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I realized not long ago (while repeatedly reminding my students to “straighten their elbows!”) that most of them have very little idea of why teachers make the choices they do for a class. I was acting a little like the Wizard of Oz, making demands from behind the all-knowing curtain, with no explanation as to why. But there’s a benefit to knowing the method behind what might sometimes seem like madness.
I sequence in a very methodical way. It’s like a puzzle to me. Every single pose within my classes is there for a reason, to teach the exact efforts needed to eventually achieve the peak pose of the class. Of course, it doesn’t mean everyone will flawlessly execute it that day, but they will have all the information they could ever need to accomplish it in the future—if they choose to do that work. This blog aims to pull back the curtain and explain the what, when, and why bother behind key actions yoga students may not be sure why they’re learning.
Straighten Your Elbows!
The day I was hammering my students about straightening their elbows, over and over I repeated the instructions and still half the class wasn’t doing it. I was leading to Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana). It’s one of the most sought-after poses these days, and it’s incredibly rewarding when such an elusive pose finally becomes possible. I’ve written articles about it (like 7 Steps to Defy Gravity and Master Handstand) and taught countless students to do it, but it wasn’t till that day that it dawned on me that I could better help them get there if I explained the how and why. I said, “Straighten your elbows! Bent elbows make a very sad Handstand for your face. If you want to keep your face safe, I suggest you learn to straighten them here where you aren’t risking a face plant.” They laughed. And then I saw the lightbulbs come on—and the elbows straighten!
Straighten your elbows!
It’s not easy to bring your arms overhead with straight elbows and to keep the shoulders properly aligned. Why? Because we spend most of our days with our elbows bent and our arms hanging down at our sides. Because it’s hard, most people let their arms become an afterthought in standing poses and Sun Salutations.
Key Yoga Poses:
ALL poses with arms raised overhead
That means standing, reclining, seated, and upside down. Think poses like High/Crescent Lunge, Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I), Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III), Chair Pose (Utkatasana), Tree Pose (Vrksasana), Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), and even Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana).
Why We Bother:
One of the keys to handstand is keeping your elbows straight with proper shoulder alignment. But that action isn’t unique to this pose. Every time you move your arms overhead they should be in the exact same alignment as in Handstand.
If you only try to accomplish this when you’re supporting your entire body weight on your arms, you probably will be met with failure—and perhaps a pancaked nose. For this reason I always demand straight elbows in Warrior 1, Chair Pose, etc. It’s much safer and easier to build awareness and strength in the arms and shoulders when you’re not standing on them.
Make a choice to straighten your elbows every time you raise your arms overhead. It may mean your arms have to be wider than shoulder-width apart or in front of your ears, but I promise, it will make a huge difference in your work toward your goals.
About Our Expert
Southern California’s Alexandria Crow comes from an Ashtanga Yoga background. Today, the YogaWorks teacher offers vinyasa flow classes with methodical and challenging sequences that encourage mindful attention. Besides her work inside the pages of Yoga Journal as a model and writer, she’s appeared in Yoga Journal’s Fitness Challenge and Total Body Yoga DVDs, as well as several ads for HardTail Forever.