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Peak Form

By carefully carving a pathway to Ardha Chandra Chapasana, you'll reach new heights in your body and mind.

By Catherine Guthrie with Baron Baptiste

MC_ardha_chandra_chapasana

If Ardha Chandra Chapasana is the peak you're eyeing, says Power Yoga teacher Baron Baptiste, each step on the path must be mastered before you can get to the top. A powerful heart opener, this challenging variation of Half Moon Pose offers both a balancing posture and an asymmetrical backbend. Baptiste, founder of the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute, says it's the taste of freedom he experiences when practicing precision with a sincere willingness to be open to new physical possibilities that keeps him coming back to Ardha Chandra Chapasana year after year.

But ascending to the peak of any pose requires a steady foundation. The key to feeling the freedom Baptiste is speaking of, in your day-to-day practice as well as in the peak pose, lies in giving detailed attention to the integrity of your alignment in every moment of every pose. What at first might seem confining or even tedious—this detailed attention to the placement of a hand or the toes—is what will ultimately provide the integrity for the body, and therefore the spirit, to soar in the final backbend. "Precision gives access to integration in a way that keeps you safe and supported," says Baptiste. "When you work with precision, you create the space to explore what's possible in your body, which keeps your practice energized instead of static."

Baptiste recommends approaching this sequence like a climber ascending a peak with multiple pitches: At each natural pause in the ascent, ask yourself, "Am I on firm enough ground to continue? Do I feel secure? Do I feel supported?" Then, as you move through each pose in the sequence, stop to regroup, check your "safety gear," and reestablish your composure. Take the time to check and recheck the places in your body and psyche that might be vulnerable to injury or weakness. Make an extra effort to keep those areas open and supported, firm yet free.

Keep in mind that precision is different from perfectionism. By Baptiste's definition, working precisely requires mindfulness of action. When you move mindfully on your mat and when you use precision to create stability in your poses, you begin to carve the pathway that takes you to new heights in your practice. And when you witness the benefits of working with precision on your mat, Baptiste believes that you will feel empowered to make positive changes in your life, too. "The power to change your body through yoga creates confidence in your ability to change your life in ways you didn't think possible," says Baptiste. "With a mindful, conscious practice, you can connect with your personal power, your ability to change your life."

Perfectionism, on the other hand, is rife with self-criticism and judgment. Begin to cast judgment on your pose, your practice, or yourself as "right" or "wrong," and the ledge you're on can expand into a never-ending plateau of self-doubt. When you aspire to create "perfect" poses, you miss out on witnessing the fullness of each moment—whether positive or negative. Precision is about process. Perfectionism occurs when you believe the myth that there is an endpoint in your yoga practice.

In this adventurous sequence leading to Ardha Chandra Chapasana, you'll explore a liberating approach to balance, backbending, and hip opening. Take action with precision—moving body and mind with care and confidence—and you'll find there's more space to explore the possibilities of this pose than you imagined.

Before You Begin

The concentration needed to balance and open your front body and hips in Ardha Chandra Chapasana requires an undistracted, internally focused mind. Come into Balasana (Child's Pose) and begin to settle your mind inward. Move through four rounds of Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) and three rounds of Surya Namaskar B. Then take a High Lunge on each side and come back to Balasana to reestablish your focus before you begin. The Sun Salutations warm up the body, and the High Lunge brings a deep stretch to the inner thighs and groin muscles in preparation for the opening to come.

Listen: Practice along with an audio recording of Baptiste's Master Class at yogajournal.com/livemag.

1. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Adho Mukha Svanasana opens the shoulders, lengthens the spine, and begins to build heat in the muscles, all of which you'll need to reach back and open fully into Ardha Chandra Chapasana.

From Balasana stretch your arms out in front of you. Lengthen through your elbows, energize your arms, and fan your fingers. Bring awareness into the first two knuckles (closest to the palm) of each finger and press them into the mat. Hollow the palms, drawing the outer edges of your hands down as you lift the inner dome up away from the mat. On an inhalation, come to all fours. Tuck your toes under and, on an exhalation, lift your hips up and back into Adho Mukha Svanasana.

Externally rotate your upper arms and soften the space between your shoulder blades. Lift the shoulder heads up to the sky to hollow out the armpits. Connect to the pulsation of your breath. On your inhalations, engage the muscles in your arms and legs, lifting them from the extremities toward the body's midline. On your exhalations, ground down into the earth through your hands and feet.

Continue to bring attentiveness and precision to your alignment as you hold the pose for 10 full breaths. Notice where your weight is distributed between your hands and your feet. Be aware of the quality of your gaze and the level of relaxation you feel. Then begin to root down evenly through your arms and legs until you feel as though the pose is symmetrical.

Next, play with the distance between your hands and feet. A wider pose will bring more spaciousness and more access to the shoulders and pelvis, setting the stage for even greater freedom. Soften your gaze and feel the tension around your eyes dissolve. A soft gaze creates a feeling of relaxation and reduces tension and strain in your whole pose.

Bring your attention to the back of the neck and notice if you are holding tension there. If you drop your head too far, you can strain the cervical spine and create restriction instead of freedom. Try releasing the vertebrae in toward your body and away from the skin to bring more relaxation into the back of the neck. Train your mind to be fully attentive to the small details that create stability and bring vitality to your practice as you set the foundation for a greater opening.

2. Baddha Parsvakonasana (Bound Side Angle Pose)

Baddha Parsvakonasana strengthens your leg muscles and opens your chest and hip flexors. These are essential preparations for the steady balance, backbending, and hip opening that Ardha Chandra Chapasana requires. From Down Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands and pivot your left heel to the floor. Turn your left foot out at a 60- to 90-degree angle, adjusting it so that your left inner arch is in line with your right heel.

Bend your right knee toward 90 degrees. Stay connected to the strong lines of the pose, and you'll stay grounded in your personal power by maintaining strength and stability. One way to do that is to keep the outer edge of the left knee lifted, avoiding a collapse of the left knee's interior. Ground into the four corners of both feet. Hold that awareness and root down through the center of each heel.

Place your right hand on the floor to the outside of your right foot. This is a great place to ask yourself whether you need extra support to make your pose stable. If you're unsure, check in with your spine—does it collapse when you reach toward the floor with your right hand? If so, place a block under your hand to give yourself more space to lengthen your spine. Feel how lengthening the spine creates space between your right ear and your right shoulder. Then, place your left hand on your left hip and open your torso, especially through your shoulders and chest.

Start to play with the twist. Scoop your right buttock under and gently pull the navel toward the spine. With your abdomen engaged and your spine long, move your lower ribs in toward your spine and rotate your whole rib cage up toward the ceiling. If you feel a strong sensation in your left side body, take it as a sign that you should leave your left hand resting on the left hip. But if you feel at ease in your body, breath, and mind, then all signs are go and you can reach your left fingertips skyward. Bring your left arm into a strong line perpendicular to the floor.

If you've reached your edge in this pose, stay here for 5 to 10 breaths, where you can continue to feel the opening in your chest with your left arm perpendicular to the floor. If you feel you have more space in the chest and shoulder, move toward the bind. Rotate your left palm so your thumb points toward your back foot. Bend the elbow and reach your left fingertips toward your right thigh.

Check in with your shoulders to see if they are receptive or resistant to this movement. Reaching beyond your limits will cause the precision of your pose alignment to disintegrate, which will lead you further away from a deeper opening. Remember: If you direct your focus toward creating a "perfect" pose, you risk sacrificing its true integrity. By meeting yourself where you are, you'll open more freely to the pose and to your personal power. If possible, move into the full bind by clasping the left hand with the right. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.

3. Baddha Trikonasana (Bound Triangle Pose), variation

In Baddha Trikonasana you'll continue opening your chest to prepare for the final backbend and building power in your legs to hold you steady in the balancing poses. From Baddha Parsvakonasana, release the bind, lifting your left arm straight up. Draw the head of the right thighbone into the hip socket. Tighten the leg muscles from the skin in to the bone. Scoop the tailbone down and stack your right knee over your right ankle, and then slowly straighten your knee so that the ankle, knee, and hip socket are on one plane.

Activate your left hand. Pull the fingers up and out of the knuckles. Place your right hand on a block or lift up onto your fingertips to create some space to lengthen your spine. You can also experiment with taking a wider stance. You're looking for balancing stability in your legs with a feeling of openness in your pelvis, torso, breath, and mind. With your base established, lift your gaze to the left hand. Imagine that as you look up, you leave your thinking mind behind and open to unforeseen possibilities and freedom.

Make sure that your left foot is angled and the inner arch is bright. Reach down through the four corners of the left foot, especially the outer edge of the base of the pinky toe. Energetically engage the leg muscles by hugging them in from the skin toward the bone, and then pull that energy up through both legs into the pelvis and engage your lower belly. Move the shoulder blades down the back toward the pelvis. As you open your torso, soften your lower ribs toward your back body. Release your jaw.

If your chest and left shoulder feel free to open more deeply, explore the half bind. Resist collapsing the left shoulder toward the chest as you transition; otherwise, you risk injuring your shoulder. Rotate your upper left arm until your palm faces behind you. Bend your left elbow and thread your left fingertips around your right thigh at the hip crease. Remain here for 5 to 10 breaths.

4. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), variation

Ardha Chandrasana is the next stop on the ascent toward Ardha Chandra Chapasana. It requires the same strength and balance as the final pose, but without the backbending element. From Baddha Trikonasana, reengage your legs and draw muscle energy up into your pelvis. Keep your left arm in the bind or release it to your left hip and start to bend your right knee. Shift your weight onto your right leg and place your right hand on the floor or on a block directly beneath your right shoulder. With precision and mindfulness, start to shift your right hand forward. As your weight shifts onto your right leg, allow the left leg to float up.

Create a line of energy from the bottom fingertips through the top fingertips, or the top of the left shoulder if you're still in the bind. If your top arm is lifted, spread the fingers, reach through the knuckles, and lift the arm high, creating more freedom as you extend.

One of the biggest physical hurdles for many people in Ardha Chandrasana is overcoming shaking and wobbling in the standing leg. If that's the case for you, you may be collapsing the shinbone toward the outer anklebone. Tap into this moment of instability to establish the precision that will allow you to experience more freedom in the pose. To bring more integrity to your balance, move the inner right ankle back toward the right heel and then turn the right outer ankle down toward the floor. Move the outer right shin in by grounding down through the four corners of your right foot. Are you able to tighten up the engagement in your right leg without hyperextending your knee? Make sure to stay grounded and connected through your right leg as you fire up your left leg.

5. Ardha Chandra Chapasana

The strong and stable foundation you have established in Ardha Chandrasana paves the way for the openhearted peak of Ardha Chandra Chapasana. If your left hand is at your hip crease, free the bind and lengthen your left arm up. Hug the shoulder blades in toward your spine and open your left fingertips toward the sky. Imagine two hands pressing your shoulder blades down toward your waist and up into the chest, lifting the front body from the inside out.

Take a few deep breaths to absorb the energy that comes in the wake of unleashing a bind and opening yourself to new possibilities. Now bend your left knee, reach your left hand back, and catch the top of your left foot. If it's not within reach, bend your left knee and rest your left hand on your left thigh, continuing to open the left shoulder as though you were holding your left foot.

Slowly work toward finding more freedom in the backbend. Keep coming back to the principles of strength and stability at your base. Then expand your chest and open your heart to the sky. Relax your head back gently, seeking a greater possibility for opening in the heart while maintaining length in the cervical spine. Keep the bowl of your pelvis neutral and the base of your spine long. If you find that you cannot maintain your stability or that your breath becomes constricted, release the pose, repeat on the second side, and begin your cool-down. You can continue to practice the sequence and come back to Ardha Chandra Chapasana another day when you are feeling more stable.

If you're still feeling balanced and have more room to open up, use your left biceps to pull on your left foot as you simultaneously press your left foot into your left hand. While you maintain balance using discipline and precision, start to get curious here. Can you build the possibility of greater opening from the safety of your base? Can you find freedom in your left rib cage and hip flexor to open more deeply into the backbend without corrupting the integrity of your foundation? Are you playing it too safe?

At the same time, let go of doing it perfectly. Baptiste shares the story of a very driven, athletic student who lost his balance one day in Ardha Chandra Chapasana. Instead of letting go of the bind, the student chose to fall over and slam into the floor while still holding his foot. When asked if there was a less painful way to release the pose, the student responded, "I guess I should have let go." Many of us approach life this way, but yoga gives us the awareness and the opportunity to approach things differently: Instead of focusing on perfection, focus on the process of building your poses with precision.

After you've explored your stability and sense of freedom in Ardha Chandra Chapasana on the right side, release the pose, step back to Down Dog, and repeat on your left side. When you've completed this practice on both sides, take a long three- to four-minute Downward-Facing Dog to bring you back to center and create spaciousness in your lower back. Then rest in Child's Pose to release your nervous system before finishing your practice with Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Precision gives access to the possibility of opening into the unknown. It prepares you for the moment when you're asked to take a leap of faith. Precision creates a safe, supportive space for you to explore what's possible in your body. The discipline that comes from mastering the foundation of your poses with precision will create the freedom you need in your body to explore your edges.

Listen: Practice along with an audio recording of Baptiste's Master Class at yogajournal.com/livemag.

Catherine Guthrie is a health writer and yoga teacher in Bloomington, Indiana.
Baron Baptiste is the founder of Baptiste Power Yoga. He teaches around the world and makes his home in Park City, Utah.

August 2011

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