I’ve had my share of identity crises. From when I suffered my first major injury and could not practice nor teach yoga, to when I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco and felt torn between the two cities, and most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when I (like most teachers) had to figure out how to define myself in this sea of virtual yoga.
But the biggest identity shift of all has been becoming a mother. My son is now one-and-a-half years old, and though I am pretty much back to teaching the same classes and doing the same physical movements that I was doing prior to having him, I feel completely changed, internally. It’s like starting and ending a yoga class in the same pose—it may not outwardly appear as though you have done much, but inside you feel as though you have been completely rearranged.
Using postures to meet ourselves where we are
Eka Pada Koundinyasana II has been a source of an identity crisis for me, too. In my early years of teaching and practicing, it felt like a marker of ability. A way to stand out in packed flow classes. I saw it as a pose I had to do to prove my advanced skills. The teacher would say, “And if you do Flying Splits, go for it” (often quite casually, I might note) and I would arm balance and kick my legs out in opposing directions, with no regard for the water bottles nearby or my neighbor’s head for that matter. Internally, feeling like, “See? I did it! I am an advanced yogi!”
As the years went on and I faced a laundry list of injuries and life changes, I started to be much more judicious about this (and other) so-called “advanced” poses. Over time, I found myself practicing it only when I was properly warmed up and it was the peak pose as opposed to making it some unnecessary add-on to knee to opposite elbow. And then I had a baby, which meant nearly two years of not doing it (spoiler alert: pregnancy is 10 months) and when I tried it for the first time, my variation was far from what it used to be:
Where I used to soar, I fell flat on my face.
Where I used to feel strong, I felt weak and rickety.
But there was another enormous shift. Where I once used the pose as a measure of how advanced I was—where I once had to do it to prove my worth—I now really enjoy working the prep poses instead. In some ways, more so than the full thing, because when I am supported with props or the wall, I can actually hold the pose and enjoy the expansive nature of it.
Tap into the power of pose variations
My ongoing experiences over the years of being able to physically do something and then no longer being able to, or at the very least not nearly as easily, led me to ponder the following question: If we are not doing the full expression of a pose, does that mean we are not doing the pose? What makes a pose a pose?
And what if we could never do the “full expression” of the pose in the first place? When we practice a modified or more accessible version, does this mean we are not doing the pose?
A hot topic among teachers who are working hard to create inclusive yoga spaces is about the term “modification.” Some people feel that the term modification implies that the propped-up shape is “less than” or more beginner. Perhaps because one of the things we unconsciously say as teachers is, “and for those of you doing the full pose…” Instead, people are asking that we use the word “variation” as the belief is that the word implies that whatever version someone takes that is most appropriate for their body, is still the pose.
See also: 15 Traditional Poses + Variations
Exploring a different approach to “advanced yoga”
Tamika Caston-Miller, curator of Ashé Yoga and co-owner of the Ranch Houston, explains why she prefers the word variation: “Using different language to address a regression or a progression inadvertently creates levels of yoga when yoga is beyond an ability or choice to bring one’s body into a shape. The body changes, our needs change, injuries occur, and as our subtle yoga practice deepens, we may choose a variation of the pose that outwardly looks like a beginner posture, but inwardly reflects an advanced practitioner’s awareness of what he/she/they sense in the body.”
Whatever you want to call it—a variation or modification, like Caston-Miller explains—any change you make to a posture so that you can work it in a different way does not mean you are not doing the pose. This is the advanced practice: knowing what your body needs and making wise choices.
Eka Pada Koundinyasana II embodies this truth. I don’t know of any other posture that goes by so many different names. From Hurdler’s Pose to Albatross to Flying Splits to what we call it here at Yoga Journal, Pose Dedicated to the Sage Koundinya II. Considering that it has so many different interpretations reminds us that there is no one way to do this posture. And that prop variations, whether the intention is to make a pose more accessible or more challenging, are full poses unto themselves.
3 ways to use props to move into Eka Pada Koundinyasana II
Do some warm-up moves such as Cat-Cow, a few Sun Salutations, perhaps a hip opener or two, then enjoy this fun Eka Pada Koundinyasana II prop practice.
Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, variation (With a chair and hands on blocks)
Benefits of this variation: There is some debate among yoga teachers over what is happening with the front leg in this pose. Some people believe it to be externally rotated (turned out), but when you prop the posture and hold it, you observe that the lifted leg is in a position of abduction, meaning the leg is being taken straight off to the side. The props in this variation help you find this action, without weight-bearing, so you can hold the pose longer, which helps to lengthen the groin.
Place a chair at the top of your mat, so that the seat is facing you. Kneel onto your shins so the chair is to your right. Set up two blocks in front of you on the low setting. Bring your leg off to the side and up onto the chair. Your leg is straight and the inseam of your entire shin and knee are on the chair seat. Work your right shoulder under your leg and place your hands onto the blocks. Bend your elbows to create a shelf with your right arm. Your left elbow is hugged in by your side and your hips are the same level as your shoulders. Reach your chest forward and gaze slightly ahead. Take 10 breaths. Straighten your arms. Remove your leg from the chair and turn your body around to do side two.
Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, variation (Standing up at the wall)
Benefits of this variation: While doing this pose, you may feel like a bit of a “splat bug.” Fortunately, the wall is an amazing source of support. It allows you to gain the benefit of the adductor release (your inner thighs) of the lifted leg, while also opening the hip flexors of the standing thigh—all without having to bear weight on your arms or worry about balance. Which begs the question: If you are not balancing on your arms, is it still an arm balance? We like to think so.
Find a corner in your space that is clear of picture frames or furniture. Stand about 6 inches from the wall and pull your left knee into your chest. Open your thigh to the left side and use your hands to straighten the leg, placing your foot in the crease of the corner of where the walls meet each other. Bend your elbows and place your palms on the wall at lower ribcage or even hip height.
Continue to stand tall, even if it means you cannot get your leg over your shoulder. Make the length and spaciousness of this variation more important than hoisting the leg over your shoulder. Widen your collarbones and lengthen through your crown. Hold for 10 breaths. Use the wall for balance and come out slowly. Shift to the adjacent wall, before taking the second side.
Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, variation (Heels at wall, blocks under shoulders)
Benefits of this variation: One of my favorite hands-on adjustments in this pose is holding someone’s back leg. It gives them the confidence to fly. The props in this variation provide that support, which in some ways is even cooler, because it means that ultimately, we are holding ourselves up. With a little help from the wall, of course.
You will begin in Plank Pose with your heels at the wall, but before you come into the pose, set up four blocks, stacked as high as they need to be to support your shoulders in a Chaturanga. I am a little over 5’8” with fairly long arms and the height that worked for me was the lowest block on its face and the top block on medium. Your set up will likely be entirely different. The fun is in figuring out what works for you! If you only have two blocks, try using them on medium and wide or even tall height.
From Plank with your heels at the wall, exhale and bring your right inner thigh toward your right upper arm and begin to bend your elbows toward Chaturanga, making your arms into a shelf for the inner leg. Prop the fronts of your shoulders on your blocks and straighten your right leg to the side. Reach your chest forward, but at the same time, press your back heel strongly into the wall. Hold here for 10 breaths. Bend your lifted leg and return a supported Chaturanga before lowering to your knees and preparing for your second side.
Watch this prop practice in action
Want to learn more? Sarah Ezrin walks us through the three ways to utilize props to find new expressions of this complex posture.
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher trainer, mama, motivator, and writer. Based out of San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, son, and their dog, Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com