Making Friends with Arm Balances

Let’s face it—arm balances are some of the hardest poses in a yoga class. If you’re like many yoga practitioners who aren’t mad about arm balances, you’re not alone. But once we understand that we are practicing principles in the form of poses, we can let go of trying to make perfect postures and actually learn about how to do the pose and maybe even have fun doing it.

 

Astavakrasana Scott Moore Photo by Dan Morris

A yoga practitioner can practice the principle of the posture perfectly without accomplishing what looks like the ideal posture. Poses like Koundinasana or Stick pose, Astavakrasana, or Crazy 8s, and Bakasana or Crow Pose, are impressive to look at but even better to be understood by way of their underlying principles. Remember that there is a version of every pose for every practitioner. Plus, letting go of the idealized version of the pose often frees us from any expectation and gives us the freedom to do the posture anyway.

 

Difficult poses like arm balances build power and assurance in body, mind, and spirit. We learn to support ourselves in a way that is completely unorthodox. With arm balances, we use not only the deeper strength of our muscles, but access the core of our being as well. With challenging poses we learn to face those things that challenge us or maybe even frighten us.

 

So here are some of the principles we practice in arm balances and which we may master, despite whether or not we can “get into the pose.”

 

Bakasana Scott Moore photo by Dallas Graham

Grounding

 

It’s of the first order in every pose to focus on where you are grounded. In arm balances, you ground with your arms or hands rather than your feet or legs. Since the shoulders are to the hands and arms what the hips are to the legs and feet, you’ll generally want to ground your hands about shoulder distance apart for arm balances. Experimenting with your hands either wider or more narrow than shoulder distance may make the pose either easier or more challenging.

 

Try to connect to the floor with as much surface of the palm as possible by spreading the fingers wide, then gripping with the fingertips to establish the muscular support for negotiating balance and decompressing the wrists. Wrist pain is unfortunately too common for many practitioners who aren’t used to putting their weight into their hands. Gripping your fingertips into the floor is a way of strengthening your forearms and decompressing your wrists.

 

Legs, Hip-flexors and Abdominals. (Uddiyana Bandha)

 

Arm balances require that we not only ground in a way that doesn’t use our legs, but we must also hold our legs off the floor.  A trio of muscles help to make this possible. First the adductors are the muscles that help keep our legs hugged together into the body—and/or our legs holding our arms. The hip flexors are also critical for this movement. Finally the abdominal muscles help to hold everything in and tight.

Uddiyana Bandha (oo-dee-yana bahn-dah) is one of the three special muscular locks we use in yoga. It cultivates energy in the solar plexus and is the “on button” for our core strength. There are a few ways to perform Uddiyana Bandha. In arm balances we will practice this lock by drawing the lower abdominal muscles up and in, while maintaining our breath. In class, we cultivate awareness of the legs, hip-flexors and Uddiyana Bandha and learn how to apply them to arm balances.


 

Breath

 

Breathing is perhaps the most critical principle in our asana practice, especially when we are practicing challenging poses such as arm balances. It becomes instinctive to sometimes hold our breath or grunt our way through challenging poses like arm balances. However, holding your breath starves your muscles of oxygen, and makes doing challenging poses even harder.

 

If we first establish the pattern of deep breathing known as ujjayi (oo-jie-ee), in and out through the nostrils, using the muscles in the back of the throat to slightly constrict and elongate the breath, creating a whisper—we calm the nervous system at the same time that we provide copious fuel for our muscle fibers. This breath is key to all poses, including arm balances.

 

Sense of Humor

 

Ekapadabakasana Scott Moore photo by Dallas Graham

Remember, we don’t become any more enlightened by the ability to perform arm balances. Instead, enlightenment is what we learn is along the path as we practice these poses and practice life. The asana is simply practical application to the lesson—again practicing principles in the form of asana. So a healthy sense of humor is essential, because it’s not about the pose–it’s about my attitude in the pose.

 

Do you strain, grunt and sweat your way through challenging poses? Do you manage the pose quite easily and look around self-righteously at all the other losers who didn’t do it so gracefully? Or do you not even try, for fear that you’ll fail? It’s all just a practice. Have fun with it. Do what is possible, understanding that you are somewhere along a winding path of progression. If you don’t master the physical pose today, you may still master the anatomical or mental or spiritual principles behind the pose. And who knows, you might surprise yourself and someday master the physical pose, too.

 

When it’s all said and done, practicing arm balances ultimately teaches us something about ourselves.

 

Scott Moore is a senior teacher of yoga and mindfulness and lives in Southern France. When he’s not teaching or conducting retreats, he writes for Conscious Life News, Elephant Journal, Mantra Magazine, Medium, and his own blog at scottmooreyoga.com. Scott also loves to run, play the saxophone, and travel with his wife and son. Check out his yoga retreats to places like Hawaii and Amalfi Coast , his online Yoga Nidra Course and his Yoga Teacher Mentor Program

 

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