If you want to keep learning from your yoga practice, you need to set yourself a challenge, but it has to be the right kind. If it’s too easy, you’ll get bored; if it’s too hard, you’ll get frustrated. When it’s just right, it will keep your practice fun and fascinating—and you’ll keep growing.
Unfortunately, you may rule out a whole class of poses—low-to-the-ground arm balances like Bakasana (Crane Pose), Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose), Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose), and their relatives—that could give you this ideal level of challenge because you mistakenly think you lack the necessary strength.
It’s certainly true that some of these poses rely mainly on muscle. But others rely more on flexibility, body positioning, and leverage than on brute force. When you understand how to complement your strength with flexibility and leverage, these arm balances lose their mystique, and you can work toward mastering them. They demand effort, but they’re well worth it. They build strength in your arms, shoulders, chest, abdomen, and back; promote deep flexion of your trunk and hips; enhance strong spinal twisting; and increase your mental focus. In addition, arm balances can give your confidence a good boost. As you overcome challenges through a combination of insight and hard work, mastering poses you once thought were impossible, you naturally start to wonder what other “impossibilities” you might be able to overcome.
LEARN THE TRICKS
In a few arm balances, including Lolasana (Pendant Pose) and Tolasana (Scales Pose), most of your body weight hangs from your shoulders. These poses demand a lot of strength in the upper arms, shoulders, and chest, as well as in the abdomen and legs.
But in most arm balances, you support yourself by placing one or both legs on your upper arms. In some of these poses, like Tittibhasana and Bakasana, you can reduce the work of lifting your body by positioning both legs on the upper arms so your forearm bones bear most of your weight. In other arm balances, one leg rests on one arm while the other leg is unsupported. These poses—Eka Pada Koundinyasana I (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Koundinya I) and Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, for example—require not only substantial shoulder strength but also extra power from your leg, abdominal, and back muscles to lift your unsupported leg and prevent overtwisting in the upper torso.
Although one or both legs may be supported, and although there are three different placements of your legs—inner thigh, shin, and outer thigh—on top of your arms, in all cases the pose will be much easier if you position your leg as high up on your arm as possible and as far toward the back of your arm as possible. In fact, having the flexibility and the know-how to get your arms and legs into this optimal relationship is often the difference between being able to do these poses elegantly and not being able to do them at all.
Once you get your legs properly placed against your arms, the next step is getting your legs off the ground. The key to this is lifting and shifting your body to bring your center of gravity directly above your base of support. The instant you do, your hands bear all your weight. Your legs suddenly become light and often lift off the floor without any additional effort.
In all arm balances, keep the center of your palms lifted and your fingers active. Place equal weight on your inner and outer hands. Often, this means pressing the base of the thumb and the base of the index finger down to counteract the tendency to shift weight to the outside edge of the hand. These actions help engage the arm, chest, and shoulder muscles you need to get airborne and to balance.
Finally, remember that many arm balances require friction between your arm and leg. Usually, skin-to-skin contact works best, so avoid slippery sleeves, pants, and tights. Too much sweat can also make you slip, so keep a towel handy.
TAKE THE TEST
If you can hold Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose), Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III), and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Downward-Facing Tree Pose, a.k.a. Handstand) against a wall for at least 45 seconds, you’re probably strong enough in your arms, shoulders, chest, abdomen, and back for most arm balances. If you can’t hold these poses that long, continue to practice them to build strength.
If you can squat with your trunk rounded forward between your thighs and your shoulders lower than your knees, you probably have enough flexion in your spine and hips to practice the shin-to-arm and inner-thigh-to-arm arm balances. If you can get the top half of your upper arm on the outside of your opposite thigh in Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) and Pasasana (Noose Pose), you probably have enough rotational flexibility in your trunk and spine to practice the outer-thigh-to-arm arm balances. If you can’t bend that far into these preliminary poses, you need to keep practicing them to build flexibility.
Ideally, you should also have sufficient wrist extension to place your palms flat on the floor and then move your forearms perpendicular to the floor without feeling pain. If you have wrist problems, you may be able to practice with special hand props, such as wedges that elevate your wrists or dumbbell-like gripping bars.
PREPARE FOR TAKEOFF
Before practicing arm balances, start with a few simpler poses, including Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Adho Mukha Vrksasana, Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana. But don’t hold the strength poses too long, so you can conserve your energy for the arm balances.
Once you’ve awakened your torso, hip, and leg muscles, do three forward bending poses—Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), Malasana (Garland Pose), and Dwi Hasta Bhujasana (Two-Handed Shoulder Pose)—to prepare for the deep hip and spinal flexion required for our first arm balance, Tittibhasana.
Set up for Upavistha Konasana with your legs slightly closer together than usual to make its alignment more like that of Tittibhasana. Then fold forward into the pose. (Don’t force the movement, because it can be hard on your spinal disks.) Hold this position for a minute or more.
Next, come into a preparatory variation of Malasana. Squat with your feet as close together as possible. (Keep your heels on the floor if you can; otherwise, support them on a folded mat.) Separate your thighs to make room for your trunk. Exhaling, tilt your pelvic rim, waist, and lower ribs forward between your thighs. Walk your hands far forward on the floor to elongate the front of your body.
From your next pose, Dwi Hasta Bhujasana, you’ll move directly into Tittibhasana. In both poses, you’ll tend to fall backward if you can’t get your legs high up on your arms, so put a bolster or a couple of folded blankets behind you as a crash pad.
To come into Dwi Hasta Bhujasana, squat with your feet a little less than shoulder width apart. Tilt your pelvis forward and bring your trunk between your legs as you did in the Malasana variation. Then, keeping your trunk low, straighten your legs enough to lift your pelvis to about knee height. Bring your left upper arm and shoulder as far as possible underneath the back of your left thigh just above the knee, and place your left hand on the floor at the outside edge of your left foot, fingers pointing forward. Then repeat these actions on your right side.
The next step is to lift yourself off the floor, not by raw strength but by carefully shifting your center of gravity. Press your hands into the floor and slowly begin to rock your weight back, off your feet and onto your hands. Your feet will rest more and more lightly on the floor, and eventually lift off spontaneously. At that moment, your center of gravity will be exactly where it needs to be.
FLY HIGH (figure 1)
To make the transition from Dwi Hasta Bhujasana to Tittibhasana, keep your inner thighs as high on your arms as possible. With an exhalation, stretch your legs out as straight as you can, keeping your pelvis high to make your legs parallel to the floor. (There are two common versions of Tittibhasana, one with the legs nearly vertical, the other with the legs horizontal. We’ll do the horizontal variation because it provides better preparation for Eka Pada Koundinyasana II.) Press the balls of your feet farther away from you than your heels, but pull your toes back toward you and spread them apart. Press the inner edges of your feet away from you and draw the outer edges slightly back.
To finish the pose, straighten your arms as much as possible. Move your breastbone back toward your spine, as if to make your chest concave; round your upper back; and move your shoulder blades as far apart as you can. (These actions will lift you higher.) Without tensing your neck, lift your head and gaze forward. Breathe slowly and hold the pose for 15 seconds or longer.
ROUND UP (figure 2)
Before practicing Bakasana, move your crash pad in front of you; you’re much more likely to tip forward than backward in this pose. Next, compact your body and get your arms in place. Squat with your feet together, then separate your knees a little. As you exhale, walk your hands forward on the floor and tilt your pelvis, side waist, and side ribs far forward between your thighs, just as in Malasana. Rounding your trunk deeply forward, pull your elbows back to bring your shoulders, outer armpits, and upper arms into contact with your shins as low on the shins as possible.
Next, place your hands flat on the floor about shoulder width apart and with your middle fingers pointing straight ahead. Your elbows should end up very close to the ground. Notice the point of contact between your upper arms and your shins. Shift this contact point as far around toward the outside of your shins as you can get it, and as high up and far back on your upper arms as possible. Then slide your upper arms a little closer to your ankles, pressing them firmly into your shins; maintaining this pressure, slide them up so the arm flesh rotates maximally outward on the arm bone. This will lock the arm muscles in place so they don’t roll out of position when you’re airborne.
Without sliding your arms along your shins, slowly lift your heels high off the floor, raise your buttocks several inches, and unbend your elbows a bit. Keeping your pelvis lifted, carefully shift your body weight forward and come higher up on your toes. If you get your center of gravity above the point midway between your hands, your feet will become very light. Lift one foot, then the other, off the floor. Your arms will still be bent, but you’ll be balancing all your weight on them.
To finish the pose, bring the inner edges of your feet firmly together and press them strongly away from you, pulling their outer edges toward you. Compress your body into the tightest ball possible by drawing your heels toward your buttocks and your buttocks toward your heels and then contracting your abdominal muscles, hip flexors, and inner thigh muscles to bring your knees toward your chest and toward one another. As in Tittibhasana, draw your breastbone in toward your spine and round your spine. Exhaling, lift yourself high off the floor by pushing down firmly through your hands, moving your shoulder blades far apart, and straightening your arms as much as you can without letting your shins slide down. Lower your hips so your body becomes more horizontal; try to avoid the all-too-common nosedive position many beginners take in Bakasana. Finally, lift your head, gazing forward without strain. Remain in the pose for 10 seconds or longer, breathing evenly.
TWIST AND SHOUT (figure 3)
The key to Parsva Bakasana is twisting enough to place the outer edge of one upper arm far around the outside of the opposite thigh. Begin by standing with your feet together, then bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Take your left elbow to the outside of your right thigh. Soften your waist. Exhaling, twist your trunk to the right, bringing your left lower ribs across toward your right thigh as far as you can. Slide your left arm down the outside of the right thigh, bringing your outer armpit as close to the outer thigh as you can. Without sliding your arm back up, do a backbending action with your spine and draw your right shoulder back to twist your trunk more deeply.
Exhaling each time, repeat these twisting actions until you reach your maximum rotation. Then slide your left upper arm several inches toward your right hip and press it firmly against your right thigh; maintaining this pressure, draw the upper arm back toward your right knee without allowing the skin to slide. This will rotate the flesh of the upper arm outward, locking it in place. Once your arm is in position on your thigh, note the point of skin-to-skin contact. Try not to change it throughout the pose.
To place your hands on the floor, lower your pelvis until it’s a few inches above your heels and straighten your left elbow. If your left hand reaches the floor, place it palm down. If not, tip your body to the right until you can put your palm down flat. Maintaining contact between your left upper arm and your right outer thigh, lean even more to the right until you can place your right hand on the floor. Your hands should be shoulder width apart and your middle fingers parallel. Most of your weight will still be on your feet.
Concentrate on maintaining the point of contact between your left arm and right thigh as you slowly lift your pelvis and shift it to the right, aiming to bring the middle of your abdomen above and between your hands. This is not the precise balance point, but if you get this close you’ll probably be able to find the perfect position by feel. As you get close, the weight on your hands will grow, while that on your feet will decrease until they lift easily.
Now put the finishing touches on the pose. Keep your feet together and press out through their inner edges. Draw your heels toward your buttocks. Exhaling, soften your waist to prepare it to twist; then pull your left hip strongly down and lift both feet up. Your left arm may remain slightly bent, but straighten it as much as you can without allowing your legs to slide down. Straighten your right arm completely, lifting your right shoulder and allowing your spine to twist as you do so. Lift your chest, lift your head, and look forward. Breathe evenly and naturally. Hold the pose for 10 seconds or longer, then repeat it on the other side.
LIFT AND SEPARATE (figure 4)
Like Parsva Bakasana, Eka Pada Koundinyasana I is a twist, but it’s one in which your legs go their separate ways. Come into it from a standing position. First bend your knees as if to squat, then take your left knee to the floor. Turn your left foot so it points to the right and sit on top of it. Cross your right foot over your left thigh and place it, sole down, beside your left knee. Your right knee should point toward the ceiling.
To twist, bring your left waist, side ribs, and shoulder around to the right. Place your left upper arm across your right thigh and slide your left outer armpit down the outside of the thigh. Use actions similar to those you used in Parsva Bakasana to maximize your twist and make good contact between your left upper arm and right outer thigh. Maintaining this contact high on the arm and far to the outside of the thigh is the secret to the pose.
To place your hands on the floor, first straighten your left elbow and put your left palm down. (You may need to lean to the right to bring your hand all the way down.) To place your right hand, carefully lift both hips without losing the left-arm-to-right-thigh placement, lean even more to the right, and put your right hand on the floor. Your hands should be shoulder width apart, with your middle fingers parallel to each other. Most of your weight will still be on your knees and feet.
Without losing contact between your left arm and your right outer thigh, lift your hips so you can flip your left foot and stand on the ball of the foot, heel up. Next, lift your left knee off the floor so most of your weight is on your feet. Lift your hips a little higher and start shifting your weight to bring your whole trunk above and between your hands with the midline of the trunk parallel to your middle fingers. Leaning your weight slightly forward, bend your left elbow a little, then tilt your head and shoulders a bit toward the floor. This should leverage your right foot up in the air. When your right foot is up, lean your weight farther forward until your left foot becomes light, then lifts up.
To finish the pose, straighten both knees simultaneously. Lift the left leg until it’s parallel to the floor. Bending your left elbow more, lift your right foot higher, and reach out through the balls of both feet. Adjust the height of your right shoulder so it’s the same as the left. Lift your chest to bring your torso parallel to the floor. Breathing smoothly, hold the pose for 10 seconds or longer, then repeat it on the other side.
STEP FORWARD (figure 5)
Of all the arm balances in this sequence, Eka Pada Koundinyasana II requires the most strength. To come into it, start in Adho Mukha Svanasana, hands shoulder width apart. Step your left foot far forward, past the outside of your left arm, and place it on the floor well in front of your left hand. Bend your left elbow and twist your trunk to the right, dropping the left shoulder and the whole left side of the torso as low as possible on your inner left thigh. Pressing your thigh toward your body, slide your left upper arm and shoulder as far as you can underneath the back of the left thigh just above the knee. Place the back of your thigh as high up as possible on the upper arm.
Keeping your weight centered approximately between your hands, start to creep your left foot forward along the floor so more and more of the weight of the leg comes onto the arm; let the left foot naturally move a little to the left as you do this. When you can’t walk the foot any farther forward without lifting it off the floor, straighten the knee as much as you can, powerfully reaching the foot forward and out to the left side.
Bending both elbows, shift your weight far forward between your hands until you can lift your back leg. Lift strongly until that leg is parallel to the floor; then, keeping the knee extended, press straight back through the ball of your foot.
Lift your chest until your trunk is parallel to the floor, pressing strongly down through your hands to help maintain this position. Lift your head and look forward, keeping your eyes and brow soft. Breathe evenly. Hold the pose for 10 seconds or longer, then repeat it on the other side.
After you finish a good arm balance practice, you’ll probably feel exhilarated, excited about improving more next time, yet humble in the realization that there’s more to learn. This humility, even as you achieve one breakthrough after another, is perhaps the greatest lesson these poses have to offer.
A research scientist and Iyengar-certified yoga teacher, Roger Cole, Ph.D., specializes in human anatomy and in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. For more information, see http://rogercoleyoga.com.