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.
Balance requires three main ingredients: 1. a clear and focused mind, 2. tone in the core, and 3. breath.
During this week’s class, students brought up important aspects of balance, such as rooting through the tripod of the foot (the three arches – connections between the middle of the heel, and the spots on the bottom of the foot behind the big and little toes), and a gazing point or dristhi – indeed, these are vital for balancing, but they fall under the ingredients of “clear and focused mind.” Ultimately, all of these details fall away as one enters into that magical space where effort and ease balance each other (no pun intended!).
Onward with our practice – which really does make balancing easier.
Bound bird-dog pose: From hands and knees, stretch opposite leg and arm back and forward. Press ball of uplifted foot into imaginary back wall, lifting the leg from the inner thigh to straighten, and reach fingertips to imaginary front wall. Pad under your knees if they feel uncomfortable. If your balance allows, reach arm back, bend knee of uplifted leg, and hold foot with hand, creating a backbend. Tone in core and breath are vital.
Thursday only, two-legged downward facing dog pose: From downward facing dog pose, lift one leg, keeping hips even. Slowly slide opposite hand lightly back along floor, then lift next to body.
Vrksasana/Tree pose: Stand with feet hip width apart, find a dristhi (gazing point), and grow roots through the tripod of the foot. Shift weight onto one leg, turn out other leg at hip, and place foot on inside of standing leg – anywhere along leg except with heel on inside of knee joint. Press foot and leg into each other. Arms extended to the side help with balance; raising the arms shifts the center of gravity, as does raising the gaze, providing more challenge. Breath and core are key!
Standing thread-the-needle: Stand with feet hip width apart, bend knees over toes, shift weight into heels. Cross ankle of one leg over thigh just above knee of other leg. Press palms of hands together, and sit down deeper. If balance allows, lower torso so that triceps (just above elbows on back of upper arms) and shin of crossed leg press into each other; keep back extended (not rounded).
Ardha chandrasana/Half moon pose: Stand with one foot pointing forward, while other leg is behind, toes at 45 degree angle forward, heels lined up (preparation for triangle pose). Place block on pinky side of front foot, fingers holding it lightly. Come to ball of back foot, move block forward, slide back foot forward, then lift back leg, ensuring that it’s not swinging behind your back. Reach upper arm up to ceiling. If balance allows, turn head to look up at ceiling. If balance allows further, bend uplifted leg behind, and reach for foot with uplifted arm, binding into a beautiful backbend. When returning to standing, land back into starting position gracefully and lightly.
As always, finish with savasana to help integrate all of this balancing into your very being. Happy practicing 🙂
As we continue our journey of inversions, we arrive at the “king” of poses, sirsasana/headstand. Headstand is given this regal name because of the myriad of benefits that it confers: courage, increased focus, hormonal balance, relieving stress on the heart by reversing blood flow, improving digestion, strengthening shoulders and arms. It’s easier to master this pose than one would think, but preparation and technique is key – otherwise, misalignment of the neck and/or a fall can result in injury.
Fortunately, we also have the option of a “headless headstand,” a variation in which the weight of the body is held up by the arms only, rather than the head and arms, as happens in classic headstand. Thus, even those of you who have cervical vertebrae or disc injuries can safely practice this inversion (credit goes to Doug Keller, a teacher of therapeutic yoga in Virginia, from whom I learned this variation.) Read on to learn how to practice this fun pose.
Begin by stretching the backs of the legs with uttanasana/forward fold, adho muka svanasana/downward facing dog pose, or prasarita padottanasana/wide legged forward fold (pictured below).
Next, wake up your core with forearm plank, pointing and flexing your feet to move the body forward and back over the elbows.
Half-dog pose is an excellent way to extend the mid-spine region, which is a necessity when moving into headstand. In this variation, interlace the fingers, instead of using the block between the hands as we have in the past, but be sure to keep your elbows no further than shoulder width apart – if in doubt, it’s better for the elbows to be closer than further apart.
Now, we are ready for the headless headstand! Move to a wall, and set three blocks on top of each other as pictured below.
Wrap the ends of your fingers around the bottom block, placing the elbows (the thin end of the) block width apart – this is more narrowly than we usually place them. Press the edges of the wrists down strongly to activate the shoulder girdle, then lift your knees off the ground and walk towards the blocks until your back presses securely into the blocks. Your head is about 1/2 – 1 inch off the ground.
With the back firmly against the blocks, and forearms plus wrists anchored, raise one leg and kick up into the headless headstand. Note that not kicking up and just practicing raising one leg at a time is a perfectly good place to end your practice until you are confident enough to kick up on your own.
Once in the pose, you should be bearing all of your weight on the arms and none on the head, as I demonstrate by tucking my head towards my chest in the right side photo below. If you feel yourself collapsing into your head, come down immediately, one straight leg at a time.
Finish the practice with balasana/child’s pose until the blood readjusts in your body, then savasana/corpse pose to allow the benefits of the inversion to flow through your now-relaxed body.
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.