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I just returned from an amazing week in Maui where I led a retreat at the Four Seasons Wailea. It happened to be prime humpback whale season, which meant they were everywhere. It was remarkable. I’d be sitting there eating lunch watching them spout water through their blowholes or witness a full body breaching.
I should mention that I love the ocean but am very uncomfortable when it comes to being IN it. While there, I worked to conquer my fear—I paddle boarded, learned how to row on a Hawaiian outrigger, and even kayaked. My kayak excursion lead me within 100 feet of these magnificent creatures (probably the most simultaneously amazing and terrifying experience I’ve ever had), with nothing but some water and a tiny boat between us.
Once the whale activity slowed down, people decided to take a dip in the ocean right where the whales had been moments before. Jumping in the ocean where tons of school-bus-sized marine life are swimming below sounded to me like a waking nightmare. I stayed on board as others jumped in, and listened incredulously when they surfaced and said how amazing it was and that you could hear the whales singing underneath the water.
I peered over the edge of the kayak and thought of my yoga practice—I commit to choosing love over fear on a daily basis. I never say never to a yoga pose or challenge because I know I am completely capable of anything I put my mind to. I looked back at the water and knew it was time to jump in.
So I did. I dunked my head just long enough to hear a few chords of the humpbacks singing their song and couldn’t help but smile. The whales were singing their pranayama to me. When I finally climbed back aboard my kayak, I felt I did so with a huge extra heaping of love.
As you tackle this week’s Challenge Pose, remind yourself you can. We create our own limitations. So dip your toes in to this posture and enjoy the beauty available to us when we face our fears.
Before tackling Visvamitrasana, you’ll want to warm the body with a few Sun Salutations, twists, and shoulder openers. When you feel nice and warm, begin Downward-Facing Dog and step your right foot forward to meet your hands. Stay on the ball of your back foot and bring both of your arms to the inside of your front leg (you might need to wiggle your right foot a bit to the right to make additional space).
Lower both of your forearms down onto the ground (if this is way too intense, you’ll practice placing your arms onto blocks until the hip opens up). Hold here for 8 breaths extending your chest forward and elongating your left heel back to create a straight, long leg. Next, grab your right ankle with your right hand and begin to work your shoulder behind your calf like you’re putting on a backpack. Once you can’t snuggle your shoulder in any deeper, extend your gaze and chest and take another 8 breaths.
Place your back knee onto the ground and pivot on it so that your back shin is parallel to the front of your mat (like a supportive kickstand). If you find you have a bit more snuggle room with your “backpack” leg, work your right shoulder back behind your calf again. Set your right palm down on the ground but walk it over several inches to the right (if you’re on a yoga mat you’ll probably take your hand off the mat onto the ground or near the edge). Keep your right elbow bent and lean back and to the right. Keep leaning back, using the kickstand support of your back shin, until you can lift your right foot and left arm up off the ground. The right arm stays bent to create a shelf for your right leg to rest upon.
Grab the top or your right foot with your left hand. (Note: If you have tight shoulders you might want to use a yoga strap. Create a loop and place it over the ball of your right foot. You can pull down away from the buckle with your hand as much as you need to give your shoulder relief.) Tuck your chin and start to straighten your right leg as you revolve your chest open, allowing the arm to pass over your head. At first you’ll keep the right elbow bent (and your shoulder happily remaining in its socket). As your right leg straightens, however, begin to straighten your right arm to create stability. Firm your upper outer arm and right hip to help spin the chest open. If it doesn’t bother your neck, look up.
There’s a huge difference in balance between Step 3 and the full pose. I recommend practicing the Step 3 variation for quite some time before you move on so that you fully feel and understand the hip opening and revolving of the chest and shoulders. If, however, you’re ready to move on, here we go! Begin in Downward-Facing Dog and step the right foot forward to meet your hands as you spin the back foot flat like you’re preparing to stand into Warrior I. Instead of standing up, begin the same “backpack” work that you did in Step 1—grab your right calf with your right hand and dip your chest down to work your shoulder behind your leg as much as you comfortably can. Keeping the shoulder where it is, walk your right palm out to the side by several inches while keeping the elbow bent (you need to walk it far enough out to the side so you have something to lean toward without losing balance). Start to lean your chest open toward the right until you can lift your left arm first followed by your right foot. Grab the top of your right foot with your left hand (holding the top of the foot connecting to the outer edge) and begin to straighten your leg forward as the top elbow bends to spin your chest open. As you open the chest, it’s important to create an anchor in the back leg. Root into the outer edge of your left foot so much that it feels like you’re creating a mini cave with the arch. If the pose is new to you—look down. This will be the easiest to balance. As you become more comfortable with it, look sideways or all the way up to find that full expression of the chest.
Note: If your hips are especially low, you should take more time in the “backpack” phase. You want to get the leg as far up the arm as possible to create the long line required of this pose. It may just be a matter of focusing on hip openers more often to get into this full pose.
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and is currently writing Rodale’s The Big Book of Yoga. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website.