To the Moon!
You may be familiar with the caution "Avoid practicing yoga on the full or new moon!" This tradition of observing "moon days" stems from the belief in the Ashtanga system that practicing at either extreme of the lunar cycle leaves you vulnerable to injury. One theory is that because the body consists mainly of water, you are affected, like the ocean's tides, by the moon: On full-moon days the pull of the moon is so strong that your prana (life force) moves upward, leaving you feeling headstrong and liable to push yourself beyond your limits; on new-moon days, the pull of the moon is so diminished that you find yourself lacking motivation. The ultimate time to practice, then, is during the middle of the lunar cycle, when the moon is a half circle and your prana is balanced. You can observe for yourself if this is true. Regardless, conceiving of the moon this way can provide helpful imagery for Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana.
Half Moon Pose and its twin, Revolved Half Moon Pose, represent, to me, the middle ground between the emptiness and fullness of the moon. As one-legged balancing poses, they require a steady stream of prana in the legs and feet to keep you grounded, and as deep twists, they require a steady stream of prana through the upper body to keep the torso soaring. The balance of energy is precisely calibrated. Learning them requires both considerable strength and patience, but if you use the support you need and if you keep your mind spacious, you'll find that they are rejuvenating and restorative. They build a sense of ease and equipoise while being energizing and dynamic. In the sequence to come, you will enjoy a tremendous earth-bound pull while you feel the levity that comes with free balancing. See if you notice the stimulating effects of the Half Moon poses as well as their cooling, rejuvenating benefits.
Before You Begin
Revolved Half Moon Pose demands a lot from the hamstrings, pelvis, sacrum, and lower back. It also requires considerable core strength. Awaken and warm up your torso and legs before you practice the pose; start with Sun Salutations and a series of standing poses like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle), and Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch). If you are fatigued, do Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) and Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) to refresh the nerves around the pelvis, sacrum, and lower back. Also, be sure that you are steady in Tree Pose, the first balancing pose to learn before venturing into this sequence.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
To balance gracefully in either of the Half Moon poses, it's essential that you build a solid foundation in the feet, legs, and hips. Doing so requires patience and resolve, but once you've got this underpinning, you'll grip less in your diaphragm and rib cage. Your upper body will be light, and instead of being bound by gravity, you'll feel as though you are soaring above the earth, like a great hawk.
Enter Half Moon from Triangle Pose. Stand sideways on your mat with your feet four feet apart. Turn your right foot out so that it is parallel to the side of your mat. Angle the back foot in slightly. Inhale and reach your arms out like that huge hawk, then exhale as you extend to the right, pitching your pelvis powerfully toward your back leg. Keep your torso long as you place your right hand on your shin.
From there, place your left hand on your left hip, bend your right knee, and take a small step in with your back leg. Place your right hand directly below your right shoulder just to the outside of your front foot. Straighten your right leg as you lift your left leg off the floor to hip height. Push through the sole of your left foot, as though you were pressing it against a wall.
Now, look down at your standing foot and make sure it's still parallel to the edge of your mat. This foot typically turns out, pitching the standing leg off its axis and disturbing the equilibrium of the entire pose. To counter this tendency and to keep yourself upright, you need to find the plumb line of the pose, in this case the line running up your inner leg from your heel all the way to your inner groin.
To engage your inner leg, press the mound of your big toe down as you lift your arch. Stretch, spread, and activate the toes. The outer hip of the standing leg tends to splay out to the side in the Half Moon poses. To prevent this, draw in the center of your right buttock and pull the greater trochanter (the big bony knob of the outer hip) into your body. As you draw your right hip in, shave its outer edge back, like a carpenter planing a piece of wood. Then stay for a few breaths, noticing how it feels to have your standing leg set.
To complete the shape of the pose, stack the upper hip atop the lower hip. Without disturbing your standing leg, spin your chest up toward the ceiling as you reach your left arm up. Slowly take your gaze toward your left hand.
Spread the wings of your diaphragm and your inner chest cavity with soft, open breathing. As you stay in Half Moon for 5 to 10 breaths, go for the feeling of flying while staying in one place. If you fall in any direction, fall upward! Come out of the pose by lowering your back leg into Triangle Pose, and then switch legs.
Parivrtta Supta Padangusthasana (Revolved Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
In any balancing pose, the body naturally shifts and sways until it finds a still point. When these micromovements occur in the Half Moon poses, your standing leg and hip have to be responsive and resilient to prevent you from going off kilter. To make your hip joints more resilient, you can strengthen the muscles and connective tissue around them in standing poses like Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) and stretch them in a pose such as this one.
Lie on your back and press your left foot into a wall. Reach your right leg up toward the ceiling. Catch the sole of your right foot with a strap, holding both ends of the strap in your left hand. (If you are more flexible, grab the outer edge of the right heel with your left hand.) Extend up through your right heel to stretch your Achilles tendon, calf muscle, and hamstrings. If this feels intense, you are not alone. Think of it as a hamstring puja (devotional ritual)!
From there, hook your right thumb into the outer crease of your right hip and drag it away from your waist. This provides space for your abdomen to turn. Then take your upper leg 6 to 10 inches to the left, across your body. Bring your right arm to the floor, palm facing up. Pause there and observe the stretch into the outer flank of your hip and leg. You may feel your entire outer leg quake and tremble, but develop your staying power and aim breath into the area, visualizing bright red oxygenated blood flooding into your hip. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths or longer, and then bring the leg back up toward the ceiling, let go of the strap, and switch to the other side.
After you do the pose on both sides, repeat it, this time taking your right leg across your body and down onto a block so as to keep your sacrum level. (Taking the foot all the way to the floor makes the sacrum unbalanced.) You'll need to lift and pivot your pelvis so you can align your weight onto the outer edge of your left hip. Continue holding the strap (or your heel) with your left hand.
Stay here for 1 to 2 minutes as you reach through the inner edge of both heels. Firm your legs but keep your breath free and the diaphragm and internal organs fluid as you twist. The twisting action prepares you for the twist in Revolved Half Moon, which, because you'll be standing and balancing, will be much more difficult. So, focus on softening and releasing your abdomen while the floor supports the weight of your body. Also, use your exhalation, which gives the belly its power to churn and turn, to help you twist more deeply. To exit the pose, keep the right leg fully extended and swing it back upright. From there, release the strap and repeat the pose on the other side.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
The key to Revolved Half Moon Pose is to make the hip joint of the standing leg resilient so that it can bear the weight that's placed on it. If you haven't built enough strength in that hip, your leg will ignite with tension, leading to a meltdown. In this variation of Warrior III, you'll use blocks to support your upper body and a wall to take some of the weight off your lifted leg, helping you to strengthen and stabilize your legs, hips, and sacrum.
Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your back to a wall about a leg's distance away from it. Have two blocks handy. Fold forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), lift your left leg, and press your left foot against the wall at hip height so that it's parallel to the floor. Inhale as you lift your spine away from the floor and place one block under each hand. See that your hands are beneath your shoulders.
Just as you did in Half Moon, build your pose from the ground up. Spring the arch of your foot upward. Then press the outer edge of your standing leg inward toward your inner leg. Next, imagine zipping up a long zipper from your inner ankle to your inner groin to help you lengthen the inner shaft of your leg. Lastly, shave the outer edge of your right hip back toward the wall behind you. Stay here for a few breaths, making sure that the whole leg works evenly; no part of it should feel slack.
Bring your attention to your upper body. Slide the front of your spine, from just below your navel, toward your heart. Do this without hardening your belly or sucking it back and up. Simultaneously, elongate the two sides of your tailbone away from your lumbar, toward the wall behind you. These two actions create Mula Bandha (Root Lock), which awakens the deep life force in the body. (To learn more about Mula Bandha, see Bound for Glory.)
Stay here for 5 to 10 breaths, then step your left foot forward to meet the right and rest in Standing Forward Bend. When you're ready, take the right leg to the wall and do the other side.
Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)
Revolved Side Angle is an excellent preparation for the final pose, as it requires you to twist, but instead of balancing on one leg, you get to balance on two.
Stand sideways on a mat with your feet four feet apart. Pivot to the right so that your hips are square toward your right leg. Remember, in any spinal twist it is essential to lengthen before you revolve, or you risk compressing your spine. To create space in your torso, reach your left arm up as if you could touch the sky, and lengthen between your hip points and your left armpit. Pause here, taking several long breaths, then lift your back heel off the floor. Deeply bend your right knee, hook your left elbow to the outside of it, and press your hands together in Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal). Either stay here or take your left hand to the floor as you press your left arm to the outside of your knee. From there, take your right arm straight up, then reach it over your right ear, with your palm facing the floor.
If your right hip pops out to the side—which often happens if you have tightness there—keep your back heel lifted and drop your right sitting bone down. Also, extend the inner seam of your back leg strongly. If it collapses, it can jam your lower back.
Breathe deeply and lengthen your spine as you inhale. Twist as you exhale. Wrap the left side of your navel toward the inner right thigh. Avoid tightening your belly or locking your jaw. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths, then place your back heel down and pull out of the pose with your right arm before moving to the other side.
Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon Pose)
Come back to Half Moon Pose, balancing on your right leg and hand. Then square your pelvis so that both frontal hip points are facing the floor, and simultaneously lower your left hand to the floor. When you move into the pose, keep the toes of the back foot pointing directly down toward the floor and extend out through the center of your back heel. If your left hip sinks toward the floor, lift that hip point and imagine you are balancing a cup of green tea on your sacrum.
Rest your right hand on your right hip and begin to align your standing leg as you did in the earlier poses: Spread your toes, press the mound and heel of your big toe down, and lift your arch. Pull the muscles of the outer leg in against the bone. Extend the shaft of your inner standing leg. At the same time, cut the outer right hip back toward the wall behind you.
Elongate your spine from the tip of your tailbone to the crown of your head. Then twist around the axis of your spine, allowing it to spiral up like a corkscrew through the whole spine and out the crown of your head. Eventually, you will twist enough that your upper body will be completely open the way it is in Half Moon—it's just flipped to the other side. If you're there, extend your right arm toward the sky. Otherwise, be patient, have faith, and keep turning your spine until you achieve length and breadth in the lungs, collarbones, and breastbone.
Stay here 5 to 10 breaths, aiming your inhalation into your abdominal cavity and into your kidneys. Relax your diaphragm and feel lightness and space around all your organs. Then bend your right arm, bring your right hand back to your hip, and slowly bend your right knee. Avoid collapsing into a heap! Be sure you have enough gusto to exit. To come out, reach your back leg down to the floor and retrace the pathway you took to enter the pose.
Once you've completed this series, do a long Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and Standing Forward Bend. These poses restore the nerves around the neck and brain and bring a feeling of integration and congruency to the entire nervous system. Finish with a seated meditation or Savasana (Corpse Pose).