Many beginners avoid Lolasana (Pendant Pose), which seems to demand the arm strength of a superhero. But don't worry. Although Lolasana requires strong arms, a couple of nifty secrets will help transform a wimpy alter ego into a dynamo. Lolasana is well worth trying because it will strengthen your arms, upper back, and abdominals. Plus, you'll feel an exhilarating sense of accomplishment if you actually manage to defy gravity and take flight.
The Pendant, or Swinging, Pose asks you to tuck your torso and bent legs (with the ankles crossed) into a tight ball, then to raise that ball and support its weight with your arms. Once suspended, the ball is rocked between the arms like a swing. The ankles are crossed one way to start, then the pose is repeated with the ankle-cross reversed.
The histories of poses like Padmasana (Lotus Pose) are long forgotten, but we do know something about Lolasana's past. According to yoga researcher N.E. Sjoman, it was once known as jhula ("to swing" in Hindi) and belonged to a system of Indian gymnastics described in the early text "Light on Exercise" (Vyayama Dipika). The Mysore Palace's yoga teacher, T. Krishnamacharya, now recognized as one of the giants of 20th-century yoga, used the classic text and probably rechristened jhula and other exercises, elevating them to asana status and changing the face of traditional yoga forever.
To prepare for Lolasana, you'll need to learn how to round your torso, especially your upper back, and to open what I call the "arm circuit."
Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees, with your torso and head parallel to the floor. Position your knees directly below your hips, set your hands a few inches ahead of your shoulders at shoulder width, spread your palms, and press the bases (or mounds) of your index fingers firmly into the floor.
Focus first on your back torso. On an exhalation, press your tailbone down (toward the floor) and forward (toward your pubic bone), and bow your back up toward the ceiling. Hang your head to stretch the back of your neck, but don't forcefully press your chin to your chest. Lengthen as much as you can between the tip of your tail and the base of your skull.
Spread your shoulder blades (scapulas) as far away from your spine as you can, as if you're wrapping them around the sides of your torso. Resist this outward movement by pressing your outer arms inward, as if you were squeezing your arms together. When combined, these two actions will help to further round your back and strengthen your arms.
Ideally, your back torso forms a graceful arch. I say "ideally" because there's a small patch high in the upper back between the scapulas that frequently sinks into the torso, creating a depression that works against your fully lifted Lolasana. Have your favorite yoga partner locate this area and cover it lightly with her palm.
A light touch usually helps you find and then round this elusive spot. Round this area for 10 to 15 seconds, then release back to neutral.
Armed for Action
Yogis have mapped out thousands of energy channels in the human body, but they are subtle and often inaccessible to the average practitioner. Fortunately, modern somatic pioneers have mapped a couple of dozen or so of what might be considered modern equivalents of the yogis' channels. The big difference between the traditional and modern channels is that, for the most part, the latter run along the surface of the body and so are considerably more accessible and applicable to everyday practice. They help us monitor and adjust our alignment and create openness along with stability or strength.
Modern channels usually come in complementary pairs to form a circuit. Take, for example, the two channels that make up the arm circuit, which you'll use in Lolasana: The outer arm channel runs from the shoulder to the pinky (down the arm), while the inner arm channel runs from the base of the index finger back to the shoulder (up the arm).
From a neutral tabletop position, round your back again by spreading your scapulas into the resistance of your outer arms. Imagine a stream of energy running down your outer arms from your shoulders to the floor, its counterpart flowing up your inner arms to your torso. Feel how the outer-arm channel anchors you to the floor (or earth) and the inner-arm channel hoists you toward the ceiling (or sky). Hold this circuit in your imagination for a minute or two, then release back to neutral. Repeat the exercise a few times.
The belly is the final secret. From the tabletop position, round your back but now initiate the movement by decisively pulling your navel toward your spine and closing the space between your pubis and sternum. Counter the lift of your navel by pressing your index finger bases deep into the floor. Hold for 30 seconds, release, take a few breaths, and repeat a few times more. Now you're ready for Lolasana proper. Almost.
Freud once said, "Anatomy is destiny." He wasn't talking about Lolasana, but the saying certainly applies. If you have a long torso and short arms, you're destined to use a block under each hand, because otherwise you have little chance of lifting yourself off the floor, let alone swinging. Blocks will come in handy regardless, while you develop the strength to lift into Lolasana with your hands on the floor.
Blocks for Takeoff Time
Kneel with your thighs and torso perpendicular to the floor and the blocks on either side of your hips. Cross your right ankle under your left, set the fleshy base of your pelvis on your left (higher) heel. Yes, it's uncomfortable. Try to find a relatively pleasant seat; if not, simply uncross your ankles and sit on your side-by-side heels. Save crossed ankles for another day.
Press your hands into the blocks. On an inhalation, lengthen your front torso. On an exhalation, ball your torso up, lift your knees away from the floor but keep your feet on the ground. This modified Lolasana, with the feet still on the floor, can substitute for the full version for now. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds with your head in a neutral position. Release your knees to the floor, take a few breaths, recross your ankles, and repeat.
If you felt reasonably confident with this modification, then you're ready to tackle the full version. Do what you just did, but this time try to lift the shins away from the floor as you lift your knees on the exhalation. Here's one more secret (assuming the right ankle is crossed below the left): In the ready position, lift your left knee off the floor, then when you exhale into your ball, push that knee downward, using the right ankle as a fulcrum, and squeeze your right shin firmly up. The left leg will act like a lever to lift the ball of your body away from the floor.
This time hold the pose as long as you can—don't be surprised if it's only a few seconds—and don't try to swing unless you feel fairly stable.
Then release and repeat as before, reversing the ankle cross. When you're finished, you might want to sit on your heels, press your palms to the floor just behind your feet (fingers pointing to your toes), lean back, and lift your chest. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, then sit upright on an inhalation, leading with your heart.
Lolasana can be discouraging, but with diligent practice you'll develop what you need to do the pose: arm, wrist, and belly strength. Lolasana is also a valuable preparation for more advanced arm balances like Bakasana (Crane Pose). If at first you don't succeed, remember what Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: On this path no effort is wasted, no gain is ever reversed.
Contributing editor Richard Rosen is the author of Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals.