Oh, arm balances. How we want them. Through hard and intelligent work, and after many, many tries, we may eventually get them.
But what if there were a way to work the intermediate zone—the gray space between Dang, I can’t get off the ground! and Hey, I’m flying! “Timers” are useful exercises for developing your abilities and getting you to lift up, up, and away into arm balances like eka pada koundinyasana I.
Delving into yoga after 16 years as a gymnast, it was quite freeing to let go of “performing” and focus instead on “practicing.” I was encouraged to show myself loving-kindness. What a beautiful thing to leave “no pain, no gain” in the gutter, just where it belongs. I had spent too many years concentrating on form, conditioning, and perfection; and with my yoga practice, I could throw all of that out the window.
Though this shift in mindset was a game-changer for me, many years on the mat have brought me to a renewed appreciation for the tools and skills I learned in gymnastics. I’ve even started incorporating some of my past gym techniques into my yoga practice, and have found them quite helpful for learning difficult poses. One of these techniques is “timers.” Timers are conditioning drills that mimic various aspects of your desired trick (in gymnastics) or pose (in yoga). They work the same muscles and the same actions as the desired pose.
The benefit comes from working these muscles and actions without the intense requirements of the final pose—such as standing on your hands, or balancing on one foot, or using all your strength to stay afloat in a forearm balance. Holding a pose like eka pada koundinyasana I for a long time takes a toll on your body, specifically your wrists and shoulders. Timers give you the opportunity to work on specific aspects of the pose—such as building upper-body, hip, and core strength—without taking such a toll.
To put it simply, here’s the lowdown on timers:
• They help you work the actions of the pose before doing the final version. You’ll study the way your body moves while getting into and holding the pose.
• They develop muscle memory so that when you do balance on your hands, for example, the rest of your body engages appropriately.
• They build strength and awareness in the pose’s target muscles. This gets you closer to getting into the posture. In the case that you’re able to do the pose already, you’ll stabilize your posture and be able to control it muscularly.
Try these timers to get yourself ready for eka pada koundinyasana I. Before doing them, cat/cow and some simple side bends will be helpful in warming up your spine. If you’re planning to work all the way up to eka pada koundinyasana I, a full practice that includes sun salutations; then triangle pose (trikonasana) and pyramid pose (parsvottanasana) to stretch your hamstrings; and a revolved lunge and a seated spinal twist for spinal rotation will prepare your body.
Kneel or sit in a chair. Hold your arms at shoulder height, elbows bent out to the sides and palms facing down. Swing your elbows into your side body, resisting them in, so that your pectoral muscles are engaged. Now swing your elbows back out to the sides. Repeat this 30 times.
This drill brings stability to the base of your pose by strengthening the muscles responsible for the “elbow pin,” an action that takes eka pada koundinyasana I from “wobbly and loose” to “solid and lithe,” allowing you to maintain “chaturanga arms” in the pose.
Lie on your right side with your legs in eka pada koundinyasana I position—the right leg at 90 degrees, and the left leg reaching straight back. If this hurts your bottom hip, place a folded blanket beneath the hip. Point your feet (plantarflex the ankle), but pull your toes back toward the top of your foot (extend the toes). Reach your chest forward, bend your elbows, and place your hands on the floor at a comfortable distance from your hips (at shoulder width), so you can feel how far forward your chest needs to be in the pose. Lift your left leg about one foot off the ground, then tap your toes to the floor. Repeat 20 times, then move right on to the next timer before switching sides.
This works the abductors, including the gluteus medius of the back leg—much-needed muscles for eka pada koundinyasana I.
Keep your legs in the same position they were in for the previous timer. Raise your chest so that your left arm is almost straight. Come onto your right forearm. Raise your right leg off the floor a few inches, and then tap down. Repeat 20 times. When you're done, switch sides and do the previous drill followed by this one.
This primarily works the adductors of the right thigh. A nice side effect is that adductor strength will stabilize all of your standing poses and your walking gait as well.
Come back onto your right side and keep the leg position you had in the last two timers. Prop yourself onto your right forearm and your left palm. Raise your right leg a few inches, and then lower it. Then lift your left leg up about one foot and lower it. Teeter between the two legs for 20 rounds.
You’ll continue to work the muscles of the last two timers as you come closer to the experience of eka pada koundinyasana I by integrating the two exercises.
Lie on your right side. Prop yourself up onto your right forearm. Rest your left hand on your left hip. Keeping your legs off the ground the entire time, pull your knees to your chest, rounding your spine. Then extend your legs into eka pada koundinyasana I position—your right leg reaching forward and left leg reaching back. Pull your legs in again, making yourself into a small ball. Repeat 10 to 20 times, then switch sides.
In this exercise, the core really gets fired up. The stabilizing abdominal muscles work hard to curl and uncurl your spine and to support the long levers of your legs. The abductors of your left leg and adductors of your right leg keep your legs from dropping to the ground. This works the muscles that create the transition from side crow (parsva bakasana) to eka pada koundinyasana I.
Sit in staff pose (dandasana) and then lean slightly onto your left hip. Lift your right leg off the ground and cross your right ankle above your left. Then swing your right leg back, opening up your hip angle, as you dip your chest forward while supporting your torso with palms on the ground and elbows bent into chaturanga position. Repeat 10 to 20 times, then switch sides.
This really works your abductors and core muscles to stabilize your body while your legs reach away from your center. You’re educating the muscles responsible for the leg swing from eka pada koundinyasana I to chaturanga (a common though not easy transition).
Practice these timers a few times a week and you’ll feel your eka pada koundinyasana I muscles developing. As the dream gets closer to reality, you just may find yourself shooting toward eka pada koundinyasana I—and then the stars (chaturanga optional).
Photography: Andrea Killam