Taking Flight this Holiday Season

by Margaret Burns Vap 2

Arm balances are usually on everyone’s yoga wish list. My gift to you is to show you the steps to take flight on your yoga mat this holiday season. These popular party-trick poses often come up in class as an all-or-nothing proposition. The teacher will say, “If you practice eka pada galavasana, you can take it now.” So how exactly does one get to this point, anyway? (And if you’re wondering what the heck eka pada galavasasa is, read on.)

Very few people get on their mat and practice a perfect arm balance on their first try. The first secret is to break the pose down into steps and stop at the one that challenges you, instead of pushing through what your body is not ready to do (and as we all know… respecting limits is often more of a mental challenge). The other secret is to prepare with pose families that build towards the desired arm balance. First secret, somewhat obvious; the second, not as much.

I’m going to let you in on the second secret for three popular eka pada, or one-legged, poses. There are lots of good prep poses you can practice to make the full pose feel like a piece of cake… eventually! (Third secret = practice patience.) Commit to building up to an advanced asana and allowing it to evolve, instead of being scared away after an unsuccessful attempt.

Do your groundwork before you attempt flight. Maybe you’ll even be able to fly for your holiday party trick this year. Wishing you high-flying, happy and healthy holidays.

Prepare » Eka Pada Koundinyasana I

CORE PREP. I’ve said it before and I’ll say again, because there’s no way around it: you have to have a strong core in order to do any advanced asana. Core strength should be a priority for any yoga practice; because without it, you don’t have a stable center from which to direct the rest of your body’s movements. Try Target Practice: Core Yoga to focus on this area and plank leg variations.

BIRD OF PARADISE. See Spread Your Wings with Spring Yoga for a full break-down of this prep pose.

SIDE LEG LIFTS.

Margaret Burns Vap - Side Leg Lifts

This requires that you use your core strength more than your leg strength, so don’t try and muscle your way through it. Isolate your core to power the leg left, and it will feel more like it’s floating (vs. weighing 1,000 lbs.). The first time I tried this pose, I couldn’t get my leg to go very far–my outer hip was on fire. I took that as a sign that I needed to do it a lot more.

Fold forward with your feet almost hip-width apart. Come onto the fingertips of your left hand just outside your left foot. Wrap your index and middle fingers around your right big toe and hitch your right hip up to lift the foot off the floor. Engage your core and take your right leg straight out to the side, as high as you can (but not higher than parallel to the floor). Hold until your butt starts to burn (try for a slow count of 5). Repeat on the other side.

SHOULDER SNUGGLE.

Margaret Burns Vap - Shoulder snuggle

In a seated position, practice snuggling your shoulder under your leg to work on opening the hip and hamstring, which is non-negotiable for EPK I. Use the power of your arms to help lift and hold your leg over your upper arm/shoulder. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

COMPASS POSE.

Margaret Burns Vap - Compass pose

Use pressure from your upper arm/shoulder to gently open the hip, and your top arm to reach over and hold the foot and encourage the leg to straighten. DON’T FORCE EITHER. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

The more time you can spend lunging, the easier EPK I will be. Lunge while you watch tv, read a book. Hang out in lunges. Just be sure to do both sides.

LOW LUNGES.

Margaret Burns Vap - Low Lunge

The more time you can spend lunging, the easier EPK I will be. Lunge while you watch tv, read a book. Hang out in lunges. Just be sure to do both sides. Come into a low lunge with your right foot forward. Move your right foot out to the right, so you can place both hands inside it. You can keep straight (not locked out) arms, come to your elbows on a block, or place your forearms on the floor. Hug your right knee into your shoulder. Keep your back leg engaged or modify by dropping to your back knee.

Margaret Burns Vap - Low lunge - dropped knee

(Also see low lunge in Mini Yoga Practice: Hip Opening.)

LOW LUNGE SHOULDER DIP.

Margaret Burns Vap - Low lunge shoulder dip

Here’s where you start to prepare for takeoff. It’s important to get the right shoulder under the right leg as much as possible. Move into the full pose from here.

Pose » Eka Pada Koundinyasana I

Margaret Burns Vap - Eka Pada Koundinyasana I

From the low lunge shoulder dip, place both hands on the floor. As you engage your core, tip yourself forward slightly and float both feet off the floor. There’s no jumping or pushing off. Notice the upper arm position, and how it creates a shelf for the front leg. These arm balances usually show up differently between sides, so be sure to practice both.

Prepare » Eka Pada Koundinyasana II

ARDHA MATSYENDRASANA.

Margaret Burns Vap - Ardha Matsyendrasana

You have to be secure in a deep twist for EPK II, and a seated twist gives you a stable base for moving deeper. Make sure both sit bones are grounded. The left/bottom knee can be bent with the foot close to the opposite hip, or you can straighten the bottom leg. Cross the right/top leg over the bottom knee. Lift the left arm up on an inhale and turn your belly button towards your inner thigh. You can hug the knee, or take your elbow outside of it to deepen the twist. Keep your spine straight and lift up from the crown of your head on inhales, and twist deeper on exhales. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

HIGH LUNGE TWIST.

Margaret Burns Vap - High Lunge Twist

Come into a high lunge with the right foot forward (make sure you’re on the ball of your back foot, with the heel lifted). Take your hands into prayer at your heart center, and twist to the right, hooking your bottom elbow on your outer knee. Keep your hands at heart center in the twist. To work deeper, move from the elbow closer to the armpit without shifting the position of the hands. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

TWISTED CHAIR.

Margaret Burns Vap - Twisted chair

Come into utkatasana, chair pose, with your feet and knees together. Take your hands into prayer at your heart center, and twist to the right, hooking your bottom elbow on your outer knee. Keep your hands at heart center in the twist. To work deeper, move from the elbow closer to the armpit without shifting the position of the hands. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

TIPTOE TWISTED CHAIR.

Margaret Burns Vap -  Tiptoe twisted chair

From twisted chair, drop your seat towards your heels and allow your heels to lift so you come onto the balls of your feet. You can also come into the squat first and take the twist from there. This position is key for moving into the full pose, so work here to get comfortable and deep in your twist.

SIDE CROW STARTER.

Margaret Burns Vap - Side Crow Starter

Arm Balance Bonus! Side Crow is my favorite way into EPK II. From tiptoe twisted chair, drop both hands to the floor about shoulder width apart. Don’t lose the twist! As in regular crow pose, keep your gaze forward and don’t drop your head. Your outer right knee will be against your upper left arm. Place your outer right hip on your upper right arm. Come onto tiptoe as you practice shifting your weight forward into your hands.

SIDE CROW.

Margaret Burns Vap - Side Crow

From side crow starter, float up into side crow. The liftoff will come from core control, not pushing off your feet.

Pose » Eka Pada Koundinyasana II

Margaret Burns Vap - Eka Pada Koundinyasana II

From side crow, straighten your bottom leg to the side, and your top leg back. Keep your head up and your core engaged.

Prepare » Eka Pada Galavasana

Hip Openers (see Mini Yoga Practice: Hip Opening, especially pigeon and double pigeon).

NUMBER 4 POSE.

Margaret Burns Vap - Number 4 pose

Cross your right ankle over your left lower thigh and flex the foot, opening the right knee as much as possible. Bend the left knee and start to hinge forward from the hip. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

NUMBER 4 FORWARD FOLD.

Margaret Burns Vap - Number 4 fold forward

Keeping the foot flexed, fold forward and bring your hands to the floor. Hook your right foot around your upper left arm. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

NUMBER 4 FLOAT.

Margaret Burns Vap - Number 4 float

The hooked foot around the upper arm is the key, as unlikely as that sounds. Keep flexing that foot strongly as you tip your weight forward into your hands. Your left knee stays bent, and you can work towards coming onto tiptoe and eventually floating the foot off the floor. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

Pose » Eka Pada Galavasana

Margaret Burns Vap - Eka Pada Galavasana

From Number 4 float, extend your leg up and back. Keep your foot hooked, your head up and your gaze forward.

Namaste.

Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Big-Sky-People.com

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Margaret Burns Vap is the founder of Big Sky Yoga Retreats, combining yoga and outdoor fitness in Montana Big Sky country. Her relationship with yoga began almost a decade ago as a way to balance her hectic New York City lifestyle and a corporate career with cosmetics giant L'Oreal... {more»}