Balance involves not only the body’s ability to find its ever-changing place in the world viz. gravity, but also equanimity of mind – and the physical and psychological components of balance can both support and detract from each other. We need core, focus, and breath – the link between the physical and psychological -to achieve balance/equanimity, the magical place between effort and ease, in asana practice and in life. So, let’s practice!
Although it doesn’t exactly feel like fall here, in Florida, just yet, we need to distinguish this course from the one before – so, we’ll call it Fall 2018 ;-). This shortened course is a “grab bag” of various practices, rather than the structured progression of the previous courses. We began with an all-round practice this week, and will focus on various areas of interest for students in the next several weeks, such as balance, core, vinyasa and a restorative practice.
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.
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.
Counterposing these moments with sphinx pose will bring balance to your practice.
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.
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.
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.
Rest in savasana, and enjoy your newly found or rediscovered abs! 🙂
Balancing poses require one to be present, clear, and breathing well. Without these elements, even the most simple balancing poses will be difficult to practice. Perhaps, that is why we often use the phrase, “knocked off balance” when something unexpected happens – we are “hijacked” by thoughts, may feel muddled, and are unlikely to be breathing fully.
The best way to begin standing balancing poses is to stand in tadasana/mountain pose with eyes closed, feet hip width apart, engaging moola bandha and ujjaiy breath. Imagine growing tap roots into the earth through your feet – at the heel, and on the ball of the foot behind the big and little toe. These tools help us become present in the moment and aware of how we are negotiating with gravity in each breath. From this foundational position, one can begin to move mindfully into a balancing asana.
Virabhadrasana III/Warrior III pose
We can transition into this pose from tadasana/mountain pose by stepping back into a lunge, or from adho mukha svanasana/doward facing dog pose by stepping forward into a lunge. Move the hands ahead of the front foot and place them onto blocks. Shift the weight onto the front leg, careful to keep the knee aligned over the toes (see photos below).
Using a good exhale and engaging your core, lift the back leg up towards the ceiling until the foot is as high as your hips. Keep the hips even (the hip of the uplifted leg tends to hike up higher), core engaged, back straight, and uplifted leg very energized, as though you are pushing on a wall behind you with the ball of the foot. If you wish to go further, take the hands onto the hips while the rest of the body remains in the same position.
The full asana is expressed when the arms are stretched forward by the ears.
To exit the pose, step back to tadasana/mountain pose.
Natrajasana/Dancer’s pose (variation)
There are a few different variations of dancer’s pose. The one below will prepare you well for exploring other variations.
From tadasana/mountain pose, bend one leg, heel towards buttock, and catch the foot from the inside with your hand. The upper arm should be externally rotated to allow for greater spinal extension and opening of the chest and heart center. Lift the other arm by the ear towards the ceiling. I like to press my thumb and index fingers together (a hand gesture sometimes referred to as Guyan Mudra), as this mudra helps me feel present and in balance.
If you feel comfortable and balanced here, you can begin to move your chest forward and down, while your bent leg pushes back into the hand and up towards the ceiling. Be careful to engage the abdominal muscles strongly here, so that the lower back does not bend excessively; rather, try to bring extension into the mid- to upper-spine. Keep the hips even and breathe!
To exit, return to upright position, and stand in tadasana/mountain pose.