Remember Twister? It was "The game that ties you up in knots!" Introduced in the 1960s, Twister took off after Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor played a risque version of it live on The Tonight Show. The point was for players to stretch in all directions; learn to balance on their hands and feet in strange positions without falling over; interact with friends in a new, slightly outrageous way; and of course, have fun!
Practicing Garudasana (Eagle Pose) is like playing a solitaire version of Twister. You twist and stretch and wrap your limbs around each other, until you can barely tell right from left. When you first try it, you might fail to see the playful spirit of Twister in the pose. You may find yourself gripping at your wrists and ankles, or unnecessarily clenching muscles as you attempt to balance on one foot.
To find ease and a feeling of freedom in the pose, it might help to think about the myths behind Garudasana's name. Garuda, though often translated as "eagle," is actually a mythical bird in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. As the vehicle of the god Vishnu, Garuda is said to be the king of birds. In Tibetan traditions, the garudas are considered a magical species; they are often described as "outrageous" because of their extraordinary ability to fly and fly and fly... and never land. They never have to land because they never get tired. And they never get tired because they ride the wind.
In Garudasana your body might feel awkward and constricted, but you can still ride the wind like an eagle. "Riding the wind" means riding the flow or energy of any situation or any challenging pose. Not to be confused with going with the flow or getting bowled over by circumstances, riding the energy of a situation means remaining open to what is occurring and finding a way to become stable, spacious, and steady within that situation, without resistance. When you resist, you're more likely to get tired and give up. In Garudasana, resistance will likely cause you to tense up and lose your balance. But when you stay open to possibilities, even when faced with obstacles, you may find that your energy renews itself endlessly.
And boy, does Garudasana offer some obstacles! This pose is like a climbing vine that wraps around itself. Trying to find a sense of stability and spaciousness inside that situation is rather outrageous! But even if you feel closed in when you're doing it, this pose is good for opening your body. It stretches and broadens the area between the shoulder blades, releasing upper-back tension and opening the back of the heart. It also stretches your shoulders, ankles, hips, and wrists. And it broadens the sacrum, an area where many people typically hold a lot of tension, and softens the groins, which allows a free flow of energy in the lower body.
So how do you do it? Start at the beginning and go one wrap at a time.
Like all other yoga movements, twisting and wrapping are made up of smaller actions that can be practiced in isolation. Get a feel for these actions by lying on your back with your legs bent, feet as wide apart as your mat. Give yourself a hug with your right elbow over your left elbow. Let both knees slowly fall to the right in a gentle twist often called Windshield Wipers. Your left groin crease will deepen as the thigh releases down and folds over the pubic area—it will feel like a softly closed envelope. When the windshield wipers go the other way, your right groin will deepen. You will want to find this internal rotation of the thighs and deepening of the groin later, in Garudasana, when the two actions will give you the space to wrap one leg over and around the other.
After you shift back and forth several times, unpeel your arms into a wide T and then hug yourself again, with the left elbow on top. Slowly do a few more Windshield Wipers, paying special attention to the sensation of your sacrum broadening against the floor and your back muscles widening between your shoulder blades. Try to maintain a body memory of Hugging Windshield Wipers as you stand up and come into Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
Step On It
All standing poses, including Garudasana, are built on the foundation of Tadasana. To prepare for Garudasana, begin by standing with your feet directly below your sitting bones and place a yoga block near the outside of your left foot. Put your hands on your hips. Press your pelvis down with your hands to ground yourself and feel a sense of connection to the earth. As you ground down, feel a corresponding lift up through the crown of your head and a lengthening of your spine.
When you feel stable, extend your arms forward. Reach out through the ends of your fingers; you can even reach from the spaces between your fingers. Try to find this outgoing energy in the fingers without letting them get hard or making jazz hands. Balance the reaching-forward action with its opposite—pulling your arm bones all the way back and tucking them into your shoulder sockets. Now try drawing them back so much that you are squeezing the shoulder blades toward each other, and the muscles in between them are scrunched together. Reach out through your fingers and then draw the arm bones back again, this time with a little bit less effort. Repeat this a few times until you can feel that your arm bones have settled into the sweet spot of the shoulder sockets.
Bend your right knee and press into the balls of your right toes. Imagine trying to balance a nickel on your right knee as you slowly lift your knee up to the level of your hip. Bend your left leg slightly, but maintain the long spine you found in Tadasana. Now try to replicate the feeling you discovered in Windshield Wipers: Slightly rotate both thighs inward to broaden your low back and deepen your groins. Then, cross your right thigh over your left thigh, as high up as you can—as if you had to go to the bathroom really badly! Touch your right toes to the block on the outside of your left foot. Notice that the more deeply you bend your left knee, and the more fully you rotate your thighs inward, the easier it is to wrap your right leg over your left.
From here, reach your arms out in front of your torso. Crisscross your forearms, with the left forearm on top. Bend your elbows, press the backs of your palms together, and lift your elbows to shoulder level. You will likely feel a nice opening across your upper back.
Reestablish the grounding and lifting energies of Tadasana inside your personal game of Twister. Feel the wideness of your sacrum and the broad opening between your shoulder blades that you felt when you hugged yourself. At the same time, relax into the closing-in feeling of the front body. Try to experience this shape as a way to be quiet and grounded. Stay here for five deep breaths. Then unwrap your arms and replace your hands on your hips. Unwrap your right leg and stand in Tadasana. Take a moment to observe the effects of this pose and how your body feels after having done it on only one side. Now repeat it on the other side.
Using the block and doing a single wrap with the arms and the legs is a great way to prepare for Garudasana. If you find it interesting and challenging, continue to practice this way for a while. When this version of Garudasana feels steady and you are reasonably comfortable in your body, breath, and mind, try the next step, which is the double wrapping of the full pose.
Wrap It Up
Begin in Tadasana with your hands on your hips. Bend both knees and slowly wrap your right thigh over your left. Then curl your right foot behind your left calf, and hook it there. You should not feel strain in either knee, and your left knee should remain facing forward. Make sure that your top leg is not pulling your left knee off your midline and over to the right. If that is happening, it means that your right hip and thigh are not open enough for you to do the double wrap and still ensure the safety of your knees. Go back to the single wrap, with or without using a block.
Next, reach both arms out in front of you and wrap your left arm over your right, this time crossing the left elbow over the right upper arm. Now, slide your right hand toward your face, cross your forearms, and press your palms together, raising the elbows to shoulder height. Make sure your hands are pressing flat against each other, fingers long. If your hands are curling and your fingers are grabbing at each other, it means there is constriction in your upper back, shoulders, or wrists; in that case, you will be better served doing the single arm wrap for now. Otherwise, stay here for five deep breaths and feel the stretch through your upper back. Repeat on the other side.
Ride the Wind
Both versions of Garudasana help you become aware of how you use your body. You will probably notice right away that you can do this pose more easily on one side than on the other. Most of us are more uneven than we realize, and the asymmetrical nature of Garudasana highlights that unevenness. Don't worry about it! As you begin work in Garudasana, simply notice what happens. Is it easier to cross one leg or arm than the other? After your practice, consider what you've felt and try to discover what conditions have led to your imbalances. Perhaps you carry your bag on one shoulder or habitually hold the phone on one side. Do you normally sit with your left knee crossed over your right? Use your discoveries to cultivate more balance in your daily activities.
You might find Garudasana a bit constricting when you first try it. It takes a lot of work to get the twists right and to stay balanced without gripping or tightening your muscles. You wouldn't be the first yogi in Garudasana to feel something akin to grasping. This is where you begin the inner work of the pose. It is a chance for you to open to the notion that you can find balance even when you are all twisted up. It's an invitation to open your mind to any situation, even one that feels unstable and asymmetrical, without further gripping in mind or body. Maybe you will fall over. So what? When you accept the natural movement of balance, you can stop clinging and start riding the wind.
In a game of Twister, players just fall down and collapse in a pile of laughter! In Garudasana, you are practicing riding the wibbly-wobbly quality of this twisty position. If you feel as if you are going to lose the wrap of the legs and tip over, that's OK. Instead of worrying about it, allow the movement to happen and see where it takes you. You might fall out of the pose. Or not. You might lean way over to one side, or your arms might come unwrapped. No problem! Keep your breath stable and your mind focused, and you might be able to reestablish the Tadasana-like grounding of your standing leg and, ultimately, resettle back into the pose. That is riding the situation. Falling out of balance doesn't matter, really and truly. How we deal with that moment and how we find our way back to center, every day, again and again—that is the practice of yoga. It's about never giving up but instead riding the moment and trusting you will find your way. And that is why Garudasana is simply outrageous!
Cyndi Lee is an author, artist, and yoga teacher, and the founder of OM Yoga Center.