I jest to friends that I ride horses so I can scare myself to death on a regular basis. In such a challenging pursuit, there's always the chance of falling; a moment's inattention can result in serious injury. But people don't ride horses, rock climb, or ski down sheer slopes because of the danger. They do these activities because the absolute focus required makes them feel intensely, undeniably alive.
Deciding that you want to live with this level of aliveness isn't always easy. Challenging yourself can be like taking a cold shower first thing in the morning: You know you'll feel great afterward, but turning that dial from hot to cold-from comfort to challenge-may require the full force of your will power.
In this column I want to invite you to challenge yourself with a fairly advanced headstand-arm balance cycle. Many of us never attempt these postures. We can't do them because we don't practice them and we don't practice them because, well...we can't do them. Rather than face the discomfort of experiencing ourselves as beginners, we get stuck in an eddy of inertia, trapped in endless repetition of what we already know. Or, if we do challenge ourselves, we quickly give up, flustered and uncomfortable with our ungainly efforts.
When we give up in the face of challenge, we cheat ourselves of the immense satisfaction that follows from building any skill to fruition. The trouble is that we can't know, in the beginning, just how good we're going to feel when our gross fumblings and awkward failures slowly transform into mastery. We might have an inkling, but we don't really know that working through our ineptitude will open us up to immense rewards. All we know in the moment is that what we're doing is really hard.
When I began studying dressage—the art of training yourself and your horse to move together in balanced, unified action—I despaired that I would never master the most basic position of my legs. After a few circles in the riding arena, my legs would be flapping hopelessly, my feet out of the stirrups, my reins lost, and smoke (I was certain) blowing out of my ears. Gradually the immense difficulty of having to coordinate so many actions at once lessened. Brief moments of moving in complete harmony with my horse, Braga, left me tremendously exhilarated. Even a few seconds of graceful ease in a canter seemed to open the sky above me as if that single moment had expanded into infinity.
For most people, learning to do Bakasana (Crane Pose) from Headstand will be like my experience of learning dressage. If you've never done it, you probably can't imagine how good it feels—and you may think you'll never succeed. So, in the beginning, you need a little faith. You need to believe that it's okay to stay right with yourself, to develop what you can do instead of fretting about what you can't, and to work patiently through your clumsiness, regardless of how long it takes. But you simply can't bypass your own ineptitude—unless, of course, you wish to remain inept forever.
So if your practice lacks ebullience and you've been resting on your laurels of late, consider offering yourself up to a challenge. It need not be this particular sequence of asanas, but let there be some part of at least one practice session each week in which you learn a new skill. We all need these little challenges to keep us alive and kicking.
(CAUTION: This approach requires you to be confident of your balance and technique in Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand). You should experience no strain whatsoever in your neck during or after the pose. If you can't practice Sirsasana II with ease, work on it under the guidance of an experienced teacher until you can. Then you'll be ready to attempt this Headstand-Bakasana cycle.)
When I practice arm balances, I start with a long series of Suryanamaskars (Sun Salutations), ending each cycle in a variation of Malasana (Garland Pose). The Sun Salutations warm up the whole body, and the long repetitions of Malasana open the groin and back, easing the way for the arm balances. In between the Sun Salutations, I work through a series of standing postures to further open the hip joints.
Begin with a Sun Salutation. At the end of the cycle, when you are bent over your legs in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), come into Malasana with your feet hip-width apart and your arms draped in front of you on the floor. Breathe deeply into your abdomen and allow your hips and heels to release toward the floor. Stay in Malasana for 10 breaths, then return to Uttanasana and finish the Sun Salutation by coming back into Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
After your first Sun Salutation, practice Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) on each side. When you're done, return to Tadasana and begin your second Suryanamaskar. When you reach your final Uttanasana, squat into Malasana again, but this time bring the inner edges of your feet together. Release your knees out to the sides and reach your arms in front of you on the floor. Focus on lengthening your spine and deepening your hips toward to the floor.
After 10 breaths return to Uttanasana, come into Tadasana, and move into Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose). Proceed into your third Sun Salutation, again ending with Malasana. This time bring your arms underneath your shins. Reach back strongly with your palms open to the ceiling and your thumbs stretching away from your little fingers.
Continue to alternate Sun Salutations with standing postures, ending each Salutation with a long stay in Malasana. You can choose any of the standing postures; in addition to Trikonasana and Parsvakonasana, a well-rounded selection for opening your hips might include Virabhadrasana II, Ardha Chandrasana, Parivrtta Trikonasana, Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, and Prasarita Padottanasana.
When you've completed the final standing pose in your warm-up vinyasa, place a folded blanket on top of your mat, so your head will have a little padding during the Headstand-Bakasana cycle. (CAUTION: It's essential to do arm balances on a hard floor. Do not practice on soft carpet, because your wrists will collapse below the level of your fingers, overextending the wrist joint. This can weaken the wrist and contribute to problems such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.)
Kneel with your knees against the front edge of the blanket and place your hands shoulder-width apart, with the tips of your fingers resting just in front of the blanket's edge. Place your head on the blanket in front of your knees. Slowly lift your hips into the air, straightening your legs. Your head, hands, and arms will form a tripod, with your forearms perpendicular to the floor. If your hands are too close or too far away from your head, the foundation of your pose will be unstable. Come down and adjust the placement of your head if necessary. Then slowly walk your feet towards your head until your hips are over your chest. Maintain an upward lift through your back and lightly lift both legs off the floor to come up into Sirsasana II.
Stay in Sirsasana for 10 breaths. Check the position of your elbows: Make sure they are not splaying out wider than your shoulders, as this will destroy the stability of the foundation created by your arms, neck, and head. But don't just squeeze your elbows together; instead, carefully roll the shoulders back, shrugging them away from your ears, and draw your elbows away from your torso into the space in front of you.
(Note: If you find the pressure on your wrists stressful, place a small wedge under your palms to decrease the angle of extension. You can purchase wrist wedges from most yoga prop stores, but you can also use a strong wooden board covered with a mat. Raise one side of the board with a folded mat. This homemade device offers you greater versatility and better support than a foam wedge because you can vary the diameter of the folded mat to change the angle of extension, beginning with a steep angle for weaker wrists, and slowly lowering the angle over a period of months as your wrists and forearms grow stronger. You can also use the slant board for all postures where your wrists bear weight, including Adho Mukha Svanasana, Handstand, and other arm balances. I don't recommend the common practice of placing the base of your palm on a folded yoga mat. Mats are too spongy to offer the support the fragile wrist joint needs. Especially if you're recovering from wrist problems such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, take the time to make yourself a slant board.)
As you balance in Headstand, begin to relax your abdomen and allow your knees to fold into your belly. Let your navel be the center of your intelligence. Feed the legs back into your core by softening rather than gripping your abdomen. Feel the contents of your belly shift back against the spine so that the abdomen feels hollow.
Now come the trickiest parts of the cycle. How can you lower those knees to rest on the outside of your upper arms and then lift your head off the ground? As you lower your bent legs, continue to draw your thighs in toward your belly. Let your back round slightly, and allow your head and neck to gently shift so that your weight is more towards the back of your head. When you round your back, you can't safely maintain a vertical position with your neck; the contradiction between your rounded back and your straight neck can easily result in injury. Also, if you try to hold your head and neck in the same vertical alignment you use for Headstand, you won't be able to draw your body into the compact ball necessary for Bakasana. At this stage in the cycle, it's especially important to maintain the support of your arms so you don't drop too much of your weight onto your head and neck in this vulnerable position.
Softly place your knees onto the outside of your upper arms, as close as possible to the armpits. You are now ready to come up into Bakasana.
To lift your head, it helps to imagine your head and your buttocks as two ends of a scale. It's important to bring the buttocks down if you hope to raise your head off the floor. As you shift your buttocks down, the weight on your head will lighten. This is the moment to raise your head from the floor and to shift the chest slightly forward through the arms to come into balance. As your head comes off the floor, press your shins against your upper arms and puff your back up so your spine is strongly rounded. Keep the inner edges of your feet together and flexed to maintain the compactness of your body and make it easier for your center to connect with and control your legs. Finally, if you can, straighten your arms.
You really need your sense of humor when you're lowering your knees onto your upper arms and bringing your head off the floor, because it's not uncommon to topple over in your first attempts. Consider each tumble as a valuable aid in teaching you what not to do the next time. If you do tip over, take a few moments to assess why you fell, so your next effort can be more skillful. Common errors include: allowing the feet to fall apart and the knees to slide off the arms; allowing the feet to hang limply instead of actively flexing them and thus engaging the abdomen; allowing the elbows to drop in or out; bringing too much weight forward towards the head; and raising the buttocks too high or hanging the buttocks too low. Decide which of these errors you made, and focus on correcting that one action in your next attempt.
Bringing your head back down to the floor into Sirsasana II may require a little more finesse than lifting up into Bakasana. Gently shift your weight forward and lower your head to the floor. Because your seat is heavier than your head, it's crucial to swing the buttocks up into the air a split second before you lower your head. Proper timing of this swinging action allows you to raise your pelvis over your chest with the least amount of muscular effort.
Now raise your legs back up into Sirsasana II. Stay for a few breaths, finding a steady balance once again before you lower the legs together to the floor, keeping them as straight as possible.
The moment your feet touch the floor, bend your knees and come into a deep Malasana position, stretching your hands back behind you. Gently curl your fingers back into your palms to provide an essential counterpose for your wrists. Stay for at least 10 breaths, allowing any tension in your face, jaw, and eyes to melt as you rest.
You can now return to Uttanasana and come back up to standing, ready to begin your next Suryanamaskar. Congratulations! You have completed one full arm balance cycle. You can repeat it as many times as you like, continuing to practice either Bakasana or other arm balances of your choice.
When you first attempt this practice regimen, you may find that you tire after the initial Suryanamaskar/Malasana/Standing Posture series. Over the course of weeks and months, you'll find your strength and stamina gradually growing. Once you've grasped the basic movements of the cycle, concentrate on making your transitions smooth and even, with each asana reaching its fullness before you flow into the next. At first, you may be able to manage only one Bakasana cycle, then two, and then before long you'll be able to add even more—until you're finally able to work through the whole repertoire of arm balances in a single practice. By then, you'll have discovered that you don't need magic or superhuman strength to master this cycle; you only need determination and the willingness to be present with yourself each step of the way.
Donna Farhi is a registered movement therapist and international yoga teacher. She is the author of The Breathing Book (Henry Holt, 1996), and Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness (Henry Holt, 2000).