The Secret to Better Arm Balances?
It's easy to get rattled by arm balances. "Falling flat on your face" is a metaphor for failure, and with these poses it's an all-too-literal description of what can happen when you get into trouble. So if you're like most people, you approach arm balances with anxiety, fearing that your arms may not be strong enough to get you airborne and that you might wind up with bruises on your body—and ego. To keep from crashing, you tap into some hard-edged determination: Your knuckles turn white, your face turns red, and you push, push, push.
You might manage to lift off. But it takes more than muscle power and determination to perch comfortably in a pose like Bakasana (Crane Pose). What often gets over-looked is that arm balances require you to relax deeply and release many of your joints and muscles. You need a lot of suppleness in your groins, hamstrings, hips, knees, and torso just to get into the shape of most of these poses; once you develop this, you won't have to work so hard.
That's not to say you can forget all about strength. But if your upper body is strong enough to support a healthy Plank Pose or Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), you probably don't need any more arm strength than you already have. True, you may need to build core strength by making poses such as Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) and Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose) part of your regular routine.
But if you struggle with arm balances, shift your energies away from bulking up those biceps. Try this friendlier, and perhaps counterintuitive, approach that emphasizes opening and relaxing. You'll use two key preparatory poses to open your joints and get your body deeply familiar with the shape of each of three main arm balances: Bakasana, Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose), and Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose).
Perhaps the most important thing is to cultivate a playful, curious, and nonstriving attitude. The feeling of weightlessness and confidence that you can find in these postures (not to mention their striking beauty) tends to bring up a sense of attachment. Notice if you become overly intense in your desire to perform the poses or, conversely, if you're tempted to throw in the towel because they seem too challenging.
If that happens, let go and search for the delicate balance between effort and relaxation. Use the exploration of these postures as a way to practice meeting any challenge with understanding, acceptance, and resilience.
On the Way to Bakasana (Crane Pose)
The Plan: This pose is a perfect introduction to the subtleties of arm balancing because of its deeply folded, compact shape, as well as the back rounding and the groin and hip opening it requires. The squatting and folding elements of the first prep pose, Marichyasana I (Marichi's Twist I), will help develop the hip flexibility and postural awareness necessary to do Bakasana with less effort and resistance. The second prep pose, Malasana (Garland Pose), will broaden and free your upper back, safely round your spine, and teach you Bakasana's shape.
And to release tension in your hips and legs, try practicing Balasana (Child's Pose), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), and Virasana (Hero Pose). If you have the suppleness for Bakasana but not the strength, try this: Lie on your back, reach your arms toward the ceiling, draw your knees toward your chest, and lift your head and chest off the floor. This is Bakasana on your back. Your abdominals may nearly catch fire, but the core strength will come in handy.
Marichyasana I (Marichi's Twist I)
To start, get in a seated position. Straighten your left leg and bend your right knee until your calf and thigh touch, with the shin perpendicular to the floor. Place your right foot in line with your sitting bone. Extend your right arm inside your right thigh and hold the inside of your left foot (use a belt if you need to). Momentarily open your right thigh to the side as you lift and lengthen your right side. Then squeeze your right thigh against your ribs. Slide your armpit down your shin as far as you can with ease, allowing your back to gently dome. Keep squeezing your knee into your side so there's little or no space between your armpit and shin. Wrap your right arm around your shin, sweep your left hand around your back, and bind the hands together (or use a belt). Gently draw your lower abdomen toward your spine and deepen the forward bend. Feel the hip opening that will help with Bakasana. Take 5 to 10 long, smooth cycles of breath before you switch sides.
Malasana (Garland Pose)
Before you start, look at this photo of Malasana and see how clearly the pose's shape resembles Bakasana. The calves and thighs are folded together, the thighs and torso are folded together, and the back is rounded gracefully. Essentially, Malasana is Bakasana, just with a different arm position.
Begin in a standing position, then bring the insides of your feet together and bend your knees deeply into a squat. If possible, bring your heels to the floor; if not, it's OK for them to lift. Allow your knees to separate slightly wider than your shoulders and lower your torso between your legs. Deepen the pose by sliding your armpits down the shins. To maintain the even, graceful arc of your back, situate yourself so that your tailbone and the crown of your head are equidistant from the floor. Be aware that you may need to lean fairly far forward to find this balance.
Now tuck your arms under the front of your shins and slide them behind your hips, with your palms facing the ceiling. Gently hug your knees into your side ribs, soften the muscles of your back, and settle into your breath. As you relax into the pose, allow your body to get used to its shape.
Bakasana (Crane Pose)
Begin by bringing the insides of your feet together and bending the knees into a squat, as in Malasana. Separate your knees slightly wider than your shoulders and lower your torso between your thighs. Slide your armpits down your shins as low as they will go and allow your elbows to separate away from each other. Round and broaden your back into an even, graceful arc. Place your hands directly under your shoulders and pause for a breath. Lift your hips up 6 inches and away from your heels, and shift your gaze to your elbows. Draw your elbows in until the upper arms are parallel to each other.
Now here's your big moment. But don't try to jump, lift, or fly. Instead, simply shift your weight forward onto your hands until your forearms are perpendicular to the floor and your feet begin to lift. As you make the transition forward, begin practicing Bakasana by shifting more weight onto your hands, even if your feet don't lift.
If your feet do lift or become light, engage your lower abdominal muscles by drawing your navel toward your spine. As you glide onto your arms, extend them strongly; broaden and round your upper back. Do your best to soften and extend your breath for 5 to 10 cycles
On the Way to Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose)
The Plan: By practicing the deep, wringing twist that Parsva Bakasana requires, you'll cultivate greater strength and awareness in your abdominals—particularly your obliques—and create a healthy squeezing action in the digestive organs. But, alas, if your hips are tight and your spine doesn't rotate easily, this pose will be a real downer. Tension in these crucial areas will pull you out of it, and you'll fatigue early because you'll be struggling against your body's resistance. So your first prep pose, Marichyasana III, is intended to create greater movement and ease in your hips and back. Regularly practicing additional hip openers such as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus Pose) will also help.
And while we don't often think of standing poses as helpful for arm balances, the second prep pose, a variation of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), is a great warmup. It twists the torso deeply, opens the outer hips, and gives you an opportunity to focus on balance. Other useful warmups include Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) and Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon Pose).
Marichyasana III (Marichi's Twist III)
Straighten your left leg out in front of you and bend your right knee until your calf and thigh touch and your shin is perpendicular to the floor. Place your right foot in line with your sitting bone. Wrap your left arm around the front of your right shin and swing your right arm behind you. Elongate the left side of your lower back away from your hips, rotate your spine to the right and gently puff out your chest.
Deepen the pose by sliding your left armpit to your outer right knee. Focus on this movement, essential to the elasticity needed for Parsva Bakasana. Close the space between your armpit and outer knee as much as you can with ease. Bend your left elbow and open your hand, so the left palm faces right. Bring a smooth quality to your breath. Play with micro movements until your spine rotates evenly and gracefully, like a spiral staircase. After 10 to 15 breaths, change sides.
Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)
Start in a lunge with your right foot forward between your hands and your left knee on the ground, toes tucked under. Place your right knee over your right ankle so your shinbone is vertical, then step your left knee back so you get a moderate stretch in the left thigh. Put your hands on top of your right thigh and straighten your back leg. (Your back heel should be lifted.) Now rotate your trunk to the right and slide your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. Gently deepen the twist by sliding your left elbow further down the outside of your knee and rotating the belly, ribs, and chest. Bring your palms together in front of your chest and press the top hand strongly into the bottom one. Soften and receive the breath moving into your body.
Observe how your body seeks balance and how your mind reacts. You may fall; practice patience!
Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose)
With your inner thighs together, begin in a deep squat. Twist your abdomen and upper body to the right and slip your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. As in the prep poses, fold your torso deeply into your legs and slide your left armpit to the outside of your right knee. As your twist deepens, put your hands on the floor just in front of your right thigh; they should be turned to the right at a 90-degree angle to your hips. Now engage your lower abdominal muscles and roll your belly to the right. Look at your right hip and lift it higher than your right elbow. Complement this action and set the stage for liftoff by moving your right elbow inward until your elbows are parallel to each other. As you did in Bakasana, shift your weight onto your hands. You may have to practice for a while by bringing more weight onto your hands than your feet. If you can, lift your feet off the ground, engage your lower abdominal muscles more strongly, and turn your navel toward your right ribs. As that supports your lift and deepens your twist, bring your awareness to your breath; it may shorten, but try to keep it smooth. When you've had your fill, release and switch sides.
On the Way to Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose)
The Plan: Of the three arm balances, Bhujapidasana requires the least strength and the greatest flexibility. So the warmups give you the suppleness to fold deeply and wrap your legs around your upper arms. The first, Happy Baby, will open your groins, round your back safely, and elongate your hamstrings. It's a comforting, accessible posture that helps create opening and awareness. The second, a lunge variation, opens the groin and hip flexors in your back leg and creates length in the hamstrings of your front leg. It also imitates the shape of Bhujapidasana: The front knee goes into a 90-degree angle and the shoulder and torso tuck into the front thigh.
If it's hard to get the heels of your hands to the floor in Bhujapidasana, don't blame it on your arms. Try poses that release the groins and support deep hip flexion: Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Adho Mukha Virasana (Downward-Facing Hero Pose), and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend).
Happy Baby Pose
Begin by lying on your back. (Don't you love poses that start this way?) Bend both knees and draw them toward your armpits. Reach your arms around the outside of your legs and hold the outside of your feet. Your shins should be vertical. Gently pull with your arms and release your thighs toward the outside of your ribs. Relax your facial muscles and receive the opening that the pose brings. Observe where the greatest resistance is; in Bhujapidasana, that area will feel even tighter. Direct your breath into it, letting the tension slowly dissipate. Continue to saturate your body with breath for 20 to 30 cycles.
Start in a lunge with your right foot between your hands and your left knee on the ground, toes curled under. Place your right knee over your right ankle so the shin is vertical; then step the left knee back so you get a moderate stretch in the left thigh. Step your right foot 2 inches further to the right and put both hands on the floor inside your foot. Settling into your breath, nestle your right shoulder inside your right inner thigh. See if you can tuck your right shoulder inside and under the right knee. Once you've hit your edge, slide your right arm under your leg and place your hand on the floor outside your right foot. Lift your back knee off the floor and extend through your left heel. Deepen the pose by hugging your right knee into your right shoulder—an action essential to Bhujapidasana. Breathe smoothly and deeply into the resistance in your right hip and groin. This pose is intense; don't push too hard. After 5 to 15 breaths, release and switch sides.
Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose)
Although the balancing point in this pose is very narrow and you're likely to end up on your bum a few times, Bhujapidasana requires less effort to sustain than Bakasana or Parsva Bakasana.
Stand in Tadasana with your feet as wide as your mat. Bend your knees deeply and fold your torso between your inner thighs. Remember tucking the shoulder under the knee in the lunging variation of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana? Well, here goes: Tuck your shoulders between your inner knees as deeply as you can and put your hands on the floor behind your heels. Your fingers should point forward, not to the side or backward. Bend your knees and begin to sit on the backs of your upper arms. If it's still difficult to bring the heels of your hands to the floor, ease off and continue working on the prep poses so you create more flexibility in the hips and groins and protect your wrists. Squeeze your thighs strongly against your upper arms, lean back until your feet lift, and cross your right ankle over your left. Draw your navel toward your spine and extend your arms until they're straight.
Once you've found your narrow threshold of balance, your arm bones will absorb much of your weight and allow your muscles to work less intensely. Let go of any unnecessary tension—particularly in the jaw and eyes—and settle into your breath for as many rounds as you can.