Arm balances are fun and flashy in the western Yoga world. In all seriousness, they’re challenging and require a lot of strength and focus, sthira sukha. Since most of us spend our days with the feet firmly planted on the ground and butt on a chair, the ability to elevate them while balancing on our hands is always going to look super cool. Yoga arm balances are more than party tricks. As mentioned above, they require strength and focus. They also encourage us to expand our conception of what’s possible. By lifting yourself, you become uplifted and then uplifting. When our body and spirit feel heavy and low, we can lighten the load and mood with a little playful balance.
Crow Pose is usually the first arm balance that most people attempt. It’s more than likely because it’s a pretty straightforward one with no added twists or needs for flexibility to distract you from your experience with gravity. The body stays still and compact in this pose, so it can be a good place to figure out how to manage your weight without the added complication of legs sticking out here, there, and everywhere. Once Crow pose (Kakasana) becomes comfortable you can move onto Crane pose (Bakasana), which leads onto a whole host of other arm balances that may soon be more accessible with practice in these postures.
When you find that sweet spot, your feet will actually fly off the floor.
CROW VS. CRANE
In modern postural practice, Crow is the bent-arm version of this pose and Crane is the straight-arm version as demonstrated in the image above. The knees squeezing the outside of the upper arms as opposed to sitting in the armpits almost. The Sanskrit names of these two poses have gotten a little mixed up over time in Western Yoga. That’s not unusual for yoga poses in general, any hybrids and variations are being created over time. As yoga has been disseminated, teachers have called poses by different names and developed and named their own poses. There’s not really one authoritative reference source of all yoga postures, though I do like to stay tuned into Hatha Yoga techniques, as their recordings seem to be most traditional and reliable. In this instance, “Hatha depicts the straight-arm version of the pose, labels it Bakasana, which makes sense as Baka means crane in Sanskrit. Case closed, except that the bent-arm version is often also called Bakasana and translated as Crow Pose. We’re not sure how this Crow/Crane confusion came to be but for clarity’s sake, we’re following the convention of calling the bent-arm version Kakasana, since Kaka means crow in Sanskrit.
You may be led to believe that you need super strong arms to support you in arm balances. You may be surprised to read that arm balances are more about core strength, flexibility, and body awareness (especially in the hand – hasta bandha), which helps you find your centre of gravity and craftily distribute the load. When everything is arranged just so, your feet almost float off the floor effortlessly.
There is no denying there has got to be something supporting your flight: it’s the muscles in your torso, AKA your core. The core goes a lot deeper than the rectus abdominis (what you’d probably call your six-pack abs) I like to describe to my online yoga students that the core is like a corset. It also includes the pelvic floor, the obliques, the transverse abdominis, the psoas, and the muscles that support your spine. Core strength is the key to yoga’s balancing poses. If arm balances seem out of range at the moment, I would recommend practicing standing balances that will help you build strength. Even poses where you’re not standing on one leg can be balance challenges. (Ever felt wobbly in a standing pose like Warrior I, I know I have?) Targeting your core with crunches, planks, and side planks is another way to get stronger.
CROW POSE (KAKASANA)
If you are working on the pose, try to explore it every day at home. It can be a challenge, though not impossible, to practice kakasana in class due to the restrictions of a sequence. You may also feel too inhibited about falling to really explore the edges of your balance too. Practice in the comfort of your home with props, following the tips below and in my video, and you will be flying high in no time!
1. To give yourself a firm foundation, start in a squatting position (malasana) with your palms flat on the floor and shoulders’ distance apart. Here we focus on the hasta bandha, the hand lock. See my other blog post here for more details on hasta bandha.
2. Shift the weight of your body onto the hands and come onto the balls of your feet.
3. Bend your elbows straight back so that your knees make contact with your outer edges of the upper arms as close to your armpits as possible. You may need to move your hands closer to your feet to do this. Just make sure your hands are not coming closer together nor are your elbows winging out to the sides. A strap around the upper arms here is a good way to keep track of your alignment (tighten the strap around the arms at shoulder-width apart. It will give a good indication if the belt slackens or tightens). When you come into the pose, your knees will be resting and squeezing on the shelf made by your upper arms.
4. Now, you may notice that your bum is still pretty low. Before you try to take off, you’ll need to lift it quite a lot. Keep your bent knees resting on your upper arms but straighten your legs until your bum is level or slightly above the head.
5. Body mechanics dictates that you have to lean forward to get your feet off the ground. Figuring out how much to lean is the key to the whole pose, and, indeed, to all arm balances. Keep the gaze a few feet in front of you to keep your head up. Keep leaning forward and coming onto your tippiest tiptoes until one foot lifts off the ground. Begin to actively push the hands hard into the ground and strengthen through the arms to round the upper back. Firm your belly and lift the other foot towards the tail bone. Now the big part here is the SQUEEZE your knees toward your centre line so they don’t slip off your arms. The arms will need to push back against the knees and the hands need to keep pushing into the ground and the core wrapping around the whole torso to lift, lift, LIFT!
6. You may crash-land a few times before you get the hang of the balance. Set up a pillow or two in front of your mat, or as I demonstrated in the video above, a couple of bricks in line with the head, resting the forehead on them, allowing them to support you while you explore the rest of the posture. sYou must lean into the posture to gain lift-off. When you find that sweet spot, your feet will actually float off the floor. Once you are airborne, bring your feet to touch, tucking your heels up near your butt and keeping your toes active. As you get more comfortable, begin to work toward straightening your arms.
Lea’s Tip: When you first start playing with this pose, it’s important to remember that your head is heavy. If you let it hang, it will pull you down, in arm balances and life. Keep your gaze on the ground in front of you to elevate your head and your mood.