Many years ago, when I first began studying the Yoga Sutras, I found it hard to believe that Patanjali, the sage who set down the core teachings of yoga, had so little to say about asana practice. Only two of the 195 verses in his classic text even mention asana, and only one hints at what asana is supposed to be. Sthira sukham asanam, Patanjali said: "A yoga pose is a steady, comfortable position." I didn't want to be disrespectful of the esteemed Patanjali, but I couldn't help thinking, That's it? Here's this great scholar, and that's all he's going to say? How could something so big, like the practice of asana, be contained in something so small?
For months, this one verse was like a mantra in my mind. Round and round it turned. Sthira and sukha, sthira and sukha; steady and comfortable, steady and comfortable. Then one day while practicing Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose), I experienced one of those "aha!" moments. After months of struggling with the pose, building strength, opening my hips, working with the breath and the bandhas (internal energy locks), I hit the pose exactly. For a couple of seconds, I was balanced perfectly between sthira and sukha, between the energetic opposites of standing firm and letting go. In that moment, it dawned on me that this simple directive held the key not just to asana but to everything we do in life.
In asana practice, we begin to understand this delicate balance in the physical realm through our efforts on the mat. In difficult postures like Parsva Bakasana, which puts us literally off-center, we are pushed to explore our limits and move into unfamiliar territory yet maintain a balance between steady, laserlike attention and soft surrender. (Sometimes the yielding is wicked difficult and the standing firm is easy; sometimes it is the other way around.) This training in asana takes us into the deeper limbs of yoga, like dharana (concentration), in which we begin to see just where and when we need more sthira and more sukha.
Gradually, the effects of this splendid training spill over into all areas of our lives. We begin to develop a sense of how we can find balance in life off the mat; we begin to know when to take action and when not to take action, when to stand our ground and when to yield.
To help us explore this balance, I've picked out four postures that can assist us in our journey toward Parsva Bakasana: Marichyasana I (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi I), Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose), a modified version of Pasasana (Noose Pose), and a movement that serves as a transition from the Pasasana variation to Parsva Bakasana.
In the Ashtanga Yoga system that I practice and teach, we precede the first of these postures, Marichyasana I, with Sun Salutations, standing postures, and a variety of forward bends. No matter which style of yoga you prefer, I recommend that you do some Sun Salutations and at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted practice prior to attempting this Parsva Bakasana practice. Beginning in this way will give your body time to loosen up and will get your prana (vital energy) flowing.
If you're familiar with Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) and the energy locks Mula Bandha (Root Lock) and Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), I suggest you incorporate these techniques into your Parsva Bakasana practice session. In the Ashtanga tradition, it is considered incorrect to do asana without simultaneously using Ujjayi breathing, Mula Bandha, and Uddiyana Bandha. This does not mean that other schools that do not use these techniques, or use them slightly differently, are wrong. It isn't a question of right and wrong. There are many different forms of yoga practice and many different ways to approach asana, just as there are many kinds of boats that can carry you across a lake. If you choose a sailboat, you need sails. If you choose a canoe, you need a paddle. You don't need sails in a canoe. It's not that there's anything wrong with sails; they are just inappropriate in the canoe. So if the tradition you follow does not use Ujjayi breathing or the bandhas in conjunction with asana, you should feel free to practice this sequence without them.
Opening the Hips
Once you've warmed up, you can start moving toward Parsva Bakasana by practicing Marichyasana I. To come into the pose, sit on the floor in Dandasana (Staff Pose), with your legs straight out in front of you. On an inhalation, bend your right knee and pull your right heel as close as possible to your right sitting bone.
Pay attention to your alignment. First, make sure the heel is directly in line with the sitting bone, so that the inner edge of your foot is about a palm's width away from your left thigh. Second, make sure your right foot stays parallel to your left thigh. Finally, make sure your left leg stays active as you move more deeply into the pose: The left thighbone should be slightly internally rotated, the thigh muscles contracted, and the left foot flexed.
On an exhalation, reach your right arm forward along the inside edge of your right leg, bending as far forward as you can. (Your right sitting bone will probably come off the ground, which is fine. However, you should work to keep lengthening the right hip down.) Try to touch your right elbow to the ground in front of your right big toe and draw your right armpit in front of your right shin. Once you've come as far forward as possible, internally rotate your right shoulder and wrap your right arm back around your right shin and thigh, aiming to bring the back of your hand onto your lower back. Using the inner thigh muscles (the adductors), press your right thigh into the side of your body. To help get your right leg tighter against the side of your body, you can reach your left arm under the right and use it to pull your right leg in.
Once the torso and leg are sealed together, release the left hand's grip on your right shin and reach the left arm around behind you, like you did with the right. Keeping both palms facing away from you, catch the left wrist with the right hand. It may take you a couple of breaths to work your torso far enough forward and your arm far enough back to make the handclasp—or you may not yet be able to reach that far. If that's the case, simply reach as far as you can, or use a towel or yoga belt to bridge the gap between your hands.
Once you've clasped your wrist or prop, use an inhalation to lift your sternum. To aid that lift, straighten your arms and use the clasp to work your arms isometrically; try to draw your right arm to the right and your left arm toward the left, even though the clasp prevents the arms from moving. Look up; then, as you exhale, bend forward even more, drawing your chin toward your shin. Use your arms and abdominal muscles to move you down into the posture, but keep extending your spine to avoid overrounding your back.
Eventually, you may become strong and flexible enough to press your belly and chest into your thigh, draw your chin to your shin, and direct your drishti, or "gaze point," out past your nose toward your toes. But if you can't come down the whole way, keep the back of the neck long rather than looking toward the toes.
Once you're as deep as you can get in the pose, hold it for five to 10 breaths. Keep your mouth closed and your eyes open—not the other way around! Then come out of the pose, returning to Dandasana before doing Marichyasana I on the other side.
Marichyasana I helps prepare the body for Parsva Bakasana in several important ways. First, it stretches the lower back and the hip extensors (the largest buttock muscles and the hamstrings), which helps the opposing hip flexors, especially the psoas, contract completely—an action you'll need to pull your knees toward your chest in Parsva Bakasana. Second, the contraction of the belly necessary to pull you into the forward bend in Marichyasana I strengthens the abdominal muscles, so they can also help you form as compact a shape in the arm balance as possible. Third, the isometric contraction of the arms and shoulders in Marichyasana I helps build the strength you'll need to lift the full weight of your body into the arm balance and hold it there. Finally, the posture asks you to extend your spine up and out of the pelvis. This movement relieves compression around the sacrum and sacroiliac joints, and frees the lumbar (lower) and thoracic (middle) spine for the twist in Parsva Bakasana.
Strengthening the Arms
After practicing Marichyasana I on the second side, set up for Bhujapidasana by coming into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) with your feet slightly more than hip width apart. Then bend your knees, draw your torso between your legs, work your shoulders behind your knees, and place your palms on the floor behind your feet about shoulder width apart. Make sure your palms are flat on the floor and your thumbs face forward; don't come up on your fingertips or point your thumbs back. In a few moments, you will be trying to lift up into Bhujapidasana, and if you fall with your thumbs pointing back, you can seriously injure them and your wrists.
Squatting down a little more, work the backs of your thighs as high up on the backs of your arms as you can; ideally, the legs will come almost up to the shoulders. If necessary, use a few extra breaths to bring your legs, one at a time, higher up on your arms. Then bend your knees a little more and squeeze your inner thighs into your upper arms, resting your legs more fully onto the arms. Allowing all of your weight to come onto your arms, try to lift your feet and balance on your hands.
If you tip over backward, your legs are not high enough up on the backs of your arms. If your hips or hamstrings are simply too tight for you to achieve liftoff, keep your feet on the ground and focus on one side at a time: First work the right leg as high up on the right arm as you can, holding for five to 10 breaths, then do the same on the left side. Eventually, as you build strength and flexibility, you'll be able to get both shoulders in place and both feet off the floor.
Once both feet come off the ground, use an exhalation to cross one ankle over the other. Then flex your feet, pressing through your heels and drawing your toes toward your shins. Continue to squeeze your thighs firmly against your arms; this action strengthens the muscles of the inner thigh and outer hip, which are used to press the legs together in Parsva Bakasana. At the same time, draw your tailbone forward, press down into the hands, and try to lift your sternum and lengthen your spine. These actions will further stretch the buttock muscles and hamstrings, making the tucked position of Parsva Bakasana easier to attain. In addition, since you are now lifting and holding the complete weight of your body with your arms, you're building the strength in your hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders that you'll need in Parsva Bakasana.
If you are using Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha, reinforce them firmly here; you'll probably find that doing so gives more lift to Bhujapidasana and puts you in better touch with your center of gravity, helping you find balance. Once you've come into the pose fully, take five to 10 more breaths. To come out of the pose, unhook your ankles and bring your feet to the ground, returning to Uttanasana.
Twisting the Spine
The next pose we'll work on, a preparatory form of Pasasana, will help you with the twisting action of Parsva Bakasana. To come into this modified Pasasana, squat with your feet and knees together and, if possible, your feet flat on the floor. If your calves and Achilles tendons are tight and won't let your heels come to the floor, place a sandbag or rolled-up yoga mat under your heels so you can rest your weight into your heels without tipping over backward. Then draw your sitting bones toward your heels while simultaneously lifting your spine and torso up out of your pelvis.
It's very important to create this extension before you come into twisting poses; lengthening the spine creates space between the vertebrae, so the twist can be evenly distributed throughout the spine and each individual vertebra can have room to rotate fully.
Before you start the twist, make sure your hips are completely squared to the front. (The right hip tends to slide back and the left hip forward.) An easy way to check and correct for this is to make sure you keep your knees square and together; don't let your left knee move farther forward than your right. You'll strive to maintain this alignment as you move into Pasasana, because you want the twist to occur not in the hips but in the spine, with most of the rotation in the thoracic spine and a lesser rotation in the lumbar spine.
As you inhale, reach up with your left arm while continuing to drop your sitting bones and to lift your spine and torso. As you exhale, twist your torso 90 degrees to the right, reaching across your legs with your left arm until your left shoulder is past the outside of your right knee. Drop the shoulder as low as possible on the outside of the leg to seal the side of the torso against the thigh; the lower and tighter you make this seal, the easier you'll find it to do Parsva Bakasana. Place both hands on the floor, then lengthen your spine, simultaneously using the leverage of your left shoulder and the back of your arm against your thigh to help you twist more deeply.
Since the lungs—especially the lower lungs—are somewhat compressed in this modified Pasasana, you may find your breathing shallow. Here again, Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha can be invaluable: They help lift the breath so it can expand more fully through the upper lungs, making more prana available to the body. As in all postures, the bandhas function to raise apana from the area of the first and second chakras. Apana is one of the five vayus, literally "winds," the five forms of prana that circulate through the energetic body, but apana can also refer to the toxic matter that gathers in the lower torso and is released by strong twists like Pasasana and Parsva Bakasana.
Even in this preparatory version, Pasasana is a great posture in which to experience the play of sthira and sukha. The shin muscles work hard to keep you from falling backward. As the heels relax down, the calf muscles and Achilles tendons let go. The strong, steady quality of the pose engages some of the abdominal and back muscles as you twist on one side of the spine, while comfortable surrender helps you stretch the opposing muscles.
Stay in the pose for five to 10 breaths. Use deep, even breathing to help you find the perfect balance between effort and release. From this position, you'll transition directly into Parsva Bakasana.
In the pasasana prep, make sure your palms are flat on the floor alongside your body; your left hand should be near your right heel and your right hand should be shoulder width (about one and a half to two feet) farther to the right. The fingers of both hands should be pointing perpendicular to the direction of your toes. Again, work your left arm as far down your right leg as you can, tightening the seal between your leg and torso. Lean into your hands slightly, bearing some weight on your arms.
In just a moment, you're going to take a big inhalation and lean forward into your hands, slowly bearing more and more weight on your arms until your feet come off the floor. If you're using the bandhas, this is a great time to reinforce them, because they can help pull you up into the pose, both physically and energetically. This is also a good time to remind yourself to keep your hips as square as possible, just as in the Pasasana prep. As in that pose, make sure your left knee doesn't push ahead of your right. Drawing your thighs and knees firmly together will help you keep the hips square.
OK! You're ready for liftoff. Take a deep breath and lean forward, coming onto your tiptoes and bringing your weight mostly onto your hands. The more you can draw yourself into a compact ball, using your hip flexors and abdominal muscles as you did in Marichyasana I, the higher your legs will be on your left arm and the easier you'll find it to lift up and hold Parsva Bakasana. Despite all of this necessary hard work, you paradoxically need to surrender to gravity to get off the ground. Instead of using your leg muscles to pull your feet up, simply lean a little more forward—farther than you might think—and let that action lift your feet off the ground.
Once your feet leave the floor, draw them up toward the ceiling and slightly toward your buttocks. Although your legs are pressing firmly down onto your left triceps muscle (at the back of the arm), your right arm is probably working even harder than your left. Your right elbow will tend to splay out to the side; work to keep it directly under your shoulder. Straighten your arms as fully as you can. Look slightly out in front of your hands and hold for five to 10 smooth, even breaths. To come out of the pose, reverse the movements you used to lift up. Then repeat the Pasasana prep, the transition, and Parsva Bakasana on the second side.
Parsva Bakasana is not easy to master. It demands all the concentration we can muster. And as we practice it, we quickly learn that if we tend too much toward sukha, we fall back on our butts or never get off the ground in the first place. Yet if we use too much sthira, the strong energy that can easily become ambition and rigidity, we can catapult forward onto our faces.
We come to see that Parsva Bakasana can be done only with the proper blend of strength and surrender. What perfect training for the rest of life! As the Zen proverb says, Only when you are extremely pliable and soft can you be extremely hard and strong.