There are many unexplainable mysteries in life: Why are we here? Is there life on other planets? Did Jesus really spend twenty years in India practicing yoga? But the skill of balancing on your hands, although often seen as an elusive secret, should not be one of them.
It is only if we take off from our perch without thought””if we are being mindless and not mindful of our yoga practice””that we come crashing back to earth with a bump. Like all poses in yoga, but even more so than most, hand balances are much harder if you approach them without due thought. If you just keep trying over and again, you are trusting to luck and the odds that eventually you will grasp it by simple perseverance.
However with a mindful, analytical practice, you will find that any pose can be deconstructed and observed in many small parts. Rebuild the pose from scratch, taking care to give each part due care and attention and you will find that your balancing and your practice as a whole flows almost effortlessly. In this article we will look at how this applies to our fundamental hand balance, Bakasana.
A Matter of Belief
In my balance workshops and classes, and a beginners first lesson, we start working with bakasana or crow pose. Within a month, I can almost guarantee that, physical limitations not withstanding, seventy-five percent of the class will be able to hold crow for at least a few seconds. But you wouldn’t believe this from the nervous giggles when I demonstrate this beautiful yet deceptively simple asana for the first time. The normal light-hearted grumbles appear: “My arms aren’t strong enough”, “Maybe in a few years”, “My wrists will hurt”, and so on. The air of defeatism is upon some of us before we even try and this is the hardest of all obstacles to overcome!
To the novice balancer it looks ridiculously difficult to balance your entire body weight on two tiny hands, at risk of falling on your nose! But follow some simple steps and you will begin to see the posture in an entirely new light.
You wouldn’t prepare for a tennis match by running a 100 meter sprint; likewise, we need to choose our preparation for any pose carefully. What does the balance require of our body in order for it to be as easy as possible? For bakasana we need to move through postures to open the hips; some forward bends to enable us to crunch over on to the arms; core strength exercises to help us bear the bodyweight and draw it upwards and not least of all wrist stretches and extensor strengthening to prepare the hands and arms. Our asanas leading up to crow should incorporate these wherever possible.
Before any attempt at moving into the pose remember this: there is no such thing as a perfect asana. No one in the world has EVER done bakasana perfectly, not least because we do not know what a perfect bakasana looks like….we don’t know what any perfect asana looks like! It is something that someone at sometime has created. What may ‘look’ imperfect to the bystander, might for that individual be the peak of their crow practise due to limits of their skeleton, frame and so on. Whatever stage of crow you are in on any given day is your crow practise, not some idealised picture that you have in your head of someone else’s pose that you have seen in class or in a photo. If we remove the idea of our practice being simply a stepping stone to a future ‘result’ and instead, practise each time as an end in itself, then we are always going to be much happier with how things go.
And yet, understandably most people want to at least achieve getting their toes off the floor so that they are in a hand-based balance. So it is time to exploded the physical myths.
You haven’t understood crow at all if you think that it is about arm strength; indeed if you are practising mindfully, then there should be minimal weight bearing on your arm muscles.
The biomechanics of crow are pretty simple. In good alignment the elbows will sit directly above the wrists; the bodyweight itself then centred above the elbows. Too far forward and the wrists will pinch in compression, too far back and the arms muscles will have to work overtime to keep the bodyweight airborne. Once in alignment the skeleton transfers the load of the body down through the radius and ulnar bones of the lower arm and into the floor, just like a road bridge transferring thousands of tonnes through relatively skinny piers.
The hands themselves””barely any different in surface area to the feet””share the same five digits, have arches just like the feet and work in a similar fashion but for the fact that the feet and ankles are stronger in extension than flexion, which allows our feet to make a thousand adjustments of balance every minute. We need to replicate this skill in all of our hand balances and, here comes a timely reminder about the wrist-strengthening preparation that we should have practised at the start of class. We should also remember the importance of spreading the weight through the palms, recruiting both the pinky side (hypothenar) to thumb side (thenar) of the hand muscle.
The weight of the body sitting on the arms will eventually become uncomfortable because it shouldn’t ideally be there. Enter the core muscles. Activating the deeper core strength in our abdomen and rounding the back, we draw our feet towards the buttocks and our thighs into the chest. The weight is released from our arms and we are able to start straightening them. It should feel as though we are being drawn skywards…truly into flight! Work your core exercises before crow and see the difference.
The drishti, set ahead of the hands about 6-12 inches, allows us to move our body weight forward and into the skeletal alignment that we seek. New balancers tend to look down towards the hands; as they try to move forward, their balance shifts significantly as the body weight tries to move past their point of focus. This often leads to the inevitable touch down on the forehead…or the dreaded nose crash.
Don’t forget to breathe! Crow at the start requires intense concentration. Don’t hold your breath, let it flow steadily and be mindful of your body, making adjustments as necessary and observing what is happening on a physical and mental level. What could you do to improve the pose?
Start to become your own yoga teacher. You can know better than anyone, including your yoga teacher, what is going on with your body and so are best placed to make any corrections! It isn’t rocket science, it just takes an element of mindfulness in your practice.