Ever hear the joke about the snail and the tortoise?
Q: What did the snail say when he took a ride on the turtle's back?
Ah, get's me every time (imagine a snail with a cowboy hat waving it happily in the wind). I digress. This week's Challenge Pose is about Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose), and it is far from easy. But there is something to be said about the turtle's laid-back demeanor.
This is an extremely deep forward fold (if you put this pose on its hands you'd be in the arm balance Titibhasana) and requires significant surrender in the hip flexors, hamstrings, and shoulders. If you get uptight in this pose, the body tenses and there is no chance of reaching the full expression. If you can trust that you're going to get there exactly when you should (story of a turtle's life), your body will relax and slowly melt into the deep folded shape. So, take a deep breath and take your time and dive into the beautiful world of Kurmasana.
Beginning from standing gives us the leverage advantage for this deep forward fold. Start standing with the feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and fold forward with a small bend in the knees. Take the left hand to the left calf and begin to push into the muscle as to bring the shoulder deeper behind the leg. Imagine your legs are like straps on a backpack--you need to get that pack on! Repeat on the right side and then wiggle the feet closer together. Repeat this process until you can't snuggle the straps (legs) any further up your arms.
Maintain the depth of the forward fold from Step One. Rotate your palms away from you and bend both of the elbows so that the hands move toward your low back. Depending on your flexibility, you may be able to clasp the hands. If not, simply reach them toward the lower body and hold here for a good 5 breaths.
Release the clasp or bend in the elbows but keep the depth of your forward fold. Place the hands flat onto the ground behind you, bending your knees and elbows. Lower your hips all the way to the ground to sit. Keep the inner thighs squeezing around the arms the entire time to prevent the legs from slipping away from their "backpack" position.
Place the feet down onto the ground and extend the arms straight out to the sides. (You can take a moment once the feet are on the ground to gently work the thighs higher up the arms again before moving forward). Toe-heel the feet forward, gradually working the legs toward straight as you wiggle the hands wider, working toward straight arms. When you feel you can't go any further, simply stop and breath. This pose can feel claustrophobic, so take your time and keep the mind easy.
Once your body allows you to have straight legs and arms (this will require hamstring, hip flexor, and low-back opening) then you're ready to poke your head out of your shell and squeeze! Hug the inner thighs tightly around the shoulders and engage the entire length of the leg. Lift the feet off the ground with this action, point-flexing the feet and spreading the toes. Firm all 5 fingers evenly into the floor and extend the sternum forward. Soften the eyes and take 5 breaths. Set the feet down, bend the knees and slowly draw the arms back in to release.
Kathryn Budig is a yoga teacher, writer, philanthropist,Women's Health expert, Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, MindBodyGreen + Yoga Journal blogger, foodie, and lover of her dog. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook or on her website.