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I am not the most acrobatic yogi. When a teacher tells me to float to the top of my mat, my float is more of a too-fast thump. Plus, thanks to my hypermobile elbows and bendy lower back, Handstand in the middle of the room continues to be my nemesis.
But it wasn’t always this way.
See also 5 Tips to Improve Your Arm Balances
I fell on my tush (and face!) plenty of times over the years. It took some dedication and experimentation to figure out the secret to balancing. And I’m here to fill you in on a few secrets. A key component to arm balancing is figuring where your center of gravity should be, and because no arm balance is alike—in some, the body is compact; in others, we are spread in a split—it took a lot of trial and error to find the perfect equation of engagement and length to achieve flight.
The center point upon which things balance is called a fulcrum. Arm balances are like a see-saw: When the weight on one end is heavier, that side falls to the floor. If you have equal weight on both sides, you (like a seesaw) will hover.
Experimenting with props was extremely informative for improving my understanding of this concept in arm balances. Chairs, blocks, bolsters, and even the wall can provide support for one end of the body, ultimately making it lighter so you can figure out where your fulcrum is. Having support allows you to stay in the pose longer, so you can get the benefits of the shape without strain. Props also make poses more accessible and can be particularly helpful for people who do not yet have the strength or length necessary to make the full shape.
Here are five fun ways to use props for arm balancing. Just keep in mind that arm balances are generally taught at the peak of a sequence, when you’re most warm. Before playing with these different variations, be sure to warm up your hamstrings and shoulder girdle sufficiently.
Crow Pose (Bakasana)
Props needed: wall
Bakasana is a blueprint for many other arm balances. It is generally one of the first that practitioners learn because your body is symmetrical in this pose and your knees are bent, so it requires less flexibility. This pose is a great way to feel that first inkling of flight. A common misalignment, however, is letting your bum stick up in the air. You might do this when you point your head and chest downward, as it is easier to get your feet up when the front body is going down. Using a wall to support the crown of your head keeps your gaze ahead of your hands and your heart reaching, without letting your butt stick up too much.
How-to: Start one foot from the wall (or closer, depending your height). Squat down with your big toes and ankles touching, spread your knees, and sneak your shoulders between your inner thighs as high as possible. Keep your inner thighs and outer upper arms squeezing together rather than resting on your shins, which activates your pelvic floor and lower belly and will help you keep your legs high on your arms. Place your hands shoulder-width apart and slightly ahead of your shoulders. Rise to your tip toes, careful not to lift your bum, and begin to bend your elbows. Shift forward with your chest until the crown of your head presses into the wall. Try lifting one foot or both feet by tightly squeezing your calf and thigh together. Stay here for 5 full breaths. To come out, lower one foot at a time. Rest a moment before giving it another go.
One-leg Bakasana (Eka pada bakasana)
Props needed: wall
Building off the first pose we worked on, this is an asymmetrical one-legged variation of crow. It can be a lot of fun—but also a lot of work, as it requires quite a bit of strength. If you have a hard time getting the back leg up, using the wall provides support and feedback for how much the back leg needs lift and reach in order to get off the ground.
How-to: Begin in Downward Facing Dog with your heels up the wall, balancing on your tip toes. On and inhalation, shift toward Plank Pose and continue to drive your heels into the wall. Lengthen your chest forward. On an exhalation, bring your right knee high up toward your right shoulder. Squeeze your right inner thigh into your right upper arm. Keep your left heel driving into the wall and your left thigh actively lifting. Continue to breathe, using your inhalations to reach your chest to the center of the room while also working to keep your back heel pressed into the wall. Try to stay here for 5 full breaths. To come out, take your right leg back into Plank and exhale into down dog for a few breaths before moving to the next side.
Side Plank (Vasisthasana)
Props needed: metal chair; strap
Vasisthasana, or side plank, is another popular blueprint pose in the arm balance family. This split leg variation, known as Vasisthasana B or 2, is regularly taught in Vinyasa classes. If you are struggling to straighten your lifted leg, remember that this is in fact a very advanced shape with a lot of moving pieces, and using props can help you explore those actions more fully.
How-to: Place the metal folding chair in the center of your sticky mat. You may want to pad the chair seat with a blanket. For this version, your entire side flank from armpit to hip point will be on the chair. Before getting into the chair, loop a strap around your left foot and keep the tail end of the strap in your left hand. To get into position, start kneeling on the ground in front of the chair and slide along the chair seat on your right side until your bottom shoulder and head are under the chair back. Bend your right elbow so that your forearm is parallel to the floor and grab the back chair leg. Your forearm may not reach the floor, so you will use the chair as your ground. Keep your top shoulder on the other side of the chair back. Start in traditional Vasisthasana by stretching your legs out to straight and stacking them, pressing the outer blade of your right foot into your sticky mat. Externally rotate your left leg and on an inhalation, sweep your leg up, grabbing the strap (or your big toe) with your left hand. If it is OK on your neck, look up toward your lifted leg. Hold for 8 breaths. When it is time to come out, release the strap from your left hand and lower your leg. Come by first rolling toward your belly and lowering to your knees. Slip your head and upper body out from the chair back and come to sit on your heels before moving to the second side.
Firefly Pose (Tittibhasana)
Props needed: metal chair; 2 blocks
This iconic arm balance takes dedication and fairly open hamstrings. Thankfully, using a chair can help you get the feeling of flying, without needing to be too flexible or strong. Firefly is generally practiced one of two ways: In one version, the bum sinks down, allowing the legs to lift higher, much like wings; in the other version (the one we will do here), the tail and shoulders remain in line, so the legs extend on top of the shoulders. Because we are not weightbearing, this is a great way to practice arm balances if you have a wrist injury.
How-to: Place a metal folding chair in the center of your mat with a block in front of each chair leg. Sit onto the chair and slide yourself back so the full length of your thigh is on the chair. Starting with your knees bent, arms inside your legs, and place your hands on the blocks. Snuggle your inner knees around your shoulders. Squeezing your shoulders with your thighs, straighten your legs directly out in front of you. (Your legs should be in the same line as your hips, which are at chair-height.) Gaze forward on the floor and reach your chest toward the front of the space. If straightening your legs is not possible, keep your knees bent. Hold for 10 breaths. To come out of the pose, bend your knees and place your feet back on the floor.
One-Footed Pose dedicated to the Sage Koundinya (Eka pada koundinyasana)
Props needed: 1 long bolster; 2 blocks
This shape is another regular in vinyasa classes that tends to get thrown out there as casually as “take a vinyasa” despite being a challenging shape for most practitioners. What makes this pose advanced is that it is asymmetrical, meaning each side of your body is doing something different, and both legs are in a split. If you think Monkey Pose (Hanumanasana) is hard, try doing it while balancing. The prop set up in this version is helpful in showing you the fulcrum upon which to balance. It also provides a little extra help to get your back leg up.
How-to: Place a long bolster vertically on the left side of your mat and put two blocks stacked on the low setting under the top half of the bolster, creating a bottom-heavy see-saw. Start in a lunge position with your left knee at the end of the bolster and your right leg forward. Stay here for a few breaths to open the hip flexors of your back thigh. Lean forward and begin to weave your right shoulder under your right leg and thigh, placing your right palm outside your foot. The blocks should be directly at your left frontal hip bone (which will be our fulcrum). Begin to lean forward and straighten your right leg out in front of you, shifting forward to hover your thigh off the floor. Continue reaching your chest to the front of the room and align the left side of your pelvis on the bolster and blocks in order to float the back leg. Your elbows should be bent at 90 degrees. Stay here for 8 breaths, then re-bend your right knee, place your foot on the floor, and slip yourself out from under your leg to return to the lunge. Move the props to the right side to repeat on the other side.