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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Flights of Fancy : Introducing Arm Balances to Your Yoga Practice

Feb 28, 2020 09:30AM ● By Sheila Ewers
The first time my teacher modeled Crow Pose (Bakasana) in yoga class, I reacted with equal parts awe and fascination. She seemed to be defying gravity with weightless ease even as she called upon tremendous strength and focus. I followed her cues that day, and though I didn’t achieve “lift-off,” I felt inspired and curious enough to keep trying until I eventually found the shape in my own body. The day my feet finally left the ground, I felt more powerful than I had in years, not because of my strength, but because I had the courage to confront the beliefs I held about my own limitations.

As a teacher now, I find that my students have mixed reactions when I introduce an arm balancing pose. Some respond with excitement and enthusiasm, eager to challenge themselves and attempt something new. Some shake their heads and chuckle, convinced before they even attempt it that they don’t have the strength. Others wonder why in the world we would ever want to do such a thing.

Like every other pose in yoga, arm balances provide us with a lens through which we may see and understand ourselves better. They are not necessary to yoga practice, and they do not reflect the quality or effectiveness of one’s yoga practice in general, but they do offer an opportunity to shift awareness and foster mastery of the body. The entire body and mind must be focused and engaged to balance on the hands and wrists safely. It requires practice, discipline, awareness, courage and humility, and the cultivation of those qualities may be the greatest benefit of all, whether or not you ever achieve lift-off.

With regular practice, arm balances will yield other benefits as well. Physically, they increase strength and tone in the wrists, shoulders, abdomen and back. They promote flexibility in the hips and groin, and they develop awareness and engagement in the pelvic floor, which must lift in mula bandha, or root lock, to achieve buoyancy. A 2011 study conducted by Frontiers in Neuroscience showed that complex challenges to coordination, agility and balance combined with novelty and unpredictability can create new neural pathways and connections in the brain.
If you decide to experiment with arm balances in your own yoga practice, the best place to begin is Bakasana, or Crow Pose, but first you will need to develop the strength to explore safely. The key to taking flight is to distribute the effort evenly between the core by activating the pelvic floor and lower abdominals and the upper body by stabilizing the shoulders.

Note: You should not practice arm balances if you have carpal tunnel syndrome, unregulated high blood pressure or circulatory conditions.

Prepare the body for Crow Pose by practicing these movements consistently until you become comfortable and stable in them:

Begin in Child’s Pose with your knees wide apart


Child’s Pose mimics the shape you will eventually take in Crow Pose, stretching the back of the
body and flexing the hips. Bring your big toes together and knees wide. As you press your tailbone towards the heels, lay your body between the thighs. Rest your forehead on the mat and lengthen your arms forward. Take long deep breaths, sensing the breath in the back of the body, particularly in the kidney area and the space between the shoulder blades. With every exhalation, practice engaging the mula bandha by lifting and activating all of the muscles in the pelvic floor.

Shift between Downward Facing Dog and Plank Pose


Downward Dog tones the wrists, chest, shoulders and abdominal muscles. It encourages
stabilization in the entire shoulder girdle while it stretches the entire back line of the body, and it cultivates familiarity with inversion. For safe alignment, position your hands shoulder-distance apart and root into the inside edge of the hand. Keeping the hands strong and wrists stable, externally rotate your upper arm turning the inner elbow slightly forward. Keep your collar bones broad and spine long as you lift your sitting bones high. Press your heels actively towards the earth.

From Downward Facing Dog, roll forward to plank position. Draw your naval towards the spine to deeply engage the abdominal muscles. Keep the entire shoulder girdle broad and stable as you

 

bring the shoulders over the wrists and create a continuous line from the crown of the head to the heels. Hold for several breaths, then press the hips high, moving back to Downward Facing Dog.

Note: In proper alignment, you should not need to change the hand and foot position as you move between these two poses.

Come into Dolphin Pose 

Dolphin Pose requires more strength and opening in the shoulders than Downward Facing Dog,
and it engages the abdominal muscles, back and spine more deeply, creating the strength you will eventually need to hold Crow Pose.

Keep your forearms on the ground with hands and elbows shoulder-distance apart. Bring the shoulders directly over the elbows as you lift the hips high. Hold for five to 10 breaths, then rest in Child’s Pose.

Practice Boat Pose

In a seated position with knees bent, elongate your spine. Activate the abdominal muscles and
lean back into your sacrum without rounding until your legs lift from the floor. Keep your lower legs parallel to the floor at first, prioritizing length in the spine and broad collar bones. Eventually, straighten your legs. Your arms can be forward or overhead.

Stretch the hips and low back in Garland Pose 


Squat with your feet as close together as possible. Keep your heels on the floor if you can; otherwise, tuck a rolled blanket beneath them. Press your elbows between your knees holding palms together in Prayer Position. Lengthen the torso.

Once you can hold these shapes with comfort and equanimity, you are ready to try Crow Pose.

From Garland Pose, bring your hands to the floor shoulder-distance apart. Actively engage the hands by rooting into the base of each finger and the finger pads with fingers wide apart.

Lift your hips and heels until your knees are pressing into your triceps or armpits. Bending your

 

elbows, slide the upper arms down the shins. Round your back with tailbone tucked toward your heels and draw your abdominal muscles in firmly. Engage mula bandha, or root lock, by toning and lifting your pelvic floor.

Look forward as you lean your weight forward into the arms and shoulders. Direct your breath into the back of the body. You might choose to rock back and forth a few times to sense your balance and develop courage. Eventually your feet will lift off of the floor. When they do, touch your big toes together, draw your naval towards your spine and breathe!

Once you lift off, you can challenge yourself to straighten the arms.

Hold for up to 10 breaths.

Once you have learned to fly in Crow Pose, the sky is the limit. The same principles of engagement that allow you to lift here apply to virtually all arm balances. As you explore, cultivate an attitude of curiosity, playfulness and courage. Frustration and ego will only throw you off balance and back to earth. As the character Peter Pan reminds us, “The moment you doubt your ability to fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”

Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads daily yoga classes and yoga teacher training classes, and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published in several online magazines, including Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach Sheila at [email protected]
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