Face Your Fears of Falling
When an arm balance appears in the Yoga Journal calendar or magazine, interesting discussion ensues at my studio. Some students are intrigued, wondering when we will work on the pose. Others, from the tone of comments like "Not in this lifetime," appear to be in awe. One student, a triathlete who competes in Ironman events— a 2.4-mile open water swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon—provided my favorite arm-balance remark: "Why in the world would anyone want to do such a thing?" To which I replied, "I bet people ask you that too!"
Actually, my student's question is a very good one. Why should you bother practicing these challenging poses? Even though they are hard for most people, are there benefits if you accept the challenge and really work on them? And what can you add to your practice that might make these arm balances come just a little easier?
One reason arm balances are so challenging is they require both strength and flexibility. You may be very strong but still not be able to do arm balances if you don't have the necessary flexibility. And yet excellent flexibility is no guarantee of success if you don't have the needed upper body and torso strength. Many people, especially women, come to yoga relatively weak in the upper body. This weakness may be due to a lifelong lack of regular work with the arms, shoulders, chest, and abdomen. Unfortunately, the weakness usually progresses as the decades go by and is often a factor in loss of independent living skills; many elderly folks can't open heavy doors or carry their own grocery bags. Over many years, the lack of hard work that challenges the upper body muscles and bones also contributes to loss of mineralization in those bones—osteoporosis—which can be a serious health problem.
So the practice of poses that include weight bearing on the arms is a good idea to help prevent osteoporosis as well as to build upper body strength. In addition, practicing any balance pose, including arm balances, helps strengthen the balance reflexes and prevent falls. The combination of osteoporosis with poor balance reflexes can lead to falls and broken bones (wrist, shoulder, and hip fractures are most common), with potentially life-threatening consequences for the elderly.
Armed with this information, do you feel more motivated to work on those arm balances? Good, because it's quite a bit easier to build and maintain strength and bone density earlier in life, rather than try to regain later what you've lost. However, it's never too late to begin work, because studies have shown that the body responds to challenge by building muscle and bone mass even in the later decades of life.
A good place for most students to begin, at any age, is with regular practice of Plank Pose and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Both of these poses put moderate weight on the arms and shoulder bones and build good isometric strength in the pectoral muscles (chest), deltoids (cap of shoulder), and triceps (back of upper arm). All of these muscles must be strong for arm balances, and it may take months of regular Plank and Down Dog practice to build the strength required.
Plank is an especially good preparation for arm balances. It strengthens the weight-bearing muscles of the arm at the same angle, 90 degrees to the torso, that is needed for the prototypical arm balance Bakasana (Crane Pose), as well as many others. Scientific studies indicate that muscles are strengthened in the exact range of motion in which you work them, so you may be strong in one position, but the strength won't apply in another position.
While you're in Plank, it's a good idea to throw in some push-ups. If you're not so strong in the upper body, start with "mini-push-ups": From Plank on your knees rather than toes, let yourself down toward the floor just a few inches, then push back up.
With regular practice, you'll be able to go down a little deeper and do a few more repetitions. Eventually, you'll be able to go all the way to the floor and back up, and then it's time to start working full length from your toes. When you've lowered all the way down near the floor, bearing weight on only your hands and toes, you will of course be in Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). This is also a good arm balance preparation, because you are bearing weight on your arms with the upper arms in line with your sides (instead of forward or overhead), as in arm balances like Astavakrasana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Astavakra) and the rather advanced series of poses dedicated to the sage Koundinya.
Success in arm balances has another hidden ingredient: abdominal strength. Most balance poses, including inversions, require abdominal strength to support and stabilize the center of your body. In many arm balances, like Bakasana and Lolasana (Pendant Pose), the abdominal muscles must contract even more strongly to lift the weight of your pelvis and legs off the floor. So if you come to yoga without a regular practice of abdominal work, arm balances are likely to be a study in frustration.
What poses can you include in your basic practice to build a solid foundation of abdominal strength? Plank Pose is again an excellent choice. Besides building chest and shoulder strength, it also works the abdominals. In an informal biofeedback study at our studio, one of our teachers found that Plank Pose elicited a stronger abdominal contraction than any traditional abdominal exercise, including crunches and sit-ups. This makes sense when you consider that in Plank the abdominals are supporting the whole middle of the body, preventing it from sagging with the pull of gravity.
Another great pose for abdominal strengthening is Navasana (Boat Pose). The abdominals contract in the pose to hold the torso up at an angle to gravity— and to keep you from falling over backward. In addition, Navasana strengthens your hip flexors (the iliopsoas and rectus femoris) and thigh muscles (the quadriceps, including the rectus femoris) and is obviously also a balance pose. For all these reasons, it is an excellent conditioning pose for arm balances; unfortunately, it's also a pose not often included in home practices.
To make Navasana a little easier and to inspire you to include it more regularly, try coming into the pose by sitting on the floor with your knees bent up toward your chest, feet on the floor, and hands wrapped around the tops of your shins. Sit tall, lifting your chest and lengthening your spine. Slowly tip back, getting your balance as your feet lift off the floor. Keeping your chest lifted, release your hands and stretch your arms out parallel to the floor. In the first few weeks, you don't have to straighten your knees completely: Even with bent knees, you can feel the abdominals contracting. As you get stronger, you can gradually straighten your knees, keeping your chest lifted and lifting your feet above the height of your eyes.
While you are working on your upper body and abdominal strength, a few key areas also need work on flexibility. These include the spine—in flexion (rounding forward) and twisting—and the hips. Squatting in Malasana (Garland Pose) works on both spine and hip flexion, which are so important in arm balances like Bakasana. To come into Malasana, start by standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Next, hang forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), placing the feet together so the inner edges of the feet touch. Then squat, allowing the knees to widen enough so the arms and shoulders fit inside the knees. Try to keep the heels on the floor; if they won't stay down, put a block or blanket under the heels.
Let your hips be heavy and your head hang down, relaxing your neck. Stay in the pose for a minute or so, letting your hips and back relax into the stretch. Eventually, your arms can wrap around your outer legs and your hands clasp behind your back.
Any of the sitting twists will help build rotational flexibility in the spine and rib cage, which is needed for arm balances like Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose). However, the squatting twist Pasasana (Noose Pose) is especially helpful as a preparation for the twisting arm balances. In the beginning, it's good to use the support of the wall to add leverage and avoid struggles with balance. Stand near a wall with your right side about a foot from the wall. Squat down, again supporting your heels if they come up off the floor. Lengthen your spine and rib cage up, turn to face the wall, and place your left forearm between the wall and your right knee. Place your palms flat on the wall and use the leverage of your arms against the wall to help you twist more deeply.
Now that you know some ways to condition your body for arm balances, it's time to consider another necessary ingredient for progress: mental discipline. Just as much as you'll be excited by your first successes, you'll be deeply frustrated and discouraged by your failures. Arm balances are therefore the perfect poses to practice persistence in the face of challenge, as well as non-attachment to the fruits of your labors.