When it comes to propping poses, I always ask myself, “Why prop?” The answer is never simple, and it always depends on my objective for practicing or teaching an asana.
With challenging, seemingly inaccessible poses, one answer would be to use props simply to get into them. However, that answer can be incomplete, because I often find props valuable even when I don’t need them to access a pose. Props can help me build body awareness and endurance, understand new aspects of an asana, or concentrate on very specific actions over a longer period of time than I could if I were trying to sustain myself in the pose unsupported.
My point is, propping can satisfy more than just the desire to achieve a certain shape. Props are incredibly versatile, and they facilitate objectives and sensations as various and unique as each practitioner. Use does not equal need: You may not need props for every practice, but you can certainly use them in any practice.
Side crow (parsva bakasana) is one of my favorite poses to explore with props. It’s an intricate pose that I find challenging to finesse on my own. Propping gives me more time to work on individual aspects of the pose, ultimately helping me to build a better arm balance.
Each of the following variations of side crow focuses on an action essential to this arm balance. For me, as a student (and as a teacher, but mostly as a student), this type of exploration has been of tremendous benefit.
Side crow came fairly easily to me when I was introduced to it a few years ago. But after some recent deep exploration, I can now say that I actually practice parsva bakasana, whereas before I was just practicing a side twist while balancing on my hands. What I mean is that this exploration helped transform my “trick” yoga (“Hey, look what I can do!”) into a dedicated study of the pose. It transformed what was superficial into embodiment. Studying and meditating on this asana has allowed me to feel the internal workings of the pose and to steady my mind—which is, after all, the point of yoga practice. This shift happened because of the progression of the variations I am going to share with you.
If side crow is frustrating for you, these versions will help. If you are already flying high, breaking down the pose and exploring these variations might help you fly higher. Either way, you may be surprised by how they shift your practice, internally and externally.
You will need four blocks, a strap, at least one blanket, and access to a wall.
Setup: Start by sitting on a folded blanket (this provides nice padding for a sensitive tailbone and will also facilitate the twist) facing the short edge of your mat with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Sit up higher (using more blankets) if you feel any excessive rounding in your low back. Begin with your hands by your sides with your fingertips pressing into the floor or blanket(s) and lengthen your spine.
On an inhale, lift your left arm and twist to your right, bending and pressing your left elbow into the outside of your right thigh. Adjust your right hand behind your hip for more space if you are feeling cramped.
As you set up your arms in this seated twist, think chaturanga arms: elbows bent and parallel to each other, upper arms hugging in. Extend your left wrist so that your fingers point up toward the ceiling and position your forearm about perpendicular to the long edge of your mat. Imagine you’re doing “air chaturanga.”
Then bend your right elbow and hug it into your rib cage. Mimic pressing your hands into a flat surface as if you were in chaturanga.
Work on this twist with your feet on the floor; or if you feel secure, keep pressing your left elbow into your right thigh and your right elbow into the right side of your body and lean back a little, lifting your feet off the floor. Hug your legs together, flex your feet, and maintain your chaturanga-like arms.
After three to five breaths, lower your feet, untwist, and switch sides.
Benefits: This can be a helpful variation if you are dealing with a wrist or shoulder injury. It’s also excellent if you aren’t quite ready to balance on your hands.
Drawbacks: You may experience more abdominal and hip flexor intensity than you would if you were on your hands. Keeping your feet down can reduce this intensity.
Setup: Grab four blocks and stack pairs on the lowest height and vertically along your mat, shoulder-width apart. You might also have another pair handy in case you need to add them to the stack. To establish the correct distance, come into tabletop. Place the tips of your middle fingers slightly behind the blocks. Then, bend your elbows until your shoulders touch the blocks. Make sure the fronts of your shoulders rest on the center of the blocks (not the inner or outer edges of the blocks). If your shoulders dip lower than your elbows, add a third block to each stack.
Then return to tabletop.
Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) behind your blocks and turn your entire body to the right so that the left side of your body faces the blocks. Now squat with your feet together, heels up.
Twist to your left and hook your right elbow outside your left thigh. Place your arms in chaturanga position, as in the previous variation.
Then place your hands on the mat behind the blocks as you did in tabletop.
Maintaining your twist, lean your weight into your hands, lift your left foot off the floor, and simultaneously lower your shoulders to the blocks.
With your shoulders supported, lift your right foot off the floor, bringing it to meet your left, and hug your knees and ankles together with your feet flexed.
When you are ready, lower your legs, unwind your twist, and switch sides.
Benefits: Supporting the shoulders can make this pose feel a lot more stable—particularly when you’re just getting started.
Drawbacks: The shoulder support can invite “dumping” in the fronts of the shoulders, which we want to avoid (as it transfers the weight of the body downward, instead of forward). To prevent this, get the triceps, backs of the shoulders (shoulder blade region too), and pectoral muscles to fire by lifting your shoulders up with the intention of lifting them off the blocks. Tell your chest to inch itself forward. Your shoulders don’t have to lift completely off the blocks, but you may feel a muscular shift in how you have been practicing. Don’t worry if at first you just rest your shoulders on the blocks—just don’t rely on them forever.
Setup: Come to a wall and squat with your feet together, heels up, with your left shoulder facing the wall and about two to three inches away. Have your right hand alongside your right hip.
Twist your torso to the right, connecting your left elbow to the outside of your right thigh and then use your right hand on the floor to help maneuver yourself into your twist. Place your hands on the floor, bending your elbows and hugging your right arm into your side (chaturanga arms), and shift your weight forward into your hands.
When you feel your weight in your arms, raise your left foot and press the ball of that foot firmly onto the wall, coming out of the pose and adjusting your body closer to or farther from the wall as necessary.
Feel your thigh resting on your left upper arm and your left foot pressing into the wall. You must feel comfortable putting your weight on your hands and pressing into the wall before going any further. If you do, inhale and lift up your right foot, pressing it into the wall as well.
Keep your legs active and your shoulder girdle steady by pushing your hands into the floor (which is similar to the action of trying to lift your shoulders away from the blocks in the previous version). Aim for five breaths here (but always come down before you need to come down—i.e., before you fall out). Then release your feet one at a time and unwind from your twist. Switch sides.
Get comfortable holding side crow here with your feet on the wall. As you build strength in this propped practice, the next step is to lean a hair forward into your hands so that the balls of your feet move away from the wall and only the big toes rest there.
If you are steady, lift your big toes up in the direction of the ceiling and float them off of the wall (which is a very subtle movement!).
Benefits: You get the feeling of flying (feet lifted off the floor!) while being supported by the wall. This can help you learn how to use your legs to eventually achieve liftoff by yourself.
Drawbacks: Using the wall can be tricky. You need a lot of time to set up according to your proportions, and there is always the chance of your feet slipping and sliding off the wall. If your feet continue to slide, wipe off your feet as well as the wall, and then come a little closer to the wall. For this variation to work, you must press the balls of your feet strongly into the wall, setting yourself up closer if you find yourself unable to press into the wall sufficiently.
Setup: Grab a strap and make a fairly large loop in it. (I use an eight-foot strap, which cloaks my torso and hips vertically and allows for a “tail” long enough to easily find so that I can then tighten or loosen the strap.) From standing, step your right foot into the strap and pull the strap up to your right thigh.
Then squat and loop the strap over your left shoulder.
Tighten the strap so that it draws your right thigh quite close to your torso. Find the balance between the strap being so tight that you can’t easily twist your body and place your hands on the floor, and so loose that the strap is ineffective.
Twist to your left. Set up your side crow arms and lean into your hands.
Lift your left leg up. The strap will secure your right leg encouraging the inner thigh to lift up.
Pause for a moment, maintaining steadiness in your shoulder girdle, pressing your hands down, and hugging your elbows in toward each other. Then lift your right thigh up to meet your left.
Stay here for three to five breaths, or until you need to come down, and then switch sides.
Benefits: Because the strap crosses the body, you can feel how you need to twist your body toward the strap; continue to twist as you move into it. The more you twist, the more you will feel the resistance of the strap. Ultimately, the deeper you twist the easier side crow becomes. This version also gives your lower body support to lift up.
Drawbacks: For many of us, using the strap is complicated. To practice this variation, you also need to feel confident balancing on your hands. It is optimal, however, for anyone who has experience practicing side crow but still has trouble lifting their feet off the floor.
Experiment with these versions to see where you are on your parsva bakasana journey, and to see where you might go. Props serve a grand purpose in the practice of yoga. Sometimes they are tools to get you started on your asana adventure, and at other times to enhance it. Because arm balances can be so demanding and challenging, using props to break down their various components can provide extra support. That allows you to experience a pose with a purpose other than just taking flight.
Photography: Andrea Killam