"Hey, can you do that cool bow and arrow pose you used to practice all the time?" my boyfriend, an avid photographer, asked—we were hiking through a park and he was eager to test his brand-new camera out.
The pose he was referring to is trivikramasana, also known as “standing archer pose” or sometimes “standing splits.”
“You know? I don’t think I can do that anymore,” I replied. Still, I gave it my best shot, and while I do still have a decent amount of hip and hamstring flexibility—mainly due to some combination of genetics plus years of dance, I suspect—my standing archer of today was nowhere near as “picture perfect” as it once was.
I am also surprisingly okay with that.
While my five-years-ago self would have been disappointed that I’d “let my practice go” to such an extent, my priorities are just different now. I also can’t touch my foot to my head in dancer pose anymore (a feat that took me years to accomplish, but never actually felt that good in my body no matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise), but I feel a lot stronger than back when I could.
Though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with practicing fun, stretchy poses, and flexibility gains are definitely a great benefit of yoga, today the physical part of my yoga practice is much more focused on strength and stability than achieving foot-to-head contact in dancer or catching hold of my ankles in wheel (I never could manage that last one!).
I’m not sure when this shift in priorities occurred, but I suspect it had something to do with growing a little older and wanting my practice to serve my life rather than the other way around. It also probably has something to do with shifting trends in the yoga world in general: Today lots of teachers are focusing less on prescriptive alignment and aesthetics and more on functional movement strength-building.
I also have a new appreciation for ten- to twenty-minute practices, whereas in the past I did 60–90 minute practices daily. That’s because a shorter class gives me the gift of time to enjoy other activities that help me feel good and breathe well—like running, weight lifting, and, you know, hiking in the park with loved ones.
While I do like to supplement my asana practice with other strength-building, joy-inspiring activities, I also enjoy the strength-boosting benefits gleaned from a yoga sequence like this one. I’m not going to claim it’s a replacement for a full-on strength session at the gym (hey, yoga can’t do everything, nor should we expect it to). But it is a great way to sneak a quick “yoga break” into your day, and it always leaves me feeling strong and energized.
This practice (demonstrated here by my good friend and Yoga International’s lead producer Emily Smith) is short and simple, yet challenging—no foot-to-head contact or hand-balancing required, but you’re likely to break a bit of sweat and you might just feel your leg, arm, and core muscles burning in the best of ways!
Before You Begin
You don’t need any special equipment for this practice—just some space to move around in. I often do it outside in the park without a mat, but feel free to use one if you like, along with any other favorite props.
Should you choose to hold the poses for time instead of breaths, you may also want to have an easily accessible timer or a clock with a second hand in view.
Start by finding a comfortable position and taking a few centering breaths. I’m partial to starting my practice in child’s pose (balasana), but depending on what feels best in your body, you might instead begin lying in savasana or crocodile pose (makarasana), standing in mountain pose (tadasana), or in a comfortable seated or kneeling position.
If you’re feeling warm and ready, you can come to downward facing dog and begin with the sun salute variation described below, but if you’d like more preparation, start with a few rounds of cat/cow and/or a few wrist and shoulder stretches.
Sun Salute Variation (Three Rounds)
1. Begin in downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana). Stay for a few breaths to start, moving around any way that feels good: peddle your feet, shift your hips, whatever you like. Aim to find as much length in your spine as possible (hint: bending your knees may help!)
2. On an inhale, shift forward into plank pose and hold for 30 seconds (or five breaths).
3. Then, on an inhale, shift your shoulders forward, past your wrist creases. On an exhale, lower your knees to the floor and bend your elbows, keeping your shoulders higher than your elbows, as you lower all the way down to your belly.
4. Point your toes, release your arms alongside you (palms facing in), and lower your forehead to the ground. On an inhale, lift everything you can lift—your chest, head, legs, and hands—off of the floor for locust pose (salabhasana). Keep your chest broad and your neck long. Squeeze your thighs toward each other.
Stay for 30 seconds, focusing more on length than you do on height; try to maintain equal lifts to your head/chest and your feet.
5. On an exhale, lower back down. Place your hands back under your shoulders and stay broad through your shoulders as you tuck your toes to press up to hands and knees (or right up to plank) and then return to downward dog.
Repeat this flow two times for a total of three rounds.
To up the challenge: Hold plank and locust pose for longer than 30 seconds, perhaps even building up to 60-second holds; reach your arms forward alongside your ears in locust pose to challenge your back and shoulder muscles more.
To dial it down: Lower your knees to the floor in plank; hold plank and locust for less time; keep your feet on the floor in locust to make it less intense for your lower back.
From downward facing dog, inhale, and lift your right leg up into a three-legged dog pose. You can keep your hips square to the floor or let your right leg turn out a little; see what feels best in your body today.
Knee slides (3–5 reps)
On an exhale, bend your right knee and shift forward, bringing your right knee to touch (or nearly touch) the back of your right upper arm. Take a full breath cycle here; press your hands into the ground as if pushing it away from you and round your upper back, slide your knee as high up toward your armpit as you can.
Then, on an inhale, slide your right knee down toward your right wrist (but not all the way to the ground).
On an exhale, slide your knee back up toward your armpit. Repeat two to four more times, sliding your knee as high up as you can each time.
High lunge to power lunge (5 breaths)
After your final rep, return to three-legged dog on an inhale; exhale, step your right foot forward into a lunge; and rise up into a high lunge on an inhale.
From high lunge, exhale and sweep your arms back alongside you as you hinge your torso forward, about 45 degrees or so, for a "power lunge" (also known as "airplane lunge"). Your palms can face down or in toward you.
Hold here for five breaths. Draw your belly in, away from your front thigh, draw your right outer hip back, and aim to find as much length through your spine as possible.
Dynamic airplane pose/Shiva squat variation (3–5 reps)
On an inhale, begin to shift weight forward into your right foot to float your left toes away from the ground for airplane pose (dekasana). Keep a little bend in your front knee as you establish your balance. Roll your left inner thigh up toward the sky so your hips are relatively square to the floor. If you feel stable, you can begin to straighten your right knee, drawing your right outer hip back as you do.
Inhale here. On an exhale, bend both knees, bringing your left knee to tap your right. On an inhale, straighten both legs (or just your left leg if it feels more steady to keep your right knee bent), returning to airplane pose. Repeat two to four more times, finishing in airplane pose.
High lunge to half side angle (just to transition)
After your final rep, with as much control as you can muster, bend your right knee (if it’s not bent already) and step your left leg back to return to a high lunge. Inhale here, and on an exhale, open up into a warrior II position, facing the long edge of your mat. Bring your right forearm to your thigh, palm facing up, and stretch your left arm alongside your ear, spinning your left pinky toward the floor. Gaze forward or up toward your hand—whichever feels best for your neck.
Unsupported side angle variation (30 seconds or 5 breaths)
Stay in your half side angle variation, or, for an added core challenge, without changing anything else about the pose, stretch your right arm alongside your right ear—imagine you’re holding a big beach ball between your hands. Keep your chest facing forward and your front knee just as bent as it was in half side angle. This one really activates your core!
To come out of the pose, rise to warrior II on an inhale, then on an exhale, cartwheel your hands to the floor and step back to plank.
Plank to forearm plank walks (4 reps, alternating lead arm)
From plank, lower your left forearm to the ground, bringing your left elbow right under your left shoulder. Then lower your right forearm to meet it. Walk your right hand back up to plank, followed by your left. Repeat, starting with your right arm this time.
End up in plank pose, then press back to downward facing dog. Do the entire strength-building flow on the other side, repeating a few times on each side if you have time.
To up the challenge: Practice longer holds; add additional reps.
To dial it down: Hold poses for less time; do fewer reps; try the knee slides from hands and knees (instead of downward dog); bring your hands to blocks or the floor for dynamic airplane pose; stay in half side angle instead of unsupported side angle; lower your knees to the floor for the plank walks.
Low boat (hold 30–60 seconds or 5–10 breaths)
When you’ve completed the final round of the strength flow, have a seat, then roll down onto your back to set up for low boat pose (you might also know this challenging yet rewarding shape as a “hollow hold”).
Lying on your back, extend both legs up toward the ceiling. Point your feet and flex your toes back toward you. Hug your legs together, and lower them down toward the floor—as low as you can go without arching your lower back. Reach your arms forward, curl your head and shoulder blades off the floor, and gaze toward your lower belly. As you hold here, draw your belly in and round your back.
To up the challenge: Reach your arms alongside your ears; increase your hold time.
To dial it down: Hold for less time; place a hand behind your head if this pose bothers your neck; bend one knee in toward your chest, and hold on to the back of your thigh with that same-side hand (press your thigh into your hand and your hand into your thigh for stability, and be sure to switch sides halfway through).
If it feels right, you can go right from your low boat pose into savasana, or enjoy a few favorite stretches first.
Rest in savasana as long as you like or as long as you can, and then rise up to return to your day, strong, and energized for whatever adventures await you!
Photography: Andrea Killam