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Lift Off

Everyone's confidence could use a boost, and developing an arm balance practice is a great way to do it.

By Roger Cole

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.

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.

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.

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Reader Comments

David Mullen

I enjoyed this site! I was directed here by my dear Yoga Instructor Keith Porteus!


i wnat to make my chets strong as it is hanging and creating wrong impression ?


Where are the pictures?

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