In yoga circles, it's fairly common to regard having goals as a no-no. Perhaps that's because we've watched people sacrifice the deeper values of community, environment, and meaningful livelihood for the more ephemeral goals of comfort and material success. Some of us may even have done a bit of that ourselves, getting stressed-out trying to achieve goals that, even when attained, don't bring happiness or fulfillment.
But yoga, at least in its classical formulation, is clearly goal-oriented. The goal of yoga is enlightenment. That's it. Certainly different people have different reasons for practicing yoga, and I know from years of teaching that if I handed out a questionnaire asking about those reasons, enlightenment probably wouldn't come in high on the list. But yoga was originally developed to lead the practitioner to freedom from suffering and to realization of his or her Divine Nature, i.e., to enlightenment.
It can be helpful, even necessary, to set lesser goals along the way—as long as they are compatible with the ultimate goal. The problem with setting these interim goals is that you might become too focused on achieving them and lose sight of the big picture. Still, they can help you to move in the right direction and provide you with valuable mileposts.
Obstacles along the Way
On the road to attaining your goals—in yoga and elsewhere in your life—you will inevitably encounter obstacles. Patanjali refers to these as vikshepas and enumerates nine of them: illness, listlessness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, cravings, delusion, inability to progress, and instability in maintaining progress.
Depending on your nature and the goals you have set, you will run into some of these more readily than others; but sooner or later you will come up against them all. How you meet these obstacles will affect how well you surmount them and what your state of mind will be in the process. There are no rules. What works in one situation may or may not work in another. Your teachers and your practice are your guides in building your repertoire of responses and refining your skills in using these tools.
One tool I have found to be invaluable is a sense of playfulness. In yogic terminology, this is called lila (pronounced LEE-lah). By this, I don't mean being casual or careless.
Being serious about your practice is extremely important. After all, this yoga stuff is very serious business, connecting us with the most profound and fundamental questions about our existence and purpose. But serious and grim are not synonymous. You can be serious about yoga and enjoy your practice, too.
A challenging goal—learning Astavakrasana, for example—can provide an excellent opportunity to practice blending seriousness and playfulness. Most students find the arm balances difficult and demanding.
Strength, flexibility, concentration, balance, perseverance—all are essential for performing these poses. I teach male students who have the necessary upper body strength, but not the necessary flexibility; female students who have the mobility, but not the strength; and of course, males and females with little of either, as well as males and females with lots of both.
But one thing seems common to both genders: They both get frustrated pretty quickly when trying to do Astavakrasana. As it turns out, learning Astavakrasana—like any good goal—can help you develop the very things you may be lacking: not just physical strength and flexibility, but also patience and insight.
As usual with more difficult poses, practice of more basic asanas will provide a springboard from which to make the leap. Since flexibility and strength in the hips and legs are necessary for Astavakrasana, standing poses and forward bends, especially Marichyasana I (Marichi's Pose), will be helpful.
Toned muscles in the abdomen and lower back—two more requirements for Astavakrasana—can be cultivated with Paripurna and Ardha Navasana (Full and Half Boat Pose) and Jatara Parivartanasana (Stomach-Revolving Pose).
To strengthen your upper body, practice Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Downward-Facing Tree, a.k.a Handstand), and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose).
Lolasana (Pendant Pose), challenging in itself, begins to put the whole package together. Proficiency in all of these will give you a good start.
Another preparatory pose, Eka Hasta Bhujasana (One Hand Arm Pose), incorporates many of the elements of Astavakrasana. Begin by sitting in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Stretch your legs out straight in front of you with your thighs together and your front thigh muscles (quadriceps) firmly pressing your thigh bones (femurs) deep into the backs of your legs. The grounding of the femurs in this manner is an important aspect of this pose and of Astavakrasana.
Place your palms on the floor beside your hips, fingers pointing forward. Move your inner shoulder blades (the part of the scapulae nearer the spinal column) downward toward your kidneys. Bend your right knee, drawing the knee back and up toward your torso.
With your right arm inside your right thigh, take hold of your lower leg with both hands. Hold the bottom of your right calf with your right hand and grip your inner right ankle with your left hand. Next, lift and place your right knee onto your upper right arm near the shoulder. Keep your left leg fully extended on the floor, both buttocks on the floor, and your chest lifted.
If it is difficult for you to raise your right leg so that it is well up on your arm, you'll need to work on the aforementioned standing and forward-bending poses until you have the necessary flexibility for the leg movement.
Once your right leg is positioned on your arm, release your leg with your right hand and place that hand on the floor about six inches outside and slightly in front of your right hip, fingers pointing forward. Your right arm will be bent.
Continue holding the ankle with your left hand, which will help keep the leg from sliding down your arm. But how do you keep this from happening once you let go of your leg with your left hand?
Try this: While still holding your ankle with your left hand, stretch the arch of your right foot from the heel to the ball. Maintain that stretch and, without pointing your toes, point the inner ball of your foot (near the big toe) toward the floor. This action of the foot will help you to grip your upper right arm with your calf and your knee, much like a nutcracker grips a nut.
Even so, your leg may still slide when you let go with your hand, unless you grip with your inner knee more powerfully than with the outer. Try gripping with your outer knee, let go with your hand, and see what happens.
Then reposition your leg if necessary, stretch the foot as described, grip with your inner knee, release the left hand, and observe the differences.
This kind of experimentation is crucial in practicing yoga. If you've watched children play with a new toy, you've seen them try to do all sorts of things with it, quite often having nothing to do with its intended purpose. Their play is tied into their sense of curiosity.
For the student of yoga, a similar willingness to play with first this movement, then that, coupled with the more mature process of observing the effects of your actions, will teach you a lot. When I first began to study with B.K.S. Iyengar, I heard that he used to practice eight to 10 hours a day. This was inconceivable to me, not only physically, but from a mental standpoint. How do you stay interested for that long?
After nearly 30 years of practice, I think I now understand how this is possible. Your practice—or anything else—stays interesting as long as you are experiencing it as fresh and new in every moment.
I've watched my grandchildren play with the box a toy came in for a much longer time than with the toy itself. The simplicity of the box invites them to be spontaneous and allows them to explore the many possibilities that arise in their minds. When you approach an asana with a similar attitude of inquisitiveness and playfulness, following the natural curiosity of your own mind, it's amazing how many possibilities can arise. I have done Adho Mukha Svanasana literally thousands of times, and yet each time (all right, most times) I find it interesting, mentally stimulating, fun. What if I turn my hands out? What if I turn them in? Widen them? Narrow them? On and on it goes. A lot of times I have to quit playing with the asanas because I've run out of time, not because I'm tired or bored.
As you turn your attention back to Eka Hasta Bhujasana, bear in mind that your willingness to play with the pose may be more important than whether or not you can "do" it.
To continue exploring the pose, keep lengthening the arch of your right foot, press your inner right knee firmly against your upper right arm, and release your right ankle with your left hand. Place your left hand on the floor about six inches outside and slightly forward of your left hip. Roll your left thigh inward, and intensify the grounding of your left femur by broadening the ball of your left foot. Take a breath and, with an exhalation, press your palms and lift your left leg and both buttocks from the floor.
To access the full strength of your arms and wrists, press the mound of the thumb powerfully into the floor. Keep your left leg straight and parallel to the floor, and make sure you keep rolling your thigh inward so that the kneecap and the toes face the ceiling rather than allowing them to turn out. Stay in Eka Hasta Bhujasana for 20 to 30 seconds, and then, as you exhale, gently lower your buttocks and left leg to the floor.
Glued to the Floor?
Those who are unable to lift off the floor commonly lament, "My arms aren't long enough." Although your arms certainly help lift you up, it's really your abdominal muscles that elevate your hips.
Do your buttocks feel glued to the floor, unable to rise in spite of your best efforts? Try practicing the abdomen-strengthening asanas suggested earlier. Also, even if you can't leave the floor just yet, draw your navel backwards toward your spine as you keep trying to lift; that action in itself will help you get stronger.
Feeling glued to the floor can lead to frustration that will undermine your efforts. If that's happening to you, you've set the wrong goal.
Instead of feeling defeated by your inability to lift up, try to see how long you can maintain the maximum effort of pressing your hands into the floor and drawing your navel back. In addition to practicing the preparatory strengtheners, build the amount of time you can maintain your effort without tightening your facial muscles or holding your breath. You can also gradually increase the number of times you make the attempt. Strength will come. And then, up you'll go—or not. The value, the growth—the yoga—is not in elevating your behind, but rather in bringing full effort and attention to your attempts.
If you do finally get up, there will always be a next step; so rather than seeking some final attainment, you might as well enjoy playing with the abilities you have at each step of the way.
There are other ways to experiment with overcoming that glued-to-the-floor feeling. One way is to place your hands on blocks instead of on the floor. You may find that this will allow you to lift off. The balance is a little trickier, so lift gradually, without jerking. Use the blocks only as long as you need to. (After all, you want to avoid Patanjali's obstacles of laziness and inability to progress).
Yet another way to approach Eka Hasta Bhujasana (and Astavakrasana) is from standing. In Tadasana (Mountain Pose), separate your feet about 6 to 8 inches apart. Bend forward at the hips and then, bending your knees slightly, tuck your right upper arm behind your right knee. Place your right hand slightly behind and outside your right foot and your left hand behind and slightly outside your left foot. Your right arm will be inside your right leg; your left arm will be outside your left leg.
Bend your knees still more and lower your hips, keeping your right knee well up on your right arm. (You will be able to plant your right hand much more firmly than your left, which is okay for the moment.) Grip your right upper arm with your inner right knee (as described in the previous instructions), press your right hand into the floor, and lift your right foot slightly away from the floor. You will still have weight on your left foot, which should be slightly in front of your hands. Now take the weight off your left foot and onto your left hand, stretching the left leg out in front of you for Eka Hasta Bhujasana.
Once you can accomplish Eka Hasta Bhujasana, you can begin to move into Astavakrasana. In Eka Hasta Bhujasana, bend the raised left leg and cross your left ankle over your right ankle, maintaining the stretch of the arches of both feet (Figure 3). You must continue to grip your right arm with the inner right knee all the while, or your leg will slide down your arm and your pose will wilt like a flower in the hot sun.
With your ankles crossed, increase the pressure of your right inner knee on your arm, as if you were trying to push your shoulder toward the floor. Resist the force of the knee on the arm by pressing your right hand into the floor and pushing your upper arm back against the knee. This action will ensure that your arm and shoulder don't collapse despite the extra pressure of the leg. Keep pressing with your right knee and begin to extend your right leg by lifting your right foot away from the floor and reaching out through the right inner ankle.
Since your ankles are crossed, when you extend your right leg, your left leg will begin to stretch as well. Roll your left thigh inward as you did in Eka Hasta Bhujasana and ground the femur deeply into the back of the thigh. Squeeze your right arm between your two knees, pressing your palms firmly into the floor; lift your torso and straighten your left arm as fully as possible. Your right arm will remain slightly bent. This intermediate position will develop your balance and stability. Some of you may find it more difficult than the final pose.
After a couple of breaths, exhale and slowly bend both elbows, gradually lowering your chest and head toward the floor until your shoulders are level with your elbows. Press firmly with the mound of your thumbs to activate the muscles in your wrists and arms and control your descent. As you lower your torso, lift your hips so that your tailbone is level with your breastbone.
Take care not to sink into your left shoulder. Although your legs are on your right arm, your left arm has to work harder to keep you from collapsing. Draw your shoulder blades toward your kidneys and lift your head, taking care not to compress your neck.
This pose gives a good twist to the lumbar spine. To deepen that twist, stretch your outer left thigh from your hip toward your knee and simultaneously turn your navel toward the left.
After several breaths, exhale and press back up to the straight arm position. Then uncross your ankles, swing your left leg out in front so that you are back in Eka Hasta Bhujasana.
Slowly lower yourself back to the floor, remove your right leg from your arm, and return to Dandasana. Then repeat the whole sequence, from Eka Hasta Bhujasana to Astavakrasana and back again, on the other side. (Use the same approach, starting from either sitting or standing, on both sides.)
Graceful Exits & Entrances
Coming into Astavakrasana from Eka Hasta Bhujasana is the simplest way to learn the pose. While there are several more challenging approaches, these techniques should only be tried after you have mastered entering from Eka Hasta Bhujasana. This is literally a "look before you leap" strategy, because one method is to jump into Astavakrasana from Adho Mukha Svanasana. To prepare for this, you can practice coming into Astavakrasana from Tadasana, just as you practiced coming into Eka Hasta Bhujasana.
To learn to jump into Astavakrasana without the feet touching the floor, I found it helpful to start from a short Dog Pose—Chihuahua size—so that I began somewhere in between Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Adho Mukha Svanasana, but leaning more toward Uttanasana. If you jump from too far back before you develop control, the weight of your body hurtling forward and landing on one arm may strain or injure your wrist, elbow, and/or shoulder—not to mention the possibility that you'll land on your nose.
When you jump, take your weight onto your hands as if you were doing Handstand. Lift your body by drawing the floor of your pelvis up and your lower abdomen back toward the spine. The sensation should be as much one of going up as going forward. This warm-up will give you a feel for whether the length of your modified Downward Dog is about right, and it will also help you gauge just how much physical effort you'll eventually need to jump into Astavakrasana without your feet touching the floor. Practice this little leap until you feel confident and controlled in the movement, and able to land lightly.
At that point, you can try jumping so that your right knee lands gently on your upper right arm without the foot touching the floor. At the same time, swing your left leg between your arms without the left foot touching the floor. Then cross your ankles and proceed into Astavakrasana. To come back out of the pose, lift your body slightly, bend your left knee, and pull your left foot toward your body. Then shoot your left leg straight back and simultaneously swing your right leg out and back so that you come into Chaturanga Dandasana. Press your palms into the floor and lift your abdomen back and up until you come into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Then repeat the procedure on the left side.
Another method is to come into Astavakrasana from Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand). Still another approach is to go into Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), come down into Astavakrasana on the right side, press back up into Handstand, repeat Astavakrasana on the left side, go back into Handstand, drop to Chaturanga, and then press back into Adho Mukha Svanasana. You'll notice that I've given no details or tips on how to do these two techniques. That's because I can't do them. But I've been told by reliable people that they can be and are done, so every now and then I give them a go—which always ends in my sinking (or crashing) to the floor in a heap. It's fun to try, though, whether I get it or not.
I've had the opportunity to present yoga to children, and jumping into and out of poses is a great way to teach them the practice. Children love to leap around; for them, landing in a heap is sometimes more fun than landing in a pose. They are usually willing to try anything and their faces light up with the joy of moving and playing. The poses are just an excuse for them to have fun.
I'm not saying that a mature practice of yoga should be all child's play. As I mentioned earlier, yoga is very serious business. But if you get lost in trying to attain the goal without attending to and enjoying the journey, all you'll attain is frustration and negativity. Whether we're talking about Astavakrasana or kaivalya (liberation), frustration and grim determination will eventually cause you to tighten up, lose energy, get exhausted, and feel bad about yourself.
Of course, you need to apply intelligent effort, encounter the obstacles that present themselves, and observe your reactions. You must be with your obstacles fully without denying them—whether your challenges are weak abs or worldly distractions—to see clearly what is needed to deal with them. If you're not serious in this way, you certainly won't attain your goals.
But if you don't bring some of the lightness of child's play to your practice—if you can't let go of the desire to get somewhere—you won't attain your goals, either. I'm certainly not enlightened, but my inner voice whispers to me that if I can't lighten up as I do the serious work of my sadhana (practice), not much enlightenment will come my way.
John Schumacher is a certified senior Iyengar teacher and longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar. He directs the three studios of the Unity Woods Yoga Center in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. He is grateful to Dona Holleman for teaching him the essence of arm balances.