Watch: A video of this sequence can be found on LiveMag.
One purpose of practicing asanas, arguably the most important, is to discover a meditative path toward realizing who you really are. This self-realization, after all, is the classic aim of yoga. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra says that when the practitioner has a tranquil mind, he "abides in his own true nature" (I.3). In order to practice asana as a meditative path, you'll need to learn how to let go of habitual responses to physical and mental distractions during the practice. This will allow you to shed unnecessary effort in each pose, which will ultimately lead you to a feeling of effortlessness.
Of course, maintaining a pose involves some effort, some type of intention and action. However, in time, you can learn to release the unnecessary movements, thoughts, and actions that come from pushing yourself physically or mentally to achieve a pose. Developing this type of "effortless effort" transforms your practice of asana from mere exercise into a yogic journey toward absorption into your true infinite Self.
To reduce excessive effort in your asana practice, you'll need to align your body physically to support the pose and open channels of energy. From there, you'll observe and then relax your sense organs. Soften your eyes, relax your tongue, and release the skin on your temples. Let your breath be gentle and easy. This progressive process of "undoing" everyday tension brings your mind to a quiet, receptive state that is free of conflict and duality.
Before You Begin
Akarna Dhanurasana means literally "Toward-the-Ear Bow Pose," but is better described as "Archer Pose," since it resembles an archer preparing to release her arrow. You can practice this sequence leading to Akarna Dhanurasana I (Archer Pose I) as a way of discovering how—by quietly observing your adjustments, the quality of your breath, and your state of consciousness—you can have a presence of mind that allows you to aim the arrow of awareness at yourself.
To observe yourself in this way requires skill and patience. If the archer is concerned only with pulling the bowstring and hitting the target, or the yogi is concerned only with getting into the physical shape of the pose, the meditative dimension of the practice will always be elusive.
Physical skill and technique are essential, but at some point, you must let go of a focus on performing a collection of movements. Through steadiness in the body, relaxation of the eyes, and complete surrender to the breath, you can abandon unnecessary effort and fully occupy and express the infinite present moment.
On a physical level, Akarna Dhanurasana, like archery, requires both strength and flexibility. The sequence that follows is designed to help you develop the necessary strength in your arms and torso and flexibility in your legs and hips. Before beginning this sequence, warm up with poses that encourage strength and flexibility, such as Supta Padangusthasana I, II, and III (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose I, II, and III); Paripurna Navasana and Ardha Navasana (Full Boat and Half Boat Pose); and Malasana (Garland Pose).
1. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
You'll begin with Baddha Konasana, a fundamental hip-opening pose. Fold a blanket into a rectangle about two inches thick. Sit on the edge of the blanket, with the most even corner under your tailbone and your sitting bones near the edge. Bend your knees, lower them out to the sides toward the floor, and bring the soles of your feet together. Draw your heels as close to your pelvis as possible. If your knees are higher than your waist, stack another blanket and add enough height so your knees can drop lower than your hip points.
Press your heels together and stretch your inner thighs from your groins toward your knees. Keeping your heels together, insert your thumbs between the balls of your feet and spread the balls of your feet apart as if you were opening a book. The inner balls of your feet will face up, toward the ceiling.
Turning the soles of your feet like this softens your groins and releases your knees. This movement will come in handy when you bring your foot toward your ear in Akarna Dhanurasana.
Continue pressing your heels together and lengthening your inner thighs; then move your tailbone forward to open your hips farther. At the same time, draw your pubis back and press your sitting bones into the blanket to lift the back of your body from your sacroiliac (SI) joints upward. This will help support your lower back and relieve pressure on the SI joints.
Slide your shoulder blades downward, press them into your back ribs, and lift the sides of your torso. Sit for two to five minutes, maintaining the actions of the pose. Relax any tension in your temples and the outer corners of your eyes. Such tension is a clue that you're using excessive effort. For an asana to be meditative, you'll want to let go of any strain in your eyes, tongue, temples, jaw, and throat.
2. Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose), variation
Come to Dandasana (Staff Pose). From here on, you'll take Dandasana between each pose in the sequence up to Akarna Dhanurasana. Bend your left knee and draw your heel toward your left groin. Lower your left knee out to the side toward the floor. The ball of your left foot should turn slightly up toward the ceiling, as it did in Baddha Konasana.
Keeping your right leg straight, lean out and catch your right big toe with the first two fingers and thumb of your right hand. If you can't reach your toe, use a strap around the ball of your foot. Place your left hand on your inner left thigh and, pressing your hand into your thigh, simultaneously move the skin toward your knee and roll it back toward the space behind you.
To relieve compression in your SI joints and lower back, press the back of your right leg and your left sitting bone into the floor, and move your right hip socket toward your left foot. Take your pubis back into the body, and then lift your SI joints upward.
As you pull with your right arm and press with your left hand, slide your shoulder blades down and draw your right shoulder blade toward your spine. Turn your chest toward the left and pull your outer left shoulder back. Turn your head to look at your right foot. Even though you are working your arms and torso, keep the back of your neck long and soft so that your sense organs remain relaxed.
Sit for two to three minutes, relax your breath, and take your attention inward. With regular practice, the mechanics of the pose will become more familiar and you may find a natural sense of ease. Soften the skin on your face and body and bring your mind from an active state to a more reflective one. Then, extend your left leg forward and change sides.
3. Marichyasana I, variation
From Dandasana, bend your left knee and bring it in toward your chest. Place your left heel near your perineum. Keeping your right leg straight, reach out with your right arm and catch your right big toe with your first two fingers and thumb.
Put your left palm on the outside of your left knee. Press the back of your right leg into the floor. Pull back on your left knee, as you move your left hip socket forward, and roll onto your left sitting bone. Press your left sitting bone down into the floor and notice how this helps to lift your torso.
Draw your right hip socket in toward the center of your pelvis and lift up from your SI joints to make your body long and light. With your left hand still holding your left knee, pull your left knee back toward the space behind you. Use this action to draw your left side ribs into your body and lift the right side ribs higher. Look at your right foot.
As you use your arms to help lift your body, slide your shoulder blades down and into your back ribs. Still holding your right big toe, move your right shoulder blade toward your spine and press it into your back ribs, simultaneously pulling your left shoulder back. This sets up the chest, arms, and shoulders in the action you'll ultimately need for Akarna Dhanurasana. After two to three minutes, change sides.
Continue to refine the pose and soften the muscles at the base of the back of your skull. Relax your soft palate and smile, gently releasing tension from your eyes, temples, and jaw. Breathe softly and slowly. The lightness you bring to the body with these various actions will ease your mind into a more introspective state.
4. Akarna Dhanurasana I (Archer Pose I), preparation
One of the biggest physical challenges for many people in Akarna Dhanurasana is stiffness in the hip joints. This next pose is not a formal asana, but it's an exercise that will assist you in loosening your hips.
In Dandasana, bend your left knee, lift your left leg, lean forward, and catch your left foot. Hold the inner arch of your left foot with your right hand and the little-toe side of your left foot with your left hand. Lift your left foot until your shin is parallel to the floor. Hold your left forearm slightly above your left shin, and draw your knee back so it is just outside your left shoulder.
Roll your pelvis forward onto your left sitting bone, and from your SI joints, lift your torso. Press the back of your right leg into the floor to help lift. Keep the sides of your body lifting and your shin parallel to the floor. Pull your left foot with your hands to move your left knee behind you. Don't let your knee move out to the side. It doesn't go exactly straight back either, though. This is one of the tricky aspects of this exercise and of Akarna Dhanurasana. You have to play a little, letting the knee go out slightly, then holding it closer to the body, adjusting subtly in and out to find out where you have the most ease and freedom of movement.
Pull your leg back, and then, still holding your left foot, release it forward. Repeat this pumping movement 6 to 10 times. Lift your torso and stay forward on your left sitting bone. Keep your pelvis and body steady to focus the energy of pumping into the hip.
After pumping your leg back and forth, lift it one more time and draw it back, pulling with your hands and arms. Once you have taken the leg back to its limit, pause there for a breath or two. Then using your hands and arms only to keep your leg lifted and back, not to pull it, move your left knee farther back by moving from the leg itself.
This is a different sensation from the one you have when you pull with your hands. You may be surprised at how much movement you can make, even though you thought you were at your limit. Pause for a couple of breaths, then use your hands and arms to pull back a little more. Again, wait for a breath or two and move your leg back from the leg itself, not by pulling with your arms. Then release your left leg forward and take the right side.
5. Akarna Dhanurasana (Archer Pose I)
Reach forward from Dandasana and hold your big toes with the first two fingers and thumb of each hand. If you aren't able to reach your toes, wrap a belt around the ball of your right foot and hold the belt. Bend your left knee, hold the big toe with your left hand, and place your left heel on the floor a few inches away from your inner right knee. Pause here, press the back of your right leg into the floor, roll forward onto your left sitting bone, and press it down into the floor.
Keep a strong hold on both big toes, and draw your left elbow and shoulder back to pull your left foot toward your ear. Press the back of your right leg into the floor and lengthen your right leg out through your heel. As you pull your left foot and leg back, any tightness in your left leg or hip may cause your body to tilt backward and your lower back to sink. To avoid straining your back, roll forward onto your sitting bones, move your outer right hip socket into your pelvis, and lift your SI joints and back body. Draw your left side ribs in to keep your right side body from collapsing.
As you go on pulling your left foot, play a little to find out how much your left knee should come out to the side (it won't be much), so that you have maximum freedom and stability in that hip. To release your left hip fully, allow your left ankle to angle slightly so the sole of your foot turns toward your face. Keep looking toward your right foot and pull your left heel toward your left ear until they almost touch, or as near as you can. Resist the temptation to lean your head toward your left foot.
Slide your shoulder blades down and move your right shoulder blade toward your spine and deep into your back ribs. This will allow you to draw your left shoulder back, which will in turn enable you to pull your left foot back a little farther. You now look like an archer fully prepared to release your arrow toward your target. As you maintain the posture, soften your neck and throat. Release any tension in your facial muscles and bring your eyes, ears, and tongue to a quiet state. Relax your breath. Be in the pose.
When you are no longer present in the pose and tension begins to mount, release your left leg to the floor and take the other side. To finish your practice, fold forward into Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) for two to five minutes, then rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose).
You may practice for years before experiencing a moment of true quietness. Dedicated and consistent reflection on your thoughts and actions is required in order to recognize what effort is necessary and what is excessive. When, after steady practice and surrender of effort, the time of perfect quietness comes to you in Akarna Dhanurasana I, the arrow of your awareness will release itself toward the target of your true Self, and you will know yoga in the art of archery.