Serenity, elegance, confidence are just a few words we can swap out for the noun “poise”. Three qualities I think we all might relish or aspire to achieve both in our yoga practice as well as in our daily grind. With this ongoing series, my intention is to source from my nine years of experience as an instructor and as a student and share with readers some insights as to how we might breathe new life into asana with poise as our barometer. More presence, more polish… less swagger.
Truth be told, it was not always a love affair with bakasana, often called crane or crow, which is thought of as a blueprint for many of the more complicated arm balances. When I first encountered bakasana there was a lot of intrigue and admiration for the pose – not to mention, for those whom I saw defying physics and balancing their entire body weight on just two hands. Yet, after years of patiently waiting, it appeared to be unrequited love and in its place I was left with frustration and envy. Why were my feet not “floating up” like everyone else’s?
I decided to heed the advice of the Yoga Sutras and take the action but let go of the result. Sutra 1.12 tells us through practice and detachment we can still the movements of the mind, in this case my sadness for not nailing bakasana. The Bhagavad Gita echoes this sentiment telling us that, “work alone is (our) privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive… Be affected not by success or failure. This equipoise is Yoga.”
It was once I let go of the fruits of actions and detached from the outcome that I made great strides with bakasana. As the old saying goes, it’ll happen when you least expect it. Initially, I struggled with my knees wobbling off the backs of my arms but, ruling out the case that I must have skinnier arms or bigger knees than the rest of the yoga world, I figured out how to engage my adductors and hip flexors to keep my legs in place. In the end, it turned out that all I had to do was simply separate my hands a bit more. What I thought was shoulder’s distance apart was actually too narrow and there is no way to balance if the foundation is not right.
For others, the effort of opening the hips enough to get the knees in place may be the struggle or understanding how to use the core muscles effectively. While the struggle may be extremely frustrating, it’s through this battle that we learn about ourselves — whether that means we understand what shoulder’s distance is or whether we notice our defeatist, perfectionist, competitive, fill-in-the-blank personality trait. It’s the struggle that allows us to grow. The struggle becomes more worthwhile than the pose. Accomplishing bakasana was not the real fruit of my actions — it was what I learned about myself along the way.
Throughout my years teaching I’ve noticed several techniques that help people find their way into bakasana. One easy, yet enlightening, method is to start in a really short tabletop, or hands and knees position. Begin by rounding your back as you do in cat pose. Keep all of that rounding but shift your shoulders forward of your wrists. At some point, you’ll shift so far forward that to counter balance your hamstrings will fire and your feet and shins may start to lift hover off the floor. You can squeeze your hamstrings to lift the feet higher. This variation requires all the same actions as bakasana, except that your knees are on the ground rather than tucked into your underarms.
Once this is no sweat, try these tips for working the full arm balance…. If you have trouble getting your knees high up the backs of your arms, try stepping up onto a yoga block to lift your knees higher. To keep your elbows from splaying to the sides take a strap — measured the same distance you are from shoulder to shoulder — just above your elbows, so that it sits in the crease of your elbow. The strap helps set the alignment of the arms so that the elbows point straight back and it keeps the shoulders in a healthier position. The strap can also help those with hyperextension engage the biceps and protect the elbows. Next, make sure that your hands are at least a foot in front of your feet so that you have space and leverage to move the chest forward.
From here, work the same actions you did on hands and knees: round into the back, pull your chest forward so the shoulders move in front of the wrists and you are on your tippy toes or even your toe nails. Unless, you’re very lucky the feet won’t actually float up, you’ll need to engage your hamstrings to lift them. I prefer to teach students to lift both feet at the same time, rather than climbing one leg onto the arm and then other, for the simple reason that it imprints the belly actions needed for more complicated arm balances. Plus, it’s harder so it presents the struggle where we can again learn about ourselves. Be patient, for once I mastered this skill in bakasana I found that sense of effortless effort throughout all my arm balances.
Kristin Olson, E-RYT 500, MS is studio owner at Andover Home Yoga.
Photographer Hannah Latham is an emerging portrait and alternative process focused photographer from the Boston area. She is constantly building off of her life experiences and experimenting with new styles and techniques.
In the pose, the author is wearing leggings and top by Altar Ego.