Some people look at Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and say it resembles a locust at rest, but it's certainly not a resting pose. Just coming up into Salabhasana requires a great burst of energy, reminiscent of a sprightly locust's leap off the ground to gracefully throw itself backward. For yogis, the effort of lifting off the ground and staying there for even a few moments is intense, teaches focus, encourages mindful work, and ideally leaves you feeling tranquil yet alert.
As one of the first backbends that yoga students learn, Locust Pose can serve as a blueprint for finding good alignment in other backbends such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). Locust Pose strengthens the back and abdominal muscles, opens the chest, and cultivates the mindfulness needed for a balanced backbend. The strength it builds is also helpful in inversions, arm balances, and abdominal poses like Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose).
In many backbends, like Upward Bow Pose, for example, you rely on your limbs to push yourself upward against gravity. In Salabhasana, without the help of your hands and feet to press you away from the ground, the back and abdominal muscles have to work harder.
I have found that the key to the pose—and to all of yoga, for that matter—is to apply that work with virya (vigor). In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar defines virya as physical and moral strength, mental power, energy, and valor. But you can think of it as a calm mental focus that helps you channel intense, yet compassionate, effort. Iyengar says that when yoga students intensify their practice with virya, they will "leap forward with wisdom, total absorption, awareness, and attention."
When you begin practicing Salabhasana, you might feel as though you are barely getting off the ground. However, if you focus your attention on how high you go, you may feel strain in your lower back. Instead, you want to distribute the backbend throughout your upper, middle, and lower back, which requires you to open the chest. Although the back muscles contract, you also want to lengthen the spine so that you feel as though you are simultaneously reaching forward through the torso and back through the legs. The first variation here will help you access your upper-back muscles while opening and lifting your chest. The second variation will teach you to replicate those actions in a prone position without having to contend with the extra effort of lifting the legs. The final pose is a backbend that will rejuvenate you.
1. Up and Away
In Salabhasana, the chest broadens and the shoulders roll back, which requires some flexibility in the shoulders and strength in the upper back. This Locust variation teaches you how to coordinate the actions in the upper body while keeping a natural curve in the lower back, so you can safely begin to open the chest and experience the top portion of a mindful Salabhasana.
This variation also works to strengthen the upper back. In the final pose, the more your upper body contributes to the bend, the less likely you'll overarch your lower back and risk injury.
Begin standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your feet hip-width apart. Take a strap and make a loop slightly bigger than the width of your shoulders. Slide the loop around your wrists behind your back. Turn your upper arms out so that your palms are facing each other. Keeping your legs straight, lift the sides of your rib cage and broaden the collarbones toward the outer corners of the shoulders. Without disturbing your lower body or the rest of your torso, begin to slowly reach your wrists back away from the legs. Now roll the shoulders back and down toward the hands, and lift the sides of the chest higher. Press your wrists against the belt and push it backward away from you.
If you have tight shoulders and they automatically roll forward when you take your hands back, try widening the belt loop. The space between the arms and upper back should feel as though it's increasing. The farther back the arms and shoulders go, the more the top chest (especially the armpit region) moves forward. If your shoulders still roll forward and your neck feels congested, you may be moving too quickly. Channel your strength and work methodically to first move your shoulders back. Next, take your shoulder blades down and press them into your back, and then move your arms back. This will ensure that you're opening your chest.
Just when you think you have stretched fully, try engaging the back muscles further, releasing the upper back away from the neck and moving the shoulder blades down from the head and in toward the chest. See if you can lift the chest and arms a little more. Cut the bottom tips of the shoulder blades toward the spine, and make the upper-back muscles firm, supporting the fullness of the upper chest.
You may find that the arm and shoulder work pushes your lower back, bottom ribs, or pelvis forward. If that happens, lengthen through the sides of your waist, continue to press the tops of your thighs back so that the pelvis and abdomen don't swing forward, and lift from the bottom of your abdomen to your chest.
Pin the Tail
When you notice your shoulders and chest opening while your upper back is engaged, you can begin to work the legs and pelvis in the second Locust variation. First, lie down on your belly. Slightly raise the right leg and reach the feet and toes away from the head before lowering the leg back onto the floor. Do the same to the left leg. Spread the toes and press the tops of your feet into the floor. Pin the tailbone down toward the floor so that the buttocks and the front of your pelvis stay grounded.
With your forehead on the mat, rest your arms along the sides of the body, thumbs on the floor, with the palms facing your thighs. Lift the outer corners of your shoulders up away from the floor, roll the shoulders back toward your wrists, reach the wrists back, and broaden the chest. Exhale and lift your chest, head, and hands so that the arms extend parallel to the floor, palms flat. Cut the bottom outer tips of the shoulder blades toward each other to pull the shoulders back and open the chest further. As you reach the arms back, move the shoulder blades down the back and away from the head so that the neck remains long.
Apply a little more virya in the upper-back, leg, and buttock muscles to help raise your ribs off the floor while you keep lengthening your tailbone and bottom toward the heels. Finally, extend the inner edges of the legs toward the feet. After a few moments, come down and rest.
Legs in Flight
When you're able to work the upper back without lower-back strain, you're ready to lift into the final pose. Take the basic shape of the second variation. Lengthen the legs on the floor as you did before so that the front body feels long and free to move. Lift the outer shoulders away from the floor to help the upper back and shoulder blades move away from the neck.
As you press the tailbone and buttocks toward the floor, lengthen your abdomen toward your head. On the exhalation, simultaneously and with virya, lift the chest, arms, head, and legs. Reach the chest forward and up while lengthening the arms and legs back and up. When I practice the pose, I envision a locust in flight as my back works to give me upward and forward momentum.
Keeping the legs straight, turn the front of your thighs inward and lengthen the inner edges of the legs toward the big toes while the buttocks press down. If your legs wander apart and turn out, turn the thighs inward again, draw them together, and reach through the big toes. When you incorporate all of these actions, your muscles may feel tired, but the lower back shouldn't ache. You may even be able to observe that one side of your body works harder than the other. Use the extension of your arms and legs to help activate the weaker side of your body and create equal length on both sides of the back.
Even after only 20 seconds in the pose, you will notice the intense effort needed to maintain the virya of a locust. Stay in the backbend as long as you are able to remain attentive and energized. When you're ready, slowly come down. Stay on your belly for a few breaths, rest, and observe the energizing effects of the pose. You might just find that, as Iyengar suggests, when you practice with virya, you'll feel focused, alert, and propelled to pursue asana with enthusiasm.
Marla Apt, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor, teaches yoga and leads teacher training in Los Angeles and abroad.