Master the Process before the Pose
Teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. When a student learns an asana (pose), a teacher is simultaneously relaying elements that make-up or contribute to the pose. Take Downward Dog for instance. In a student’s mind, he or she may be learning how to enter into an inverted V shape. However from a teacher’s perspective, the breaking down of the elements that contribute to the posture is the process that will bring a certain desired result. Likewise with Mountain Pose a student may view this as learning how to stand but in fact we are teaching that student how to root by pressing down on the four corners of the soles of the feet. We are impressing upon the student how to feel and understand muscular energy by firming up the sides of the thighs. We draw attention to the elongation of the spine in an upwards motion as an invitation to draw in Pranic life-force through the inhalation breath as we continue to ground through the feet. As such we are not just teaching a pose – we are helping the student engage in a process and to explore through that process how to find an equilibrium through breath, muscular engagement and lines of anatomical alignment.
Arm – balancing is no different. Beyond the perfect execution of a posture, what is far more important is to understand that it is the process that needs to be mastered. Understanding this, it becomes clear that arm-balancing is an area of yoga discipline that can be practiced by most, as THE process is something we can all aspire to, engage in, refine and master. Ultimately through the mastery of the process, the posture may reveal itself, or it may not. However, the joys of learning, and the many benefits that may flow into other parts of our life through the process is what matters in the end. To never try an arm-balance because you think you may never excel in the posture is like saying you will never go on a date because you don’t believe you will ever meet the love of your life. How sad a situation that would be to never ever try?
Spectrum of Arm – Balances and How to Progress Through Them
Arm-balances can be divided between two groups – inversions and uprights. A beginner’s class is best suited to exploring the latter initially as inversion arm-balances have the added complication of being upside down and that change in perspective can make arm-balancing so much more challenging. Within the upright arm-balances, you may divide these further as between symmetrical and asymmetrical poses. An L- Sit or Crow Pose for example are illustrations of beginner friendly arm-balances that can be taught with lesser risk to an inexperienced student. Examples of popular asymmetrical “upright” arm-balances are the One Legged Sage Pose Series ( Eka Pada Koundinyasana ) which is more of a level 2 pose since these are uneven arm-balancing poses and therefore requiring a higher level of skill and proprioceptive awareness than what a beginner might have. I have set out below a list of poses according to difficulty and accessibility level which could be taken as a progression chart if arm-balancing is something you would like to build into your practice routine.
1. Beginners arm-balancing poses:
These are a group of symmetrical arm-balances where you are not upside down. In particular, these poses teach you how to engage in shoulder protraction and to engage the muscles between the shoulder blades which is the key to performing arm-balances. Blocks can be thoughtfully integrated in the early stages when doing the L-sit and Pendant Pose as these help elevate the hips off the ground and allow for the legs to lift-off thus encouraging the practitioner to build up strength by learning how to carry the full weight of the body. The L- Sit and Pendant Pose are possibly the two most significant poses that taught me how to activate deep back muscles but more importantly link this action to the core thus producing a powerful response from the lower Bandhas needed bring the body into a forward folding motion which forms the basis of many arm – balancing postures. As such my recommended postures for the beginner include:
Pendant Pose ( Lolasana )
Crow Pose ( with bent elbows, pre – Bakasana )
2. Intermediate arm-balancing poses:
When you have learnt the fundamental mechanics of arm – balancing which include the ability to balance your own body weight through the shoulder girdle and wrists, how to engage in shoulder protraction in conjunction with hip flexion and core engagement in these basic symmetrical upright arm – balances, you could now consider adding asymmetrical “uprights” into your routine. I use the term “upright” loosely to simply mean not inverted. Some of these do require a minimum level of flexibility in the hamstrings and adductors. This group of asymmetrical upright arm – balances include:
Side Crow Pose ( Parsva Bakasana )
One Legged Sage Pose 1 and II ( Eka Pada Koundiyasana 1 and II )
8 Angle Pose ( Astavakrasana )
Scale Pose ( Uppluthi )
Shoulder Pressing Pose ( Bhujapidasana )
Firefly but with legs parallel to floor initially ( Titibhasana )
Elephant Trunk Pose ( Bhujangasana )
Advanced arm-balancing poses:
Assuming proficiency has been achieved in the intermediate arm – balancing poses, you can now add inversion type arm-balances into your practice. From here the world really is your oyster as you can start exploring variations such as backbends and lotus legs within your inverted handstands. This group of inversions include:
Forearm balancing ( Pincha Mayurasana )
Handstand ( Adho Mukha Vrksasana )
One Legged Crow arm – balance ( Eka Pada Bakasana )
Crane Pose – with straight arms ( Bakasana )
Firefly with angled legs pointing towards ceiling ( Titibhasana )
Peacock Pose ( Mayurasana )
Benefits of Arm – Balancing Poses
One of the first reasons that I continue to include arm-balancing in my yoga practice is simply this – it’s fun! Arm-balances are simply a great way to bring a little diversity and humour into your practice. The great child – actor of the 80s Michael J. Fox once said, “The scariest person in the world is the person with no sense of humour”. Yoga practitioners are known to take themselves just a little too seriously. However there is nothing like falling on your bottom in Crow Pose in a yoga class to bring peals of laughter and defuse tension. With failure also comes humility. Mastering an arm-balance pose is not easy for most and so it keeps us humble!
The other reason why I keep arm-balances in my practice is that it continues to set a benchmark for new goals to be attained. We all know that goal – setting can be healthy as long as it is tempered with perspective and an ability to reset the goal posts when goals are not immediately attained. As arm-balances are about mastery poses they can contribute positively to your practice and challenge you mentally and physically to continue to evolve and be the best version of yourself.
With this in mind, I am christening the month of November, arm-balancing month. In October and November we worked on two major skeletal structures – the hips and the spine. In those two months, we worked on increasing range of motion in the hip joints, strengthening hip flexors and improving muscle flexibility in those adjacent areas. We also looked at improving mobility around the mid-thoracic spine as well as along the side trunk. Let’s face it – when movement is impeded in either or both of these two major areas, life can be fairly difficult so you really need to sort that out first and this is what my yoga programme with its monthly altering theme is premised upon.
With that being said, we now get to work on the power muscles of yoga, the muscles within the shoulder blades and the core. These are the muscles that we rarely engage in a sedentary lifestyle or worst still, when physically active, thus exposing ourselves to potential injuries when playing sports. This leads me to the third and fourth benefit.
Reducing Shoulder Girdle Injuries and Unlocking the Potential of the Back Muscles
One of the unfortunate consequences of the modern sedentary lifestyle is weak back muscles. This combined with a lack of flexibility of muscles surrounding the mid and upper thoracic spine is a great recipe for disaster when one finally does engage in some sort of sporting activity. Typical examples are social tennis or netball players who do not properly engage back muscles when performing a throwing action. This often translates into shoulder girdle injuries as surrounding muscles and connective tissues usually end up bearing the brunt of the load when back muscles are not operating as they should. The body has an intelligent way of compensating for weaknesses by shifting the burden around but eventually it does catch up, and it does so in the form of an injury in a site other than the original site of weakness.
As such bringing an awareness to the back muscles and learning how to engage these can help reduce the risk of shoulder girdle injuries whether you play sports socially or on a more active level. I have found that even athletes lack a level of awareness for how to activate these muscles. Adding a couple of appropriate arm – balances into your fitness routine can help unlock the hidden power and potential of the back muscles which can contribute towards sporting performance. However do this under the advice of your yoga instructor as certain arm – balances, in particular the ones that involve inversions can sometime require far too much upper back flexibility and more than what might be needed for an athlete who requires a throwing or swinging arm. A little bit of muscle compactness is sometimes actually beneficial for an athlete to help absorb impact to the upper body when playing sports. It’s a fine line between too much flexibility and not enough stability or too much stability and not enough flexibility.
Honing in on Proprioception
My last point is relevant to all but especially to athletes. Proprioception in a nutshell is the ability to sense the relative position of your body parts and limbs and the level of effort that is required in its movement. Proprioception arises as an unconscious stimuli through our nerve receptors and helps us move safely within our environment with the least amount of physical exertion. Proprioception is essential to an athlete since it is a function of motor control and the higher the level of proprioception, the more efficiently an athlete is able to execute an action in terms of speed and effort. My favourite examples of athletes who exhibit elevated proprioceptive abilities are Roger Federer in tennis and Stephen Curry in basketball. Though playing in different sports, these athletes are often described as “graceful”. They move with the least amount of effort for the greatest return. Proprioceptive – rich athletes often have good spatial awareness also.
Cultivating a few arm – balances will certainly help improve proprioceptive awareness. Much of proprioceptive balancing work is done with at least one foot on the ground. Balancing boards are often popular with trainers in this regard. However, arm -balancing will certainly challenge one’s proprioceptive cognition in an alternate way as well as strengthen important muscles as we have already discussed, at the same time so you are experiencing a number of benefits all at once.