A large crowd showed up for our workshop on Low Arm Balances and their Transitions. Might make one think that physical practice workshops are a bit more popular than philosophy workshops; but the surge in numbers was a lot of newcomers, so maybe there’s something else going on.
Nina explained that this workshop isn’t so much about actually doing the postures as about how to go about doing them. Nevertheless, we did a lot of them!
She also explained why she focuses on transitions: she likes to find the postures by moving in and out of them – it’s not just about striking a pose, but how you get there. People differ significantly in their strengths and weaknesses, and these differences become very apparent in low arm balances. Some people struggle to get into a posture from above, while others find it much more difficult to lift into the pose from below. So, much of this workshop focused on experiencing what works for us as individual practitioners.
To get started wrapping our heads around this, we began discussing the differences between bakasana (crane pose) and kakasana (crow pose). Although on the surface, the differences between these two poses are very subtle, they each provide different opportunities for transitions. For example, jumping from adho mukha svanasana (downward dog) into crow is much easier than into crane, but crane provides a much stronger platform for lifting into a tripod headstand (mukta hasta sirsana A), or even straight up into handstand (adho mukha vrksasana). Jumping back into chaturanga dandasana (low plank, or four-limbed staff pose) is equally accessible from either.
After Nina’s brief introduction to the topic, the twenty-three participants each introduced themselves and what they were looking for out of the workshop.
A few mentioned particular poses that they were hoping to improve upon. These included mayurasana (peacock), titibhasana (firefly: “I can’t do it for very long”), and eka pada galavasana (flying pigeon: “I can’t straighten my leg without it falling to the ground”).
The most common themes were dealing with injuries, facing fears, and learning to do difficult techniques / postures.
Among the teachers in the room, there seemed to be a recurring theme, which was summed up by one person who said “I want to embody these poses so I can speak from an authentic place when teaching them.”
A similar idea was expressed by someone else: “I don’t yet have an internal model of arm balances. I need to develop one in order to do them better.” This lead into a short discussion about visualisation and intentions versus expectations. I’ll come back to this in a minute (as we did in the moment). First, though…
Nina picked up on this thread and linked it to a broader discussion of the place of fear in our practice. She noted that although fear can be an obstacle, it also provides an important check: too much fear can be stifling, but not enough leads to dangerous practices and injuries.
As a Tantric-Hatha yoga practitioner, Nina’s practice is about pushing boundaries, seeking limit experiences. This does not mean chucking aside all limits; it means exploring them, pushing them, learning where they are. It also means staying alert to the fact that they are not constant or consistent – our limitations are different today than they were yesterday, and will be different again tomorrow.
From this perspective, she suggests asking, each time you get on the mat: “am I seeking a challenge, or seeking an assertion?” In other words, do I want to push my boundaries, or consolidate something I (think I) already know? Once you’re clear which one you choose today, set an intention for this particular practice. Not for every practice for all time, but right here, right now.
In a similar vein, visualising a practice is a good first step towards developing an internal model of a pose. It allows you to explore the possibilities of a pose in your head, before hitting the mat.
It also allows you to take stock of your state of being – your bhava – before you attempt a new posture. Arguably, getting to know your bhava is one of the most important objectives of an asana practice. As such, it is both an essential precondition and an invaluable outcome of advanced postures.
All of this leads to the maxim: If you haven’t done it before, approach with caution. But don’t let fear stop you from approaching it.
Returning to the discussion about visualisation, Nina said “I do lots of yoga in my head”. She means visualising and experimenting, not intellectualising. “It’s not expectation, but a mind-fuck.” Someone added that it’s a way of “rearranging neuro-muscular patterning” – or laying down new neuro-pathways, which opens possibilities for doing things that you’ve never done before.
Don’t ever say “I’ll never do that” or “I’ll never be able to do that”. These statements (thoughts) close-off possibilities, and inhibit experiences. They effectively stop you from visualising yourself doing things, and if you can’t see it, you probably can’t do it [but that’s not hard and fast either – I’ve found myself doing many things that were quite surprising at the time, like unexpectedly lifting into headstand in the middle of the room the first time].
That pretty much covers the psychological and philosophical aspects of this topic. Let’s turn to the physical stuff.
We begin with the foundations: the hands. Yep, all lower arm balances are grounded in the hands. I know, go figure!
Many of the poses are named after birds. Maybe it’s only a coincidence – but they only work if you have strong bird-like hands. You’ve got to be able to get a grip on your perch, hold on tight, lift through your fingers.
We warmed up our claws by moving onto all fours – hands and knees. Spread the fingers – stretching the thumb as far from the little finger as possible. Press down through the finger tips, while lifting the centre of the palm, trying to lift the little v-notch between the ball of the thumb and the heel of the hand. Ensure that as well as pressing down all of the finger tips, you’re also exerting pressure halfway between the thumb and forefinger. This might start to feel like you’re opening jars (or rather: opening with your right hand and closing with your left). All the while, make sure that the soft inner fold of your elbows are facing each other, allowing you to spread your shoulders.
Next we discussed engaging the core, and what that means. I wrote about that in the December (Handstand practice) and January (Pranayama for arm balances) workshops (which you can read here), so I won’t go into it again now. The short version: as well as planks, crunches and leg lifts, a few rounds of kapalabhati breathing is a very effective way to charge your core for strength work.
With our claws primed for perching, and our cores charged for action, Nina explained that she doesn’t like to refer to the ground or the floor, because that tends to invoke something that we push away from, whereas it is much more effective if we can draw energy up from the base, “slurping it up” into our core and engaging serratus anterior.
This was demonstrated by moving us into plank pose, to play with our grip. If you turn your elbows out, you can feel that there is less support than when they are turned in. Similarly, experiment with squeezing the hands towards each other, and pulling them away from each other. When you’ve concluded that squeezing them towards each other is more effective, then play with the screwing / unscrewing action described above.
Next, let your chest and shoulder blades drop down between your shoulder sockets. Now suck them up, lifting as far off the floor as you can. Meanwhile charge your core, sucking your guts back towards your spine.
Of course, while the hands provide the foundation that keeps you on your perch, the weight of the body can only reach the hands through the shoulders. So before we can get down to the balances, we need to charge them and open the shoulders.
Begin by lying face down on the floor. Locate your hands immediately under your shoulders – spread wide and gripping as described. Now, tuck your toes under, and straighten your knees off the ground. Engage your core by lifting your pubis into your belly, and lift slowly into chaturanga, then into plank. Lift your hips up and back into downward dog. Now turn your elbows so the soft fold faces forward, and slowly start to bend them, lowering your forearms evenly and gently to the ground. This is sometimes referred to as a downward dog puppy, but it is more correctly called the dolphin pose (makarasana).
From here, you can start to walk your feet in towards your elbows, keeping your grip firm –ensuring the inner wrist and that spot between thumb and fore-finger continue to grip. Keeping your butt high, you can bend your knees a bit to continue to push forward on your elbows, stretching your shoulders.
For some of us, this is as far as we’ll go. Some of us can lift our heads here, and push forward to “kiss” the mat between our thumbs. And pull back until the shoulders are directly above the elbows. Do that three to five times for a strong shoulder opening.
If all of that’s working for you, it’s time to lift a leg, and then maybe the other one – and you’re in pincha mayurasana (forearm stand)! WooHoo! – we’re off the ground.
I’m not going to describe the various poses in more detail. There’s a list of what we classify as lower arm balances at the end of this piece, and there are plenty of web-sites that will give you step-by-step instructions into how to achieve the “perfect” posture.
Let’s shift our focus now to the use of props.
One of the great challenges of many arm balances is to keep the elbows tucked in. A strap around the arms can be especially helpful here.
For example, in mayurasana (peacock), when you need to get the elbows almost completely together in front of the ribcage, it helps to loop the strap so it is roughly 3-arm widths. When you squeeze your elbows into this, it helps to stretch the shoulders, and ensures that you have a solid platform for your lift.
The strap can be used the same way, to similar effect in falling angel (devaduuta panna asana) and swan (hamsasana).
For pincha mayurasana and handstand, adjust the strap so that it is shoulder-width, and place it immediately above the elbows. This helps to ensure that your elbows stay directly under your shoulders, providing maximum foundation (but don’t forget to maintain the grip with your fingers, too!).
Use the strap like this in kakasana, too. Long after you can easily manage kakasana “unbound”, you might find strapping up helpful for lifting from kakasana into handstand, or moving from kakasana into tripod headstand.
A strap around the feet (or a foot and a knee) can be a great help for those who cannot get into lotus trying to lift into mayurasana (folding your legs into lotus reduces the lever-action, moving the weight closer to the centre of gravity, and thus making it easier to get them off the ground. If you can’t do lotus, strap them together into simple cross-legged position).
Blocks, bolsters and chairs can all be put to creative use in various ways to help get your feet off the ground, or to hold your head up when you’ve got your legs above them. Some people like to put a block under their feet in side-crow, to help get them up. Others find it’s more useful to have a block under the forehead or shoulder, so they can more confidently lean forward.
Remember that the important thing here is to understand that the prop is only a temporary aid. It can help to open those neural pathways, to create that internal image that we spoke of earlier – opening up the possibility for fuller and deeper expressions of the pose. Ultimately, though, the objective is to be independent of walls, floors, props and helpers – to get up and do it on your own.
Breathing can also be a challenge in some of these poses. When your entire weight is pressing through your chest onto your elbows, it is very difficult to take deep breaths. Under these circumstances, take a deep breath in before transferring the weight onto the elbows, then exhale and inhale only about 20% of your regular volume while in the pose.
Lifting into the more extreme poses requires strong core activation, and requires engaging the bandhas (see the discussion from our Spinal extensions workshop here and the Pranayama for arm balances workshop here). The question often arises: do I go up [into handstand, pincha, headstand, etc] on the inhalation or the exhalation?
In the beginning, it is typically easier to engage mulabandha on the exhalation. Those of us with experience in martial arts, or weight lifting, or other extreme exertions have already learned that we get our most power from the exhalation. So it’s not uncommon for teachers to instruct you to lift on the exhalation.
Yet some people find that they can fly up more readily if they have charged themselves during a kumbhaka at the end of the exhalation, and then let the air in as they begin to move.
Hence, the correct answer is: it depends. It depends upon your personal dispositions, experiences, capacity to engage and hold bandhas. This is one of the many areas in yoga where knowing your bhava is indispensable – and where coming to know your bhava is likely to change the “correct answer”. It is one of those very important areas where you have to work out what works best for you.
We rounded off our session with an exploration of the various poses that might be useful in unwinding (“warming down”) from a lower arm balance practice. I think this has gone on long enough, so without elaboration, here’s a quick list of the things we came up with:
- Happy baby (ananda balasana)
- Supta gomukhasana (reclining eagle pose)
- Self-hug (hands around opposite shoulders; squeeze elbows together and pull elbows directly away from sternum)
- Face-down, stick one arm directly out above you; slide other arm under opposite shoulder at 90°, palm down. Press shoulder of crossing arm back down to floor.
- Eagle arms (garudhasana)
- Svasana over blocks (a block length-ways under the spine, between the shoulderblades, to allow shoulders to drop open) – add sand bags to upper arms (or at elbows) to increase the shoulder opening
- Rabbit pose
- Variations with arms out in front, or with elbows bent, stretching the triceps (maybe with a block between the hands to keep them apart)
- Deep squat
- Variation: cock arms like chicken wings, tuck back of hands into ribs and pull elbows towards each other in front of you
And on that happy note, we all went our separate ways 😀
Thanks heaps to Nicole Davis of In Arcadia Photography http://agrippinamaior.com/ for the photos (all of the above, except the hands, by Katie Phillis)
Our next workshop will be 29 August 2015, on V – all things v-shaped:
Lower arm balance poses
(Note:This is an incomplete list — seeking your input. Plus, I lost all of the photos that I intended to use to illustrate the list. I’ll update the list as the participants/ readers cough up selfies [hint hint], or when I get a chance for another photo shoot with Nina)
bhujapidasana (shoulder pressing)
chaturanga dandasana (low plank, or four-limbed staff pose)
devaduuta panna asana (falling angel)
eka pada bakasana (one-legged crow)
eka pada galavasana (flying pigeon)
eka pada koundinyasana I (eka = one;· pada = foot; Koundinya = a sage; asana = pose)
kakasana (crow pose)
kukkutasana (cockerel, or lifting lotus)
parsva bakasana (side crow)
pincha mayurasana (forearm stand)
utpluti dandasana (floating stick [or staff])
vrischikasana (scorpion, see also charging scorpion variation)