Have you noticed that sometimes sequences oriented toward arm balances can be so challenging that by the time you get to the actual fun of the arm balance itself your wrists and shoulders are kind of shot? That’s why I came up with this crow sequence. Check it out: Even though it’s challenging, I guarantee that it won’t waste your wrists and shoulders!
Supta Padangusthasana (Supine Hand to Big Toe Pose) Variation
What you’ll need: a strap and a small bolster or folded blanket.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Lift your hips up and place the bolster or blanket under your sacrum. Draw your front ribs slightly down and shift your back ribs toward your head to avoid overextending your lower back.
Bend your left knee into your chest, loop the strap around the arch of your left foot, and stretch your left leg up toward the ceiling. Straighten your right leg and place your right hand on the root of your thigh to encourage some mild yet passive hip extension. Stay here for about a minute or two. Your right heel may or may not touch the floor, but either way, keep the entire leg active for the duration of the pose.
If there is discomfort in your lower back, try minimizing the support under your hips or using no support at all. Circle your left ankle a few times in each direction, then bend your left knee and remove the strap.
Hold the back of your left thigh with your left hand and, taking it slowly, bend your knee to bring it outside your rib cage. This is an exploratory movement, so don’t force it. Take your time, as much as you need.
When you're done, bend your right knee and place your right foot on the ground followed by your left. Switch sides, then lift your hips to remove the bolster.
What you’ll need: No props necessary, but feel free to get creative!
Lie on your back with your knees pulled into your chest. Separate your knees but keep the inner edges of your feet together. Try alternately pressing the inner edges of your feet together and releasing them a few times. Lift your arms up and bend your wrists so that your palms are facing the ceiling as if you were in plank pose. Round your lower back so that your sacrum lifts away from the floor and your knees squeeze into your chest a little more. Then curl your upper body up, including your head, so that just the tips of your shoulder blades are on the floor. Can you connect your knees to your arms or close the gap between them a little more?
Stay here for five to ten breaths before lowering back down to the floor. Repeat two to four more times and pay attention to the difference in your body with each repetition. You may find that your body squeezes in more, your knees lift toward your upper arms more, or your shoulder blades widen more.
Cat-Cow With Super Cat
What you’ll need: No props necessary.
Begin in tabletop. On an inhale tilt your sitting bones up and lift your head and chest into cow pose. Then exhale, rounding into cat pose. Practice this for a few rounds. Then, maintain cat pose, press down into your hands, exhale a little more, and hover your knees away from the floor for super cat. Alternate between cow and super cat for a few more rounds of breath.
If you need to be entirely off your hands, you can do this seated in sukhasana (easy pose): Begin with a seated version of cat and cow with your hands cupping your knees or thighs. For super cat, you can hover your shins away from the floor (using your hands or fingertips for balance if needed).
Block Squeezes in Utkatasana (Fierce Pose, Known Colloquially as Chair Pose)
What you’ll need: two blocks (or balled up socks, stress balls, or the like).
Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) with your feet about hip-width apart and a block in each hand. You can hold them in any orientation. Bend your hips and knees as deeply as is comfortable while lifting the blocks overhead, squeezing them with your hands as you do so. This will help build some strength in your hands and forearms and prepare them for crow. Repeat slowly 10 to 20 times, coming into and out of the pose as needed, to build more heat in your body.
Standing Ardha Bakasana (Half Crow)
What you’ll need: a little wall space and a blanket or block.
Stand facing the wall with your arms stretched out in front of you so that you can place your hands on the wall as if you were in plank. Push the wall away as you would the floor in cat pose. Now that you have the action of the arms and are the right distance away from the wall, grab your prop.
Lift your right knee and place your prop between your right thigh and the right side of your rib cage. Once you have made adjustments to keep the prop in place, return your hands to wall plank. As you push against the wall, squeeze the prop intensely for about ten seconds and release.
Do this two more times on the right side, then try without the prop, lifting your knee as high up to your armpit as possible. Hold here for a few full breaths. Then switch sides.
Lunge and Squat Series
What you’ll need: two blocks (optional).
You can use blocks under your hands, if you like, placing them next to your feet and stepping back to lunge, or you can stack them horizontally on their lowest setting and sit on them for malasana (garland pose).
From tadasana, with your feet hip-width apart, slowly hinge forward at your hips to come into uttanasana (standing forward bend) and then step your right foot back into a lunge. Lift your torso to vertical, place your right hand on the front of your right hip, and reach your left arm up toward the sky. (If you like, you can turn your left palm to face the ceiling, bending your wrist as you would for crow pose.)
Root down into your left heel and step your right foot forward again, keeping your right knee bent to match the left and reaching both arms out in front of you. Sit even lower than you did in utkatasana, moving toward a deeper squat like malasana.
Options here include using the blocks as a target to lower down toward or to hover right above. You can also sit on the blocks.
Press into your heels to stand up. Switch sides, doing the sequence three to five times total on each side, keeping your movements as smooth as possible.
Marichyasana I (Pose Dedicated to Sage Marichi) Variation
What you’ll need: a block and something to sit on.
Sit on your support of choice in dandasana (staff pose). Bend your left knee and place your left foot on the floor in front of and just to the left of your left hip so that your torso has room to fold forward. Reach your arms out in front of you, bend your elbows, and place the block on its widest setting between them. Hinge forward at your hips while squeezing the block between your elbows. Squeeze your left thigh into your left shoulder. You can also bend your wrists to mimic the hand position in crow pose. Stay here for five full breaths, then release and lift your torso upright. Switch sides.
What you’ll need: a block and a blanket (if balancing on your sitting bones is uncomfortable).
Sit on the floor with your knees bent and pulled into your chest. Your legs do not have to be together. Sit up as tall as possible, balance on your sitting bones, and lift your feet away from the floor. Place the block on its narrowest and longest setting between the inner edges of your feet. Squeeze it. Reach your arms out in front of you as if you were in plank pose. Widen across your upper back by protracting your shoulder blades. Lift your knees toward your armpits with a mild “cat back” in your spine. Try to bend your knees more and bring the block to your sitting bones. You may feel this a lot in your hamstrings!
Stay for at least three long breaths, eventually working up to longer holds. Repeat two to three more times.
Optional Bakasana on a Chair
What you’ll need: a backless chair (or a couch) and possibly a blanket and two blocks.
Place your blocks in front of the front legs of the chair or couch about shoulder-width apart (Note that depending on your proportions and the height of your chair/couch seat, you may not need the blocks.). You may wish to place a blanket on the chair seat for padding (you won't need a blanket if you are using a couch).
Facing forward, kneel on the chair seat as if you were coming into child’s pose with your feet together and knees apart (a smidgen past the edge of the chair). Slowly bring your hands to the blocks. If your hands reach the floor comfortably, you can place them there instead. Press the inner edges of your feet together. Repeat the shoulder actions you practiced previously: pushing your hands into the floor and protracting your shoulder blades, and then add the action of isometrically dragging your upper arms into your knees and pushing your knees into the backs of your arms. It’s okay if they don’t actually touch. Your hips remain over your heels the entire time.
You are isolating the action between arms and legs, not trying to lift off the chair seat. If you are unable to bear this amount of weight on your hands, you can instead press your hands toward the floor without touching it as all of your weight is on the chair moving downward.
You can also skip this version and repeat the previous pose. Stay here for as long as you like. To exit the pose, place your hands on the floor or the blocks and take one foot off the chair at a time. You can also climb your hands back up the chair and step off.
Finishing Your Practice
What you’ll need: two blocks and anything you would like to use for savasana.
Complete your practice with a simple spinal twist held for one to two minutes per side.
Then create a block bench with the blocks side by side on the lowest setting. Lift your hips and place the block bench underneath you, positioning it for optimal support of your sacrum. If you need more padding and are able to lift your hips higher here, you can also place a blanket over the blocks. Straighten your legs and take your hands to your hip flexors and passively press down on the roots of your thighs.
Then bring your arms overhead into cactus arms. Remain here for one to five minutes.
To come out, bend your knees, lift your hips, and remove your block bench. Lower your hips to the floor, rest for a few moments, and then stretch your legs out for savasana. Prop if and as you like.
Whether you are returning to arm balancing after a wrist or shoulder injury, want to practice bakasana without stressing your wrists or shoulders, or are looking for something a little different from what you are used to, you can use this sequence as a launching pad for practicing the elements of crow while giving your upper body a break.
Photography: Andrea Killam