Know the Asana: Shashankasana

Shashankasana (pose of the moon or hare pose)

Physiological basis of benefits

Shashankasana is a forward bending asana from the vajrasana series. It is a dynamic practice; however, the final position can be held statically as a relaxation posture.

Moving into the final position, the spine and para-vertebral postural muscles are stretched, opening the inter-vertebral foramina and releasing pressure on the spinal nerves. People with spondylitis or inflammation of the inter-vertebral joints are therefore greatly benefited. The stretching and relaxation of the back muscles help to reduce lower backache caused by overexertion or muscular spasm.

The postural muscles of the back are strengthened while bending forward and while returning to the upright position without the support of the arms. This is helpful for all types of backache. The training can be gradual, first by practicing with one hand holding the other wrist behind the back, and then in the course of time going on to the full practice.

The movement is mainly at the hip joints, complemented in the last phase by a forward bend at the cervical vertebrae. If there is stiffness in the hips, a large belly or tension in the lower back, the forward bend is spread along the whole vertebral column. This incorrect forward bend causes compression of the inter-vertebral discs, which is detrimental for people with prolapsed disc. Such people should be cautious and practice supta pawanmuktasana instead, with the lower back flat against the floor.

The base position of vajrasana compresses the veins in the legs, preventing venous pooling. Raising the arms encourages venous return from that area. Bending forward in the final position compresses all the abdominal organs, squeezing blood out of the liver, spleen, etc. and sending it to the heart. Deep inhalation further increases the venous return to the heart by a suction effect due to the negative pressure created in the chest. An increase in venous return leads to an increase in cardiac output. A larger quantity of blood goes to the head and neck area as the legs and abdomen are compressed.

In hypertension, diabetes, glaucoma, retinal detachment and physical brain disorders, the combination of an increased blood supply with poor venous drainage in the static posture is hazardous. Shashankasana should only be practiced as long as the final posture is comfortable.

In the dynamic practice the cardiovascular system may not adjust well to the rapid changes in the circulatory dynamics, which may lead to cerebral circulatory insufficiency. Rapid changes in the position and movement of the head and neck may induce giddiness and add to cerebral circulatory insufficiency. If this occurs, the practice should be discontinued. People with cervical spondylosis should also not undertake this practice.

Raising and lowering the arms as well as compressing and releasing the abdomen encourages deep inhalation and complete exhalation. The improved breathing pattern is beneficial especially for people suffering from asthma and chronic bronchitis. The compression of the stomach, small intestines and colon helps peristalsis and encourages upward and/or downward expulsion of gas. The pressure on the colon helps to relieve constipation, and when the fists are pressed against the lower abdomen, the digestive fire is stimulated and digestion improves.

The gentle compression of the female reproductive organs can be useful in managing certain gynaecological disorders and menstrual pain. The variation with the fists pressed against the lower abdomen increases the pressure.

Psychological benefits

In the final position all the muscles are relaxed, making it an effective relaxation posture. Awareness of abdominal breathing accentuates the relaxing effect. Many children like to relax in this position with the arms by the sides, which resembles the foetal position and creates a sense of security, as well as a feeling of surrender and acceptance. The additional psychological component intensifies the physical sense of relaxation.

The static posture is comforting when one is in pain or feels emotionally unbalanced. Long periods in static shashankasana influence the adrenal glands, and the practitioner experiences stress reduction and calmness. It is recommended for controlling frustration and anger, as well as balancing manipura chakra.

(For further details refer to Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, published by Yoga Publications Trust.)