Break It Down: Ease Into Advanced Asanas
Let’s face it: We live in a culture that thrives on results. We like that feeling of accomplishment that comes from crossing items off our to-do list, and from achieving larger goals. It’s not all bad, but one place this drive to achieve backfires is on the yoga mat. After more than ten years of practicing and teaching yoga, I’ve seen it so many times (not to mention having experienced it firsthand myself). There are many life lessons to be learned on the mat, and one of my favorites is being reminded to slow down and honor the three P’s: Practice, patience, and process. If you allow an evolution to take place, you might be surprised what pose you end up in.
Those of us that are drawn to challenging yoga practices (Ashtanga, Power, Vinyasa Flow) enjoy pushing ourselves. And when we see one of those gorgeous advanced asanas, most often an arm balance or inversion, we can’t help but want it. We must find a way to do it. It’s like the yoga equivalent of that expensive handbag you really can’t afford; your body can’t afford to muscle its way into the pose without the proper preparation. This is where the practice part comes in.
“Practice and all is coming,” said the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga. Very few of us can attempt advanced asanas and get them on the first try. Forcing yourself into a pose, because other people in class can or just because you want it bad, is asking for injury and goes against the yogic principle of ahimsa (not doing harm, in this case to yourself). It’s an important concept to apply to asana, as are the three P’s:
- Practice and all is coming. Don’t expect to do it the first time.
- Have patience with yourself. Everyone’s yoga practice is different, and our bodies constantly change. Some poses will come easily, while others will require time and careful exploration.
- Honor the power of process. Our yoga practice is a journey, so why not enjoy the ride? Take the time to prepare your body when you are asking a lot of it (such as the full expression of an advanced pose).
My yoga practice has taught me not to be so obsessed with the end result. In the beginning, I would tell myself that if I couldn’t do a certain pose, then it wasn’t meant for my body (in other words, I made excuses because I didn’t want to admit that I “couldn’t do it”). It seemed that once I let go of the end result, my body got the green light to relax and release, and I would be surprised to eventually find my way into previously impossible poses with ease. My body went through the process of opening up, once it was free from being pushed around by my mind. This experience contributed to my teaching style; one of my favorite things to do with yoga students is to show them how to break down a “crazy” pose into smaller, attainable steps. I encourage my students to take note of where they come up against their edge, and stay there for awhile. That’s probably the hardest part – recognizing when to hold back and linger until you are ready to move on. Not doing so is what gets us into trouble (or causes us to fall on our face in crow pose, tumble out of headstand after kicking up into it, etc.) But it’s from this place, and from remembering to stick with the three P’s, that true growth occurs.
Here are four poses with which the break-it-down technique has worked well. They are numbered in sequential order, so you can stop wherever you need to and make that your full pose for as long as needed.
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This pose is really not as hard as it might look. There are two secrets: core and drishti (gazing point). Almost everyone falls on their face while attempting this pose, until they realize that you must keep your head up (you can put a pillow in front of you in case you do face-plant). Your core is what will enable you to float your feet up; the lift comes from core strength, not from pushing off with your feet.
1) Start in a squatting position, and take your armpits over your knees. Keep them there — this is important to avoid ending up with bruises from your knees digging into your arms in the wrong spot. Practice placing your palms on the floor without losing the connection between your armpits and knees.
2) With your hands on the floor, and knees in the armpits, start to lift your seat and come onto tiptoe. Lift your head and gaze up – this is the secret! If you drop your head and look down at the floor, you will tip forward and lose your balance. Stay connected to your core – keep your belly button drawing in.
3) Feel the weight in your hands and the balance that comes from staying connected to your core. Then float one or both feet off the floor. Think of this movement as being controlled by your core: do not kick up! And remember, head up!
When you feel steady and balanced, begin working toward the full expression of Bakasana by pulling your heels up towards your seat and working to straighten your arms.
PINCHA MAYURASANA (Forearm Stand)
There is a big leap of faith required here, as with most inversions and arm balances; it’s that tricky question of how exactly do I get lift off? My answer is, work for as long as you need to on the ground first. You have to feel the lightness, you simply cannot use force or you will lose your balance (not to mention get frustrated).
1) In order to set up your foundation (your forearms), use a block. Position your hands as shown, with the block against the wall. Your elbows should line up with your wrists – don’t let them flare out.
2) Keep your drishti (gaze) at the front edge of the block; this means your chin is lifted. As you ground through your forearms, lift your hips and come into downward dog (with forearms down). If you are tight and/or weak in the shoulders, stay here until you open and strengthen the shoulder area.
3) From #2, practice lifting one leg up at a time, fully engaging your core to help with the lift. When you feel light, use your bottom leg to gently push off the floor and lift up (as shown). You can practice this gentle hop as the next step after lifting one leg at a time. If you’re feeling “heavy”, practice #3 for as long as it takes to feel light. Then you will float up. Use the wall for support, both mental and physical, and eventually you won’t need it.
4a) For the full expression of the pose, you may keep one leg on the wall for balance.
4b) Work towards bringing your feet together away from the wall.
VASISTHASANA (Side Plank)
Talk about a gorgeous pose! Lots of options to work towards the full pose, so take it slow. The most common complaint is taking so much weight in the bottom wrist; you have to be able to find extension in the top hand in order to take pressure off the bottom wrist. Pretend that someone is gently pulling up on your top wrist (sounds subtle, I know, but it works). You also need to use your feet not just for balance but to push off of.
1a) Start on your side, with your top leg forward and foot flat on the floor, bottom leg extended with foot flexed.
1b) Push off your bottom hand and your top foot to lift your hips; reach your top arm up and look towards it.
2) Start with both feet together, stacking the ankles. Push off your bottom foot and hand to lift your hips; reach your top arm up and look towards it.
3) From #2, if you feel steady, practice bringing the top foot into tree position, with the foot on the inner thigh (not the knee).
4) The full expression of Vasisthasana is to take the big toe, keeping both legs straight; you may work towards straightening the top leg once you can get the toe.
It took me years to get the full expression of headstand. But I’m glad I stuck with it, as the benefits of inverting abound. This pose feels good. And remember that you are getting inversion benefits even if you don’t take your feet off the ground. As with Forearm Stand, don’t hesitate to use the wall for mental and physical support. I mostly practice headstand at the wall, even though I never touch it. Always take child’s pose after practicing headstand, for a minimum of 5 deep breaths.
1) Come onto hands and knees. Come down onto your elbows, and wrap your fingers around your elbows. IMPORTANT: This is the distance you want to maintain between your elbows in order to have a stable foundation for headstand. DO NOT let your elbows widen!
2) Keeping your elbows exactly where they are, bring your hands together and interlace your fingers, forming a cup with your hands. Drop your head into the cup you’ve made with your hands; you should have the crown of your head on the floor, and the back of your head pressing into your palms.
3) Press down through your forearms as you tuck your toes and lift your hips. Play with coming onto tip toes and shifting the weight forward, keeping your core engaged and working to get a feeling of lightness in your hips.
4) Bend your knees toward your chest and use your core to float your feet up. NEVER, never kick up. Please. Re-read the above sentence, use your core as needed until it sinks in.
5a) Slowly straighten your legs into full headstand. You may keep both legs at the wall for balance.
5b) Work towards bringing one or both feet together away from the wall.
Remember to have fun as you explore advanced asanas. Don’t take them too seriously. If your mind lightens up, your body just may do the same.
Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Montana-People.com