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Whenever I felt I was “done” with a posture my teachers Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and R. Sharath Jois would challenge me to lift up higher and be stronger. Sometimes the most useful work on the mat involves taking a step back. It can be very rewarding and humbling to retrace your steps in service of building a better foundation. Revisiting poses you think you’ve mastered to eliminate bad habits and relied-on cheats can add all kinds of new challenge to “old” asana.
We all have to start somewhere and I definitely recommend doing postures at whatever level is appropriate for you. Many modifications are important stepping stones to build strength and flexibility—others are just bad habits. Once you’ve been relying on modified or improper alignment for a while, I recommend refining your practice, removing the training wheels, and challenging yourself to take it the next level.
The most difficult postures in yoga push you up against the edge of your comfort zone. And it is so tempting to take the easy way out instead of slowly and steadily putting in the work. Part of the inner tradition of yoga includes developing the humility to put the effort into whatever task is at hand. Right now, that task is the arm balance Crow Pose (Bakasana) and its relatives. Let’s work on cleaning up some of the most common cheats.
The Cheat: Using friction
So many people say that they can only do the challenging arm balances when they are wearing leggings because if they wear shorts they slide down their arms. The more sweaty you are the less friction you can rely on and the more core strength you have to use.
The Challenge: Building core strength
Instead of letting the body hang on friction try to use your core to lift up whenever you can. Practice at least once a week in a sweaty room and wear shorts. Also work on building core strength with Tiffany Cruikshank’s Stronger Core Video.
The Cheat: Parking your Shins
In Bakasana and its many variations some students find it easier to park their shins on the shelf of the upper arm, bend the elbows a little out to the side and rest their body weight on the arms. While this is better than not doing the posture at all, after you have been relying on this cheat for a while, you might be ready to move beyond it.
The Challenge: Using your whole body
To move past this cheat start off in the bent-elbow, shin-parked Bakasana and then slowly increase the level of activation throughout your whole body. Spread your shoulder blades, engage your core, knit your rib cage together, draw your inner thighs toward each other, and stabilize the muscles of the shoulder. Straighten your arms while pressing into the floor and gripping with your fingertips. Allow your body to lift upward, aiming your knees toward your armpits. While you will most likely avoid this cheat entirely if you set up for the posture with straight arms and plug your knees right into your armpits as you lift up.
The Cheat: Dropping feet
Leaving the feet closer to the ground helps students get over the fear of toppling forward while balancing their weight fully on their arms. But to take Bakasana to its highest level you need to draw the feet in toward the pelvis by activating the core and abs.
The Challenge: Lifting feet
To bring the feet closer in, spread the shoulder blades while engaging the muscles around the shoulder, activating the abs, and pushing the knees forward into the armpits. Draw the lower ribs in and press firmly into the arms.
See also Learn Crane Pose
The Cheat: Tapping toes down to jump back
A common place where many Ashtanga students “cheat” is in the transition from Bakasana to Chaturanga Dandasana. Instead of jumping directly back many times the toes touch down before jumping all the way back. This little cheat deprives you of building muscular and mental endurance.
The Challenge: Trusting your arms
The way to combat this cheat is to bend your elbow a little to generate momentum and take the leap of faith to jump all the way back. For more on fear, see also Sally Kempton’s Fear Not.
The Cheat: Splaying elbows and wrists
Some students find that bending the elbows to the side and turning the hands outward gives them more traction or strength. I do not recommend doing this at all—even as a training wheel—because it creates a movement mechanic in the body that can lead to wrist and shoulder injuries.
The Challenge: Aligning elbows and wrists
Begin by making sure your wrists are parallel with the front of the mat and the collarbone. Then squeeze your elbows in line with your shoulders as you lift into the pose.
The Cheat: Parking hips in Side Crow
While it is tempting to rest the hipbone on the elbow (shown above) in Parsva Bakasana (Side Crow Pose), it does not maximize your core strength.
The Challenge: Using your core
The first step to correcting this cheat is to free the elbow from the body and come closer to Chaturanga Dandasana position with the arms. This assures that the shoulder girdle is strong enough to support the body. To take Parsva Bakasana to the next level activate the abs and pelvic floor while twisting deeper along the spinal axis. Finally, straighten the arms and spread the shoulder blades.
Also watch the video Set Yourself Up for Success in Side Crow
The Cheat: Doing all of the above in Flying Crow
Flying Crow (Eka Pada Bakasana) is perhaps the most challenging pose in the Bakasana family. If you relied on any of the cheats for Bakasana, you will find this posture exceedingly hard. Even the proficient student will most likely find Eka Pada Bakasana more approachable by parking the shin on the shelf of the upper arm and leaving the foot heavy.
The Challenge: Flying higher
When you’re ready to build strength, tighten your core, activate your abs, and press your shoulders forward. Spread your shoulder blades while using the power of your core to draw the foot away from the ground and in toward your body. This could take many years of practice!
About Kino MacGregor
Kino MacGregor is a self-professed Handstand lover (just check out her Instagrams). She’s also a Pattabhi Jois-certified Ashtanga Yoga teacher who travels worldwide, author of three books, featured in six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs and a Cody App video series, and co-founder of Miami Life Center, where she and her husband Tim Feldmann are based.
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