There is a whimsical tale I first read more than 10 years ago in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. The story tells of an old frog who had spent his whole life in a tiny well. One day, a frog from the ocean came to visit him.
“Hello there,” said the frog from the ocean.
“Hello there, brother,” said the frog from the well. “Welcome to my well. And where, may I ask, are you from?”
“From the Great Ocean,” answered the ocean frog.
“I’ve never heard of that place,” said the frog from the well. “But I’m sure you must be thrilled to see my magnificent home. Is your ocean even a quarter this big?”
“Oh, it’s bigger than that,” said the ocean frog.
“Half as big, then?” asked the well frog.
“No, bigger still.”
The well frog could barely believe his ears. “Is it,” he continued skeptically, “as big as my well?”
“Your well would not even be a drop in the Great Ocean,” answered the visiting frog.
“That’s impossible!” cried the frog from the well. “I’ll just have to go back with you and see how big this ocean really is.”
After a long journey, they finally arrived. And when the frog from the well saw the immensity of the ocean, he simply couldn’t take it in. He was so shocked that his head exploded.
Most of us tend to think much like the frog from the well. Trapped inside the box of our own belief system, we think we know exactly what’s happening. We act as if the view from our well is the only valid one, as if our tribe, our club, our state, our political party—whatever group we happen to be a part of—is the best. As long as something is ours, it’s cool, it’s legitimate, it’s bloody righteous! We’re sure that all the other views out there in the world are the ones that are so screwed up, uncool, and evil.
So we blissfully go along in our little world. Meanwhile, the universe nudges us, trying to get us to open our eyes, expand our view, and notice what’s really happening. But we keep our eyes tightly shut, not wanting to look past the boundaries of our secure, known world. When we don’t take the hint, when we don’t consciously choose to open our eyes, the universe nudges a little harder. One day, if we keep ignoring all the hints, something happens that blows our mind. Just like that, whoosh: The bottom drops out. Maybe it’s the bottom of our family structure, or of our church or corporate community, or of a treasured relationship, project, or belief. Something we thought was absolutely indestructible suddenly falls to pieces. How could this have happened, we wonder? We were on such solid ground!
Many times, there is nothing really sudden about the catastrophe—or solid about the ground we were standing on. Like a house being eaten by termites, the structure had been degenerating for years, but we didn’t notice. When the house finally collapses, it’s a huge shock. We stagger. We fall down. We retreat. We grieve. But then, slowly, we begin to recover. And the shock, although painful, moves us forward into a new and broader way of seeing.
Taking on yoga as a discipline is a way of consciously agreeing to open our eyes and ourselves, of knocking down the walls of a tenuous shelter before it collapses in on us. Our practice forces us to acknowledge our restrictions and our limited perspective, and teaches us how to expand the boundaries of our world so that the first time we stick our nose out the door, our mind doesn’t explode into a million pieces.
The Edge of the Pond
Practicing difficult poses like Bhekasana (Frog Pose) certainly widens the boundaries of everyday experience. For me, as for many people, Bhekasana can be a real challenge; it’s a very powerful stretch for the front of the body and requires quite a strong backbend. Even though I’ve been doing the pose for nearly 25 years, it is a little different every time I practice, and so it’s always something of an adventure. Doing it is like walking to the edge of a marshy country pond and watching all the little pollywogs scamper away into deep water: You never know what the pond’s frog energy will be like on a given day. You never even know exactly where the edge of the pond will be; that depends on how recently it has rained. In the same way, depending on how much time I’ve recently spent sitting, hiking, gardening, biking, or whatever, Bhekasana may be easy or difficult or somewhere in between.
Since I never know just what I’ll find when I arrive in the pose, practicing it opens up my frame of reference and helps me see a range of possibilities. In Native American traditions, the frog often symbolizes cleansing and rebirth. It sings the song that calls the rain, which in turn replenishes the earth. When I practice Bhekasana, I often feel that I am purifying and creating new life.
In the second series of Ashtanga Yoga, one of the forms I practice and teach, we always do at least 10 Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations), a long series of standing asanas, and a couple more poses before we come to Bhekasana. I’m always grateful for all of this warm-up. And because I like to be as pliable as possible when I practice the pose, I try to pay special attention to Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), Mula Bandha (Root Lock), and Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock) to create heat in my body and focus my attention. If you are familiar with Ujjayi Pranayama, I recommend that you use it throughout your practice. This style of breathing—keeping the mouth closed and creating an audible aspiration at the back of the throat—is a powerful way to warm the body from the inside out. The sound created by this conscious form of breathing also provides the mind with a present-time point of focus throughout the practice.
There’s something of a Catch-22 quality to Bhekasana. Once you’re in it, the pose develops your flexibility and strength in a variety of places. But it often also seems as if you have to possess the same kinds of flexibility and strength in order to do the posture in the first place! For example, Bhekasana develops flexibility in the quadriceps and the fronts of the hips as well as in the chest muscles, but it also requires flexibility in these same parts of the body.
I suppose this Catch-22 holds true for most postures, but it seems especially so for Bhekasana, perhaps because everything in the posture is so strongly interrelated. To do any action the pose requires, it sometimes seems as if you must be able to do every other action the pose requires. The whole posture fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. For example, to get your hands into position to press down on your feet and stretch the fronts of your thighs, you need not only flexible quadriceps but also openness in your shoulders and chest, flexibility in your wrists, and strength in your arms and back.
To help develop some of the strength and flexibility needed for Bhekasana, we will work with four preliminary postures: Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), and Eka Pada Bhekasana (One-Legged Frog Pose).
Stretch the Quads
Bhekasana is a great quadriceps stretch, but these muscles already need to be fairly flexible for you to get into the pose. Supta Virasana is a really effective posture for helping you gain this flexibility. To come into it, kneel on your mat with your feet just far enough apart to leave space for your buttocks. Then sit back, bringing your sitting bones to the floor between your feet. You may find it useful, especially if you have large calves, to use your hands to drag the calf flesh away from the knee joint and slightly out to the side. This action will create the room necessary for the deep bend at the knees. Even more important, it will help you keep your feet exactly parallel, with the heels pointing straight up. This alignment is crucial for protecting the ligaments and tendons in the sides of the knees from being overstretched or injured.
Once you come into Virasana, place your hands on the floor behind you. On an exhalation, slowly lean back. Move evenly, rather than lowering first on one side and then on the other. As your quads and groins open, come onto your elbows and forearms. Pause here, lifting your pelvis and tucking your tailbone and buttocks flesh toward your knees to lengthen your lower back. If you can move deeper without strain, bring your back all the way to the floor and rest your arms alongside your torso. If your lower back dramatically overarches, your knees pop up off the floor, or your neck arches (rather than remaining neutral, with the back of the skull on the floor), come back up to your elbows; eventually, your front body will open enough to let you lie down with your spine in its normal curves.
Wherever you are in the pose, continue to gently tuck the tailbone and press down on the knees. Let your gaze be straight up toward the ceiling. Focus on your breath, release your lower ribs toward the floor, and try to relax into the stretch in the quads. Take anywhere between five and 50 breaths, then lift up to sitting again, leading with your breastbone and using your arms to help you come up evenly.
Begin to Backbend
The next posture, Ustrasana, can also be a big stretch for the front of the body and especially the thighs, and it is more active than Supta Virasana, initiating the backbend work you’ll need later on in Bhekasana. Ustrasana also shifts you out of your everyday frame of reference, asking you to look at the world both upside down and backward.
Begin by kneeling with your knees about hip width apart, the toes pointing straight back, and the tops of the feet flat on the floor so the heels point straight up. Place your palms on your buttocks. On an exhalation, tuck the tailbone and buttocks as in Supta Virasana, supporting the action with your hands, and press the tops of the thighs forward; at the same time, lift your ribs and slowly arch up and back. Pause here to inhale again. Then, as you exhale, continue to arch up through the whole spine, including the neck. Lift your sternum and look straight back over the top of your head. Reach your hands to your feet, placing the palms on the heels or the soles; either way, the thumbs should go to the outsides of the feet. Press the hands down firmly to help you lift and arch the upper back.
It is very important to protect the lower back from compression when you are practicing Ustrasana. A good way to do this is by vigilantly holding Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. If you’re not accustomed to those practices, you can protect your back by tucking your tailbone and lengthening your lower back in the opposite direction, so the lower part of your abdomen draws slightly back toward your spine.
With your spine and neck arching back and the abdominal area stretched like a drumhead, you may find your breathing a bit restricted, but try to relax and breathe as deeply as possible. Hold the posture for five to 10 breaths. Then simultaneously inhale, lift your sternum, and push off with your hands to rise back to your starting position.
Open the Shoulders
In many ways, Dhanurasana, our next posture, is very similar to Ustrasana, but it approaches the backbending action from a very different perspective. Like Ustrasana, Dhanurasana is a backward bend that asks you to bend your knees and reach behind you to hold your feet. But in the Dhanurasana position, you can use the leverage of the arms and legs to more effectively increase the opening in the shoulders and the back.
Various schools of yoga teach several variations of this posture. To come into the version I teach, lie facedown on the mat and bring the inner edges of your thighs, knees, and feet together. As you inhale, bend your knees and reach your hands back to grasp the outer side of each ankle. As you exhale, draw your tailbone toward the floor; this action will help lengthen your spine, protecting your lower back from overarching. Still keeping your knees, thighs, and feet together, lift your feet, head, and chest up toward the ceiling, creating a strong backbend. Rather than rocking back onto your pelvis and thighbones or forward onto your ribs, try to balance directly on your belly. Press your legs back into your hands and, in opposition, pull the hands forward; these actions will draw you into a deeper backbend, just like a bow drawn by an archer. Keep your gaze directed out past the end of your nose.
As in Ustrasana, it is very important to maintain correct alignment of the spine, and you can use exactly the same techniques as you did in that pose: Hold Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha to the best of your ability or, if those two practices aren’t familiar to you, tuck the tailbone and draw the lower abdomen slightly back toward your spine. Hold the pose for five to 10 breaths. Then, on an exhalation, slowly lower back down to the ground. Take a breath or two to recover and then repeat the pose. If you feel any compression in your lower back afterward, you can usually relieve it by lying on your back and gently bringing your knees to your chest.
Half a Frog
One way to ease into Bhekasana is to practice the one-legged variation, Eka Pada Bhekasana. This lets you focus on and open one side of your body at a time, which makes things easier when you tackle the complete posture.
To come into Eka Pada Bhekasana, lie facedown on your mat and prop yourself up with your left forearm parallel to your waistline. Separate your knees and thighs slightly. Then bend your right knee, reach back with your right hand, and place your palm on top of your instep, with your fingers pointing in the opposite direction from your toes. The classic version of Bhekasana uses a more demanding hand position that eventually provides you with better leverage and more opening; for now, though, this preliminary hand position will be just fine.
As you exhale, slowly push down on the foot, moving it alongside the outer edge of the right thigh. It is imperative that you keep the top of the foot precisely square to the ceiling and the heel pointing straight down toward the floor. Although you’re now on your belly rather than on your back, the alignment of the feet and legs should be essentially the same as in Supta Virasana.
As you work to draw the foot down, make sure you don’t roll to one side or the other, bringing more weight onto either your straight-leg hip or your bent-leg hip. (The more common tendency is to roll toward the straight leg, bringing the bent-leg hipbone away from the floor.) Instead, make sure the fronts of your pelvic crests are level and either on the floor or at least moving strongly in that direction.
Use the strength of your arm and shoulder muscles to draw the foot down. At the same time, lift your chest as high as you can. Let your gaze extend softly out past your nose. As in the previous backbends, use the bandhas or the tuck of the tailbone and engagement of the abdomen to protect your lower back from overarching. Take five to 10 breaths, then repeat the pose on the other side.
See the Ocean
To come into full Bhekasana, lie on your belly. Then inhale, separate the legs slightly, bend the knees, and reach back and grab the tops of both feet with the hands, just as you did with one leg and hand in Eka Pada Bhekasana. Then, if possible, pivot on the palms of your hands so your wrists point back and your fingers point forward, in the same direction as your toes. (If you can’t manage this hand position, just repeat the position you used in the previous pose.)
As in Supta Virasana and Eka Pada Bhekasana, make absolutely sure your feet are correctly aligned before proceeding further. Then, on an exhalation, firmly push down on the tops of the feet to bring the toes and heels close to the ground alongside the hips; at the same time, lift your chest, head, and shoulders into a backbend. Take five to 10 breaths in this position, then come out of the posture on an exhalation, slowly releasing down to the floor.
After taking a few breaths to recover, repeat Bhekasana. To bring your spine back to neutral afterward, move through a gentle Surya Namaskar before lying down on your back, bringing your knees to your chest, and giving them a hug. Then rest for a few minutes in Savasana (Corpse Pose).
In Bhekasana, the full weight of the body is pressing into the belly even as you stretch exactly the same area. The effect of this combination is to direct quite a bit of prana (vital energy) to the second and third chakras, just below and above the navel, respectively. Consequently, you may notice that the pose has a powerful stimulating and cleansing effect on the digestive, reproductive, and eliminative systems of the body.
As you become able to lift more deeply into Bhekasana, it’s likely that you will also notice that the strength of your arms helps improve the stretch in your legs. The harder you can push down with your arms, the more opening you’ll achieve in the fronts of the thighs.
As you develop strength through yoga, you’ll naturally become more flexible and open. Your strength will help you push against the walls of your limitations, expand your horizons, and test new waters. Like the frog from the well, your view of the world will become larger. But the change in your perspective won’t surprise you or make your head explode into a million pieces, because—unlike the frog from the well—you have chosen to make your way to the shores of the Great Ocean consciously and methodically, awake every step of the way.