Main Event: Bakasana / Crow or Crane pose (aka Sneaky Abs poses!)

We turn our attention back to the core again (as though we ever forgot about it!) as we begin three weeks of arm balances and/or inversions. These poses are less about arm strength, although that does factor in, and more about using the core well, especially our first pose of this section, bakasana, or crow/crane pose (I’ll explain why two different English names are used later), where the abdominals are especially important (remember: core includes everything in the “cylinder” around your lower torso, abdominals, obliques, and the back muscles).

Let’s first “wake up” the core by engaging in cat/cow pose. The cat portion of these two counterposes provides a great opportunity to really engage the abdominal muscles and allow the back to stretch, which is key to bakasana.

Margarita cat wanted to make sure that I was doing cat pose correctly, so, she came to supervise (as is her habit on set…). Cow pose: hips up, shoulders back, belly drops down; cat pose: round the spine and push the ground away with your hands, pull the bellybutton in strongly.

Next, we move from either three-legged dog pose to plank, bringing the knee to the nose; OR from hands and knees to bring one knee to the nose. Take the variation that feels most doable to you – stressing the shoulders is not what we’re trying to do, so unless you are very comfortable in your down dog, start on your knees. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.

From neutral spine on hands and knees, reach one leg back, then bring it towards the nose as you round your back.
Lift one leg from dog pose, then move into plank as you bring the knee to the nose; note that the shoulders are over the wrists in the curled pose.

Counterposing these moments with sphinx pose will bring balance to your practice.

Lie on your belly, placing the forearms parallel to each other in front of you – elbows under your shoulders, or slightly ahead of the shoulders. Relax the glutes, and draw the sternum forward and up.

We are now going to engage in some small, internal movements that don’t look like much to an external observer, but are quite powerful for the person practicing them!

Lie on your back in constructive rest (feet on the floor hip width apart, knees bent), feeling the natural hollow under your lower back. Keep this hollow, neither losing it nor exaggerating it, as you bring your hands under your head and your elbows “hug” your head. Then peel your shoulders and ribs off the ground, resting the head in the hands (so, not using the neck muscles), and then imagine that your feet are stuck in the mud, and you are desperately trying to free them – just barely hovering them/just barely touching them to your mat.

Then do push your belly button to spine, and press the back strongly into the ground. Take your arms, palms together, between your legs as you peel the shoulders and ribs off the ground. Take the arms to one side of the legs, then to the other, breathing throughout. Repeat 3-5 times.

Finally, repeat the pose above, but bring the knees to the outsides of the shoulders at the same time. Breathe as you hold 3-5 breaths.

It doesn’t look like much is happening, but give these a try and see for yourself what really IS happening 😉

Finally, we are ready for our main event, bakasana, or crow pose (where the arms are bent) / crane pose (where the arms are straight). Note the similarity to the final pose of the above abdominal sequence, where your knees were reaching for the outside of your shoulders.

Begin on balls of feet, with feet together, knees apart, arms between knees and back rounded/relaxed. Place the hands as for down dog, but the elbows will be bent towards the back of the mat. Getting the knees as high up on the outsides of the shoulders, along with using your abdominal muscles strongly, will be the key to this pose. Begin to shift the weight of your body onto the “shelf” formed by your upper arms, perhaps, lifting one toe, then the other. Think of a see-saw – your arms are the fulcrum, and you have to balance your top and bottom halves on this fulcrum. Once you are securely in crow pose, you can begin to straighten your arms into crane pose.

Take care to NOT lift the hips too high, and to look down and slightly ahead (NOT between your hands), both of which will make you land on your nose – and no one wants a broken nose…. No “hop and hope,” please! 🙂

We counterpose all of this abdominal work with a supported bridge pose, with a block under the hips. If you wish, you can wrap the arms around the insides of the ankles (remember, external rotation), and lift the hips off the block for full bridge.

Relax in supported bridge (with block under the hips), or lift up into bridge with arms binding ankles for a deeper stretch of the front body. Relax gltues in both variations.

Rest in savasana, and enjoy your newly found or rediscovered abs! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Twist and shout (or simply breathe… ;-) your way into Dying Warrior pose

Twists are wonderful poses for keeping the spine and internal organs healthy, but how, exactly, do they do that? By bringing fresh blood flow and spaciousness to the entire torso, from deep within all the way to the surface skin.

One might hear or read that “twists are detoxifying,” but this is not completely accurate: twists tone the internal organs by squeezing them and restricting blood flow for a few breaths, then releasing the restriction and allowing fresh blood to flush the “old” blood out. It’s like when one wrings dirty water out of a sponge, and then allows it to fill with clean water.

Similarly, twists massage, bring fresh blood and stretch the muscles that line the spine, thereby allowing the vertebrae to move within their full, healthy range, rather than being “locked” into position by stiff muscles. Think of the cracks that sometimes happen at a (good) chiropractor’s office and how much relief they can bring to a sore back. Twist often spontaneously cause this kind of release in one’s back once the muscles have relaxed sufficiently to allow for it.

And, as an added bonus, twists definitely help things move along in the intestines!

The ability for the spine to twist increases from the bottom to the top of the spine, with the lower back having the least ability to twist, and the neck having the most. This also affects how your internal organs respond to the twists. I also differentiate twists into “open” and “closed” variations (these are my own terms, so it’s not likely that you’ll see them used elsewhere): Open twists are those where the front of the body opens more than when the spine is neutral, such as when we take the left shoulder more to the left while keeping the hips squared forward; e.g., utthita trikonasana, extended triangle pose. Closed twists compress the front of the body more than when the spine is neutral, such as when the shoulder crosses the front of the body’s midline; e.g., parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle pose. Open and closed twists are counter poses to each other, asking the spine to move in opposite directions, and are usually done in pairs. Keep this in mind as you move through the following series.

[Please note that if you are pregnant, certain twists will probably not feel very good, and are not recommended. Please consult with an experienced teacher if this is your situation.]

We begin as we have in past practices, on the back with the foot in a strap – supta padanghustasana. Think about how these pose variations would feel if you were standing on the leg extended along the floor!

Supta padanghustasana: Press the foot into the strap with the same pressure as you pull on the strap. Keep bottom of extended leg moving toward floor.
Not really a twist just yet, but moving towards an open twist: Turn foot and knee out at the same angle starting at the hip joint. Keep hip bones even on floor – do not be tempted to go too far at the expense of alignment.
Closed twist: You can allow the leg to cross all the way over the body for this twist. Draw the upper hip away from the shoulder and keep pinky side of foot drawn back/flexed.

We then move onto utthita parsvakonasana, extended side angle pose, one of the most delicious of all yoga asanas, in my opinion! 🙂

Turn the heart towards the sky, creating an open twist in the upper body, while remaining grounded through the feet (especially the heel and outside of the foot of the straight leg).
Create a beautiful and long line from the side of the foot to the tips of the fingers.

The counter pose, parivrtta parsvakonasana, demands a deep release of the psoas.

Press into the pinky side of the back foot, and ensure that you front knee is not falling in towards the center of the mat. In this photo, my knee could be bent more towards 90 degrees, and my heart could be lifted closer to my hands to deepen the twist..

Utthita trikonasana, triangle pose, asks the spine for the same kind of action as extended side angle, and parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle, is a closed twist like rotated extended side angle. Note the additional challenge of a straight front leg and how it affects your alignment.

Triangle, open twist: Keep the front of the torso long and over the front leg – imagine a bolster in your mid-spine – and the knee of the front leg aligned with the second toe of the front foot; press into the heel of the back foot. The twist is in the spine, not in the arms. Think of a corkscrew rotating – the heart up to the ceiling.
Rotated triangle, closed twist: keep the hips even (the hip of the back leg will want to drop), and press well into the pinky side of the back foot. Press your bottom arm into the floor or block to give you leverage for the twist. Stack top shoulder over bottom shoulder and keep front of torso long.

Eric’s twist is next.

LOL, just kidding! But, I love this image that a student of mine sent me when I was still teaching in Virginia.

Here is the human equivalent of Eric’s twist (no Sanskrit name that I know of, and apparently an asana invented by Eric Schiffmann, a contemporary yoga teacher).

Preparation: sit back on your heels and hold the heel on the opposite side with your hand. If you cannot reach, place a strap securely around your foot, and hold the strap as close to the foot as possible.
Lift your hips and place your shoulder to the side of the knee towards which you are twisting – note! it must be the shoulder and not the head, as pressing on the head only will strain the neck (if the shoulder does not go down all the way, but is close, place a blanket under your shoulder to support it). The other arm keeps one from toppling over. Press the shins, which remain even with each other, into the floor, and gently encourage your shoulder blades to rotate towards the ground, while your face turns up towards the ceiling.

Finally, we arrive at the main event, the dying warrior (this one doesn’t have an official Sanskrit name either!). From downward facing dog pose, come into high plank and slip one leg under you and out to the opposite side. Ideally, you would keep the leg straight, but if that’s too much for now, you may bend the knee.

Keep the back toes firmly turned under and the back leg active. Place the arms into sphinx position, then shift the elbow opposite to the right angle leg (in this photos, that would be the left arm) in line with the hip. Other arm presses into the floor to deepen the twist (see next photo).
Here you can see a variation with bent knee and the opposite arm pressing the floor to deepen the twist.

Finally, we undo all of that closed twisting with an ahhhh-worthy open twist on a bolster.

Lie with a bolster in the soft part of your torso, between the ribs and hip. Tuck up the knees and place the foot of the top leg just above the knee of the bottom leg. Hold the ankle with the hand on the same side and open the other arm up and out to twist open the body. Breathe well and enjoy the release!

And that’s it for our twisty “torture” Tuesday and Thursday practice! 🙂 Enjoy in good spinal, endocrine and digestive health!

~namaste,

Sylvia