Arm balances can be some of the most exhilarating, playful and energetic poses in yoga asana practice, yet understandably they can also be some of the most frightening, and even frustrating, when we’re struggling to access one. After all, as humans we are animals that far more comfortable on our feet than on our hands! Below are just some of the fundamentals that come to mind when reflecting on common errors in arm balances of all levels.
Looking forward stops you falling.
If you look down toward your hands/the floor when arm balancing you are far more likely to fall in that direction on your head. Shift your gaze forward beyond the top of your mat or even focus on reaching your sternum to the front of the room. Then you are likely to float as there will be counter-leverage to the weight of your hips behind you. And you won’t fall on your head!
If you are nervous about falling forward
place bolster(s) or block(s) in front of you – you can even practice lifting off, rocking forward and tapping your head gently down onto them so you get used to that feeling of tipping forward whilst still feeling safe. However once you’ve practiced that, then you need to come back to attempting tip number 1. The goal is to gradually hover your face/chest above the prop while gazing forward and it will purely be there as a safety net. Note: This is not just for crow beginners! For advanced yogis, you can use these props attempting the very challenging one legged crow for example (Eka Pada Bakasana). I do!
Lift your butt higher.
On the points above of looking forward and counter-leverage, students often attempt to lift off into their arm balances like crow, side crow or flying pigeon with their butt still hanging close to the floor in squat position. The key is you must lift your bum as high as possible in these poses so that you are able to shift more weight onto the arms and lever off the floor.
Activate your feet!
Be wary of floppy feet in any balance or inversion. A strong point through the foot (or even an active dorsi flexion in some poses) is very helpful in keeping you balanced and light as all parts of the body are activated and involved. In the case of crow and side crow also really try to bring those heels in to your bum.
Try not to jump!
Often if we jump into balances we come from momentum, rather than strength, so our core muscles are unable to stabilise for balance and hold us there. You’ll notice I’ve used the word ‘leverage’ quite a few times above – because this is what these poses are about. For this reason if students are still struggling to get ‘air time’ or stay in the pose, I nearly always encourage students to slowly lift one foot at a time. Once you feel stable and the weight is well distributed with one foot off, the other will feel comfy to follow.
They’re less about strength than you think.
Weight distribution and alignment play a huge role. If levering off the floor feels impossible, it’s often the case that we aren’t quite distributing the weight in the balance properly or still aren’t finding an easy alignment. Yes, arm balances do require arm strength and core strength, but even moreso, they are about weight distribution. Lots of this is covered in points 1, 3 and 4 above, but quite simply, anything that levers weight forward and back must have a central pivot point. In the case of most arm balances your wrists and hands in most of these poses are the pivot point. You need to have weight both in front of and behind the pivot point in order to get lift off. Think: the palms are the gas to press down into and move forward and the fingers the brakes to stop you going too far.
Think about it not so much as muscling through the pose, but that each part of the body lifts itself. You’re not resting the full weight of your body on your hands. Rather, you are lifting each part using the most effective positioning of the joints and muscles to take weight out of your arms and away from the mat. This is why when you do ‘nail’ a new arm balance you surprise yourself with how suddenly light it is. You realise it’s as much about correct weight distribution and alignment as it is about strength!
Sorry! Your triceps might hurt a little at first.
Not so much a tip but an admission – crow pose and other similar arm balances DO put pressure on your triceps, which are the key muscles used for your chaturanga, so yes, at first it might hurt your arms a little to put weight on already worked muscles. This is the case frequently for students who are new to yoga or if you have been practicing more than usual. BUT what I can promise you is a) you are not alone – many of us felt that soreness at the start b) It doesn’t harm the muscles, and c) It does get better!! Those triceps won’t always feel sore and you become accustomed to the sensation, just as those who headstand get used to that familiar pressure on the crown of the head. What you should not tolerate however is strong pain in the joints (wrist, shoulder, elbow). That is when seeking advice, modification/abstinence and potentially treatment are encouraged.
Increase your wrist flexibility.
If you are one of many students who find arm balances really tough on your wrists, wrist stretches are pivotal. If it is hurting the wrists to get the weight forward, one possibility is immobility. In the workshop we will be doing plenty of wrist stretching and mobility work given the length and focus of the session. An extra tip is getting hold of or purchasing a Yoga wedge. It’s like a long thin slice of cake on its side (long enough to fit under both hands) – the thicker part goes under the heels of the hands and tapers down under the fingers. Rolling up the end of your mat under the heel of the hands can create a similar effect. These props can give you more range in your wrists for arm balances, downdogs and full wheels if you find these poses stressful on the wrists.
So yogis, whether you read this article and found some of it revealing, or sat there thinking ‘Yes, yes Emily I know and do all this already’ there are so many more crucial elements of the mechanics, preparation and progressions to explore. That’s what the 2 hours we will have together will be about! So come join us. Be challenged, ask questions and play, no matter where you are at!
Join Emily for an Arm Balances for All Levels Workshop – Feb 22, 2-4pm Bookings via our online store
About the instructor: Emily is a teacher who never came from an athletic background before starting yoga. She has embodied all levels of yoga experience; she knows how tricky and even scary that first crow can be, but also how satisfying that glorious, precarious hover in grasshopper is. She loves to teach by giving detailed, step-by-step instruction in a workshop environment on poses that usually seem overwhelming or are skimmed over in classes, and nurturing her students as individuals. She takes great pleasure in watching her students discover the rewards of yoga and surprise themselves with what they are capable of.
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