and the head and arms may or may not be lifted (in the full version, they are so, and the whole of the spine is lifted in a backbend with the weight of the body “balanced” on the abdomen). In the “Light On Yoga”, B.K.S. Iyengar gives this pose the name of Salabhasana and the notes here refer to the latter pose.

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Salabhasana Pose Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Neck

            · Shoulders and some back muscles

            · Chest and thoracic spine

            · Lumbar Spine and abdomen

            · Hip Joints and legs

            Pregnancy




Neck

In the full version of this pose the neck is in extension. This can be problematic in standing poses (e.g. warrior 1) or in poses like camel where the weight of the head has to taken by the neck flexors. In locust pose this rarely causes problems because it is the strong neck extensors that have to do the work of controlling and maintaining the neck position. However, where the neck is already compromised or discomforted, practising with careful awareness, and stopping before the neck is discomforted, is obviously a good idea. In my own practice and teaching I tend to draw the chin in towards the neck and emphasize lifting the back of neck (rather than head), which happens to aid keeping the back of the neck long and thus reduces likely problems of over-extending the neck. But my primary reason for practising in this way is that it encourages extension in the thoracic spine.

The other issue to consider is the possibility that the thyroid gland will be “stimulated” by stretching in the front of the neck (especially if practised preceding or after a pose that squeezes the front of the neck). I am not sure that such “stimulation” actually occurs and, for most, it would be desirable, but for some thyroid disorders (over-active thyroids) stimulating the thyroid gland is not a good idea.

Of course, neither of the above issues come into play when the head remains resting on the floor. In this position, however, there is an issue of neck alignment and length and also of having enough room for one’s nose. In practice, both these issues tend to be sufficiently addressed by having the forehead resting on the floor with the chin somewhat drawn in towards the throat and, if necessary, placing a small thickness of towel between the forehead and the floor (or yoga mat).


Shoulders and some back muscles

The arm position for locust pose varies greatly in different versions. In some, even with the head and chest lifted, the arms are left relaxed against the floor. In others, the arms are lifted up from beside the trunk, or lifted or stretched out at shoulder level, or lifted from resting on the floor to alongside the head. In the former case, where the arms are not lifted, there is essentially no issue – except perhaps for those with “frozen shoulder” like problems where arms beside trunk are likely to be more comfortable than arms lying on floor alongside the head.

In the latter case, the ability to lift the arms to a significant degree is likely to be limited by strength and / or suppleness. The main muscles that lift arms off the floor in this position are the latissimus dorsi muscles – these are strong muscles that also aid in lifting the thoracic spine into extension. Because the latissimus dorsi muscles are being asked to do a lot of work, lack of strength here can be a cause of not being able to lift the arms very far or hold the arms lifted. Teres major and back part of the Deltoid also act to help draw the shoulders backwards. In terms of muscles that need to be stretchable to allow the arms to lift, we are talking about coraco-brachialis, pectoralis major and front part of the deltoid – and tightness in any of these may limit how high the arms can be lifted. All the muscles which move the shoulder (subclavius, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior, levator scapulae, rhomboideus minor, rhomboideus major and trapezius) are involved to some degree in keeping the shoulders steady to allow the arm movement – so tightness or weakness in these can limit how high the arm can be lifted or how long they can be held lifted. However, in practice, the main effect is either to limit how high the arms can be lifted or how long they can be lifted rather than causing problems – and, with practice of the pose, the weakness or tightness will tend to be improved.


Chest and thoracic spine

In general, the issues discussed in this section do not significantly apply when the head and arms are resting on the floor. When just the arms are lifted, these issues only apply slightly; with the head and chest lifted, they apply more so, and, when arms, head and chest are all lifted, these issues are most significant.

Breathing. When holding this pose, the breath is restricted. It is restricted somewhat in the lower part of the lungs due either to the weight of the body resting on the abdomen, or the abdomen being pulled taut so that the diaphragm has to work harder when it contracts. When the head and chest are lifted, breathing is also restricted in the upper and middle part of the lungs since the spine and ribs are held in a fairly extreme position. Combined with the effortful aspect of the pose (more oxygen needing to be carried to the contracting muscles), this pose thus gives a workout for many of the muscles of respiration. This is generally beneficial due to the muscles of respiration either being stretched (which helps to improve their elasticity) or having to work hard against resistance (which strengthens them). However, some people may find this uncomfortable at first and feel that they can’t breathe (cf. asthma) – such people need not hold the pose but can move in and out of it until they feel comfortable holding it.

Heart. This pose encourages the heart to beat harder and faster. This is generally beneficial for the heart as it gives it a bit of a “work-out” – helping it to stay fit and strong. However, for those with an already compromised heart, there is some danger that the heart will be asked to do more than it can cope with – such people should listen/feel to how their hearts are responding and should only hold the pose for short periods (if at all) until the heart has built up its strength and stamina again. Moving in and out of the pose, then pausing for a few breaths before repeating makes for a useful option. With practice, the pausing between each lifting into and lowering out of the pose can become shorter and shorter until one is able to lift in and out of the pose with each successive breath.

Thoracic Spine. It is very common to be quite restricted in how much one is able to extend (backbend) the thoracic spine or to have weak back extensor muscles. Neither issue will limit the lifting of the legs significantly but may greatly limit the ease of lifting the head and chest and/or arms. For the most part, the main effect is to limit how high the head and chest become lifted and/or how long it feels comfortable to hold them lifted. But being restricted in this area can lead to the lumbar spine being taken further into extension than would otherwise be the case – thus suggesting extra care of the lumbar spine is a good idea.


Lumbar Spine and abdomen

Generally, this pose is thought to be good for those with back problems – this is because taking the spine into extension acts like a counter pose for those who have strained their back when the spine was in a flexed position. However, for those with lumbar lordosis (excessive inward curving in the lower back), or for those with a highly mobile lower back, an issue to watch for is over-arching (over back-bending) of the lower back. This need not be a problem as long as one practises the pose so as to keep the lower back long. Consciously attempting to point the lower tail bone downwards (or press the pubis downwards) and / or keeping the abdomen squeezed inwards helps keep the lower back long. As always, you should practise with awareness of how the lower back feels and avoid lifting up so far that the lower back is discomforted.

Even when the head and chest are not being lifted, there is some tendency for one to feel body-weight being pressed through the abdomen. However, with the head and chest lifted, the body is balanced on the abdomen. This makes the pose unsuitable for those who have recently had an abdominal operation (and for those who are pregnant) – and with some other abdominal conditions. A good alternative is the Position of Joy (i.e. the second pose of the Sun Salutation) as this can practised with varying degrees of stretch for the abdominal area. Another alternative is to lie on one’s back and stretch one’s hands and feet away from each other – this lacks the back-bending component of the locust pose (and abdominal pressure), but still allows one to experience a similar sort of stretch. More generally, this pose (especially the full version) is highly beneficial for the abdominal area. The strong breathing (i.e. strong diaphragmatic movements), combined with inward pressure from the front of the abdomen (supplied by body weight and unyielding nature of the floor), results in there being fairly large pressure changes occurring in the abdomen with each breath. This has a “massaging effect” on the organs in the abdomen – encouraging: good peristalsis of the intestines (thus aiding the digestive and absorption processes); good blood flow to and from the organs in the abdomen; and good blood flow through the abdomen, in particular, aiding venous return of blood from the legs to the heart.


Hip Joints and legs

In this pose, the hip joints are taken into extension. Typically how high the legs are lifted is primarily limited by tightness in the hip flexors (ilio-psoas, pectineus, sartorius and rectus femoris) – usually, having the feet slightly wider than hip-width apart increases how high one can lift the legs because many of the muscles also adduct the legs. However, holding the legs lifted is likely to be limited by the strength and stamina in the leg extensor muscles (gluteus maximus and the hamstrings). In practice, the main effect of these limitations is to limit how high or how long one can hold the legs lifted – rather than actually causing problems. One area of caution is the lumbar spine – where hip flexors are tight, attempting to lift the legs will tend to increase the back-bending of the lumbar spine. This is only really likely to be an issue for those who are slim (a low volume of abdomen increases the degree of backbend of lumbar spine when simply lying prone) and also have a tendency to excessive lumbar lordosis (or have a highly mobile lumbar spine). Where this is an issue, practising with one leg at a time (and pressing downwards through the non-lifted leg) offers an option that is gentler / safer for the lumbar spine whilst still offering the same benefits for the hip/leg muscles.

The other issue to consider, if one is holding the legs lifted or repeating the lifting (and lowering) many times, is that this involves a lot of contraction of the hip extensor muscles. And this can encourage a tightening and shortening of these muscles as well as an increase in strength and stamina. The solution is to simply include adequate stretching of the muscles as part of one’s counterpose or “warming down” after practising the pose.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

In the later stages of pregnancy lying with weight on one’s abdomen is not an option : – usual alternatives offered are sitting fish pose (from sitting, lean backwards and place hands on floor and then lift chest) or standing cobra (from standing, clasp hands behind back draw hands downwards while rolling shoulders backwards and then, lifting arms away from back, encouraging chest to expand forwards) and position of Joy (i.e. second pose of Sun Salutation sequence). Other options to consider would be things like cat breathing (from all fours or standing cat) and sitting with a chair in front and resting hands and head on chair in such a way that encourages back bending in the upper back.

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