On Arm Balances

When I first started practicing yoga, I would see other people in class doing crazy shit like balancing on their arms, supporting their weight on their hands. I never thought that would be something I would ever get into, but as I found my body get physically stronger, I ignored the fear factor and went for it. After slipping, falling, face-planting hundreds of times later, here I am making interesting shapes with my body and fascinated by my own physical strength. Below are some key ideas I wrote for Danni Pomplun's arm balancing workshops.

Balancing on your arms is a cool way to test your strength and push fear into the ground, literally. I’ve got some tips for you to remember during your practice.

When you want to balance on your arms, especially when you are using your hands, take care of your wrists. This is super important, especially if you’d like to balance for years to come. If you’re on all fours, stretch the front, the back and sides of your wrists, moving in a circular motion.

You can warm up your wrists in preparation either on all fours, seated, or standing. For this tip, we’ll be seated or standing. Make like Spiderman and shoot your imaginary web if you’re seated or standing, and grab your fingers with your opposite hand, gently bringing your fingertips back towards your forearm. Take a gentle bend in your elbow as well. Flip your palm as if someone were taking your hand for a dance, and do the same thing.

Related to Parsva bakasana: dwi pada koundinyasana

Core strength and engagement
Arm balances like bakasana (crow) or parsva bakasana (revolved crow) require you to lift one of the heaviest parts of your body off the ground, your pelvis. To achieve this, your low belly needs to be engaged.

When we talk about core in yoga, we are worried only about the area from your navel down to your pubic bone. Everything else on the abdominals is just nice to look at, but doesn’t provide the power you need to lift your pelvis. In your standing asanas, think about keeping your navel up and in towards your spine, as if you were wearing a corset cinching everything towards your midline. In supine core work, keep your low back cemented to the mat and add a block in between your inner thighs as close to your groin as possible. Whenever you lift your chest off your mat, lead from your heart and collarbones. Think about squeezing the block with everything you have to turn on the transverse and rectus abdominal muscles. While you have a S-curve in your spine, protect your low back by again, keeping your sacrum (flat area on the back of your pelvis, below the lumbar region) glued to the mat. Whenever your legs lift up and over your hips, be aware if your low back starts to lift off your mat. If you are able to slide your palm under and you feel space, take a bend in your knees instead of keeping your legs fully extended. This should help with any low back pain as well. 

Shift your weight mindfully and know where to look
It can be daunting to shift all of your weight over, knowing that you may fall flat on your face. The fear factor with arm balances is completely normal, even to a seasoned practitioner. Instead of shifting your weight in one direction all at once, try shifting your weight in stages. For instance, in bakasana, try to lift one foot off the mat, set it down, and lift the other. You’ll get a sense for how your weight shifts in your hands instead of lifting both feet at once and will have more control over falling your weight back.

When your weight is shifted, know that the distribution in your hands will change.

Flying pigeon/squirrel, eka pada galavasana

Flying pigeon/squirrel, eka pada galavasana

Your fingertips will act as your breaks (so imagine your fingers preemptively resting on the breaks of your bike--works similarly), and you will find that you will have a better time balancing gripping the mat as if your would like a basketball. Widen your fingers as much as you can, and pretend to claw your mat. You will set yourself up to allow your body to distribute your weight more evenly through your hands (instead of solely the palm of your hand), and your hand breaks are literally around to brace you. If you look at both pictures here in the arm balances that I'm in, you'll see how my hands are not completely flat. There's a subtle gripping action with my finger joints minutely lifted.

Knowing where to look is also important. If we’re using bakasana as the example posture, if you were to bring your gaze back towards your toes, where do you think your weight will move? You might find your weight shifted all the way over past your fingertips so that you have no choice but to tuck and roll. Instead of looking back, look forward about 6 inches in front of your fingertips. The body will move in the direction as the gaze goes, so keep that in mind.

Don’t be scared!
According to yogic philosophy, Abhinivesa or "fear," is one of the kleshas—obstacles that prevent us from realizing inner peace. Being wise and safe with your body doesn’t mean allowing fear to keep you from trying arm balances. It just means being mindful of your body as you test your limits. Of course, balancing postures on your arms are scary. This is part of the reason they are so exhilarating: by practicing them, you become fearless.

Have fun and let me know how it goes!