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Flight School

More than strength and determination, flying from Tripod to Crane takes a willingness to learn.

By Maty Ezraty

inversion

Coming into Bakasana (Crane Pose) from Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand) can feel like flying. As you balance on your upper arms, you will feel as though you've landed on a perch. Whenever I teach this combination of poses, I notice two very different reactions in students. Some look defeated before they've even begun. Then there's the other group—the ones who, in their impatience to "get there," rush through the intelligent preparation.

Both of these reactions—extreme aversion and intense desire—are nothing more than habitual responses and behaviors, known in yoga as kleshas, or obstacles. The reactions don't necessarily reflect the truth of what's happening. Those students who doubt themselves may learn to fly into Bakasana more easily than they've anticipated if they work diligently. And the students who think they've got it mastered might be muscling their way into poses, which makes the poses labored instead of light and birdlike. How you view yourself affects the choices you make and the actions you take. If you feel defeated before you begin, you cut yourself off from growth. If, however, you are overly eager in your desire to attain the pose, you may miss the beauty and subtleties of the learning process. In either case, you have created stories or illusions that take you away from the truth of the present moment—that is, the opportunity to be open to learning.

Everyone has conditioned responses to all kinds of things: circumstances, events, and even people. And those responses follow you everywhere; once you see them in your practice, you will also see them in your life. Yoga provides you with an opportunity to notice them, work with them, and eventually dissolve them. But to do that takes being open, courageous, and willing to observe. Yoga is about going inside yourself and learning. If your only goal is simply to do poses, then you are just exercising and you will miss the real value of the practice. But when you begin to observe your habits, you have the chance to experience freedom. In the case of this sequence, once you are able to approach it from a neutral or an empty mind, the real learning process will happen. Instead of feeling fearful or rushing to get to the final pose, you will be open to what's happening in the moment and will be able to enjoy your experience no matter where it eventually leads you.

As you move through this sequence, take an honest look at your reactions and begin each pose by working from where you are. Stay positive; find stable ground from which you can safely approach learning. Every pose asks for your physical, emotional, mental, and physiological involvement. Study yourself in all of these realms. Examine your tendencies, and pause. Sometimes it takes stopping yourself physically—or in any of the other realms—to truly find a new, more balanced frame of mind.

If you are full of desire to just do the final poses, take a step back and focus on the alignment of the preparations. In arm balances, if your bones are not stacked properly, you will increase your chance of being knocked off balance. If you use sheer strength without intelligence or flexibility, you will tire quickly and you will not be calm and steady in the pose. If you are fearful, remember that there are many stages within the sequence. Work on being present in and committed to each stage, and let that be your practice. Whether yours is the flight of letting go of fear or of taming desire, the challenging work of learning to be present with what is will shape your growth.

Before You Begin

You can prepare by doing Sun Salutations (as many as you need to do to feel warm and open), standing poses, or both. If you are choosing standing poses, consider adding Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). If you have tight shoulders, include shoulder openers like Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) and Reverse Prayer. You can also add Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance) after Handstand.

Benefits:

  • Strengthens the arms and shoulders
  • Teaches balance and focus
  • Builds confidence

Contraindications:

  • Neck or shoulder injury
  • High or low blood pressure or other heart problems
  • Glaucoma or other eye problems
  • Headache
  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy

1. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)

Prasarita Padottanasana is a modest inversion. The arm position used in the pose is identical to the one in Tripod Headstand. Learning the correct placement of the hands, arms, shoulders, and head in Prasarita will make it easier when you attempt Tripod.

Standing sideways on your mat, separate your legs so they're 4 to 4 1/2 feet apart. Bring your feet to parallel, grounding all four corners of each foot. Draw the tops of the thighs up to engage the fronts of your legs. Lift the inner thighs and move them toward the outer legs. Simultaneously firm the sides of your outer hips in.

With your hands on your hips, inhale and lift your chest. Exhale and extend your torso halfway down. Place your hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart. With an inhalation reach your breastbone forward and move your shoulder blades into your back. Exhale, bend your elbows, and move the hands back until the elbows are directly over the wrists. Extend the top of your head toward the floor, and allow the upper back to round slightly. If your head doesn't reach the floor, place a block underneath it.

Now refine the pose. Be sure that the hands are still shoulder-width apart. Your hands and your head should form an equilateral triangle. Press the knuckles of your fingers down, especially the index finger. Lift your shoulders away from the floor and draw them into their sockets. Keep your forearms from splaying outward by drawing the outer forearms in until the weight is even on the inner and outer wrists. Draw the front of your forearms toward the fingertips, and notice how that action brings the shoulders into their sockets. Allow the crown of your head to rest lightly on the floor, and keep your neck long and relaxed. Breathe slowly and smoothly.

2. Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)

Handstand builds strength and confidence. When you use the wall, you can stay in the pose longer and hone key alignment points. To begin, take Adho Mukha Svanasana with your hands about three to four inches away from the wall and shoulder-width apart. Have your hands in line with each other. Keep the creases of the wrists parallel to the front of your mat. If you have tight shoulders, you may need to turn the hands out slightly. Whether the middle finger or index finger points forward is not as important as the alignment of the crease of the wrist.

Keep your fingers comfortably spread apart. Do not overextend the thumb away from your index finger; that will strain your wrists. Create equal weight on all the knuckles of your fingers. Extend the fingers forward so that your hands are open and rooted. Now move your shoulders directly over your hands. Press the palms down and lift your forearms out of your wrists, creating space in the wrist joint. Avoid cupping the hands, and reach the index finger toward the wall. To keep your elbows from bending, move the outsides of your forearms in, and then firm the muscles in your outer upper arms. If your elbows bend when you kick up, place a belt just above them. When you put it on, your arms will remain parallel and shoulder-width apart.

With an inhalation, step one foot forward and bend that knee. Keep the other leg straight, rotate the thigh in, and gracefully swing the leg straight up to the wall. Once you are up, bring your legs together and flex your feet. Extend up through your heels so that the backs of your legs are lengthening. Extend the buttocks up toward the heels to lengthen out of your lower back. Create maximum extension from your hands all the way through to your heels.

Gaze softly between your hands and use your gaze to build more focus. Continue to draw the outer forearms in to balance the weight evenly on the inner and outer wrists. (If your elbows tend to hyperextend, drawing the forearms in may not be necessary.) Learn the action of bringing the front side, the soft part, of the forearms toward the wall. Notice how this action brings the shoulders into their sockets. Keep bringing your attention back to the root of the pose, the foundation, which is the hands. The palms should remain steady, with the fingers reaching forward.

Practice Handstand a few times, staying for at least five breaths. Each time you do the pose, refine it by shifting more balance onto the inner arms. Finding the lift of the inner arms is subtle and requires awareness, but when you find it, you will balance with less effort. Lift the inner arms straight up. Gaze in front of your fingertips. Imagine a line of energy going from the sternum to the navel and up through the inner legs. That is your center line of energy, a beam of light shining through you. Keep the breath smooth and even, letting the sound of each breath relax your attention.

3. Bakasana (Crane Pose)

Before you try coming into Bakasana, practice a version of Cat Pose. The shape mimics Bakasana and gives you a way to learn both the arm and the spine positions without using as much strength or fighting gravity.

Place your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Keep your palms rooted and lift your shoulders and forearms up out of the wrists. Keeping the index finger rooted will help bring balance and stability to your pose. In arm balances the weight tends to fall to the outer wrists, causing strain. Draw the outer forearms in to divide the weight evenly between the inner and outer wrists. Point your feet straight behind you and spread your toes, bringing all 10 of them to the floor.

Now, incorporate all the actions of the forearms and upper arms that you learned in Handstand as you round your back. Gaze at your navel and move it up toward your spine. Do this without hardening or contracting your abdominals. Let your buttocks move toward your heels, and create an even curve in the spine. Take a mental picture of this position so that you can better find it when you do Bakasana. Stay for a few breaths, then release, sitting back on your heels.

Now move into Bakasana. Come into a squat, with your heels down, if possible. Spread your knees apart and bring them high up on the outer upper arms. Place your hands in front of your feet, -shoulder-width apart, with your elbows bent. Ground the palms evenly and deeply into the floor. Bring the hips forward and up. Curl the toes under and shift the weight onto the hands. Begin to straighten the arms. Move the navel toward the spine and round the back the same way you did in Cat Pose.

Press the inner knees to the outer upper arms and lift the feet up. As soon as you are balanced, put the inner edges of your feet together and spread your toes. Don't allow the buttocks to lift too high. Keep them moving down toward the heels as you simultaneously move the heels toward the buttocks and toward the chest. As your back rounds, keep your shoulders away from your ears, shoulder blades into the body, and sternum forward.

Once again, come back to the foundation of the pose. Balance the weight evenly on the inner and outer hand. Without cupping your hands on the floor, open the palms. Draw the forearms in to straighten the elbows, and lift up and out of the wrists. Gaze straight ahead and keep the breath quiet.

4. Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand)

Begin in Child's Pose with your forehead on the ground. It is important to take a few breaths in a quieting pose to center your attention before going into Headstand.

From Child's Pose, place your hands close to your knees, shoulder-width apart. Ground the palms of your hands, especially the index fingers. Lift your hips up over your knees and place the top of your head down so that your head and your hands form a triangle. Do not make the common mistake of coming too far on the front of your head. There should be a plumb line from the crown of the head through the center of the body. The chin should be level with the floor—not tucked in too much or jutting out. Move the front of the forearms toward the head to help the shoulders move into the sockets.

With the hips over the knees, draw the elbows in to shoulder-width. Straighten your legs and come onto your tiptoes to create maximum lift in the pelvis. Walk your feet in and bring the hips up over the shoulders. Strongly move the thoracic spine and shoulder blades into the body to avoid rounding the back. If you're unable to maintain these actions and your back rounds, do not go further into the pose. With an inhalation, press the hands and lift your feet an inch or two off the floor. Pause here for a few breaths. If you cannot come up with straight legs, bring the knees to the chest and then reach the legs up. Otherwise, keeping the legs fully extended, slowly lift the feet all the way up toward the ceiling. Be sure the elbows are above the wrists. If they aren't, come down and readjust the starting position.

While in the pose, vigorously extend through your legs. Let the buttocks move up toward the heels, and move the tops of the thighs back. Stack the legs over the hips. The more you press the hands down, the lighter you will be.

From Tripod Headstand, lower the legs halfway down until they are parallel with the floor. All the way down, stay focused on the lift in your shoulders. Keep the legs extended, the femurs in their sockets, the thighs engaged, and the four corners of the knees lifted. Try to flex your feet to feel this work.

Resist rounding the back. Keep your attention in the thoracic spine and shoulder blades. Take them into the body. Minimize how far back the hips move behind the shoulders. There should be no pressure in the cervical spine; the work should be in the arms and shoulders.

From here, practice going up and coming down to build strength and grace. By moving slowly, you will build steadiness in the arms and the ability to be relaxed while in complete control.

5. Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand) to Bakasana (Crane Pose)

Inhale up into Tripod. Slowly, and with control, lower to the halfway position (or bend your knees into your chest). Keeping your breath smooth and your shoulders lifted, bring the inner knees high up on your outer upper arms, close to the shoulders. Do not place the knees on the armpits or rest them near the elbows. As you press down on the floor with your hands, keep your knees glued to the outer upper arms. Bring the inner edges of the feet together, and draw your heels up toward your buttocks. Open the soles of your feet. Lift your navel toward the spine. Now is the time to practice mindfulness.

We often lose our balance here because we lose our concentration and focus. Or we go too fast and forget the basics. Practice mentally and physically pausing, breathing, and calming yourself. Empty your mind and regroup. Drop your attachments to any sense of achievement. Go back to the essentials of the pose. Now, with control, slowly lift your head and feet up, coming into Bakasana.

Extend the arms fully. Keep the inner hand grounded and feel the lift of the inner arm. Strongly firm the outer upper arms in toward the midline. The inner knees slide all the way up the arms to the very top of the outer shoulders. Remember the Cat position of the torso. Let the buttocks move down, and bring the heels toward the buttocks. Keep sliding the knees up, up, up!

To come out, you can lower yourself into Child's Pose or do the pose in reverse. Make sure you have enough energy in the arms and alertness in the mind to do so with control. Coming into and going out of poses is often harder and more dangerous than staying in them.

With the shoulders lifted, bend the elbows and track them with the wrists. Gracefully bring the top of the head down. Again, lift the shoulders! Place the forearms and elbows over the wrists. Bring the knees together in front of the chest.

If you can, reach the legs straight out, parallel with your mat. Otherwise keep your knees bent. Extend out through your heels, shoulders lifted, and come back to Tripod Headstand. It's like landing on the top of a mountain. Take a few breaths. Keep the head down and slowly lower yourself into Child's Pose.

For some of you, the final pose will take some more work. Do not feel overwhelmed. When you understand the inner dynamics of a pose and work bit by bit, you systematically explore the boundaries of your abilities and understanding. This is self-study, and it will help you in every aspect of your life.

If you become attached to "getting there," you will get frustrated and lose hope. Study your habits and conditioning, not just poses. When you understand your tendencies, you can clear them and transform them—that's when the learning begins. And learning is all there is.


November 2008

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