Accessible Arm Balances: 2 Ways to Prop Eka Pada Koundinyasana II
Eka pada koundinyasana II (one-legged Sage Koundinya’s pose II, sometimes known as “flying splits”) is an arm balance that challenges the practitioner’s body and mind at every moment. One way to make this pose more accessible is to use props.
Propping eka pada koundinyasana II always brings to mind one of my favorite quotes by the author André Gide: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” In order for these propped versions to be successful, we need to lose sight of how we normally come into the pose or how we typically work it. Versatility allows the body to map new entries into asanas, and it opens the mind to new possibilities of what the body can do.
Before attempting this pose, make sure to properly prepare by warming up all of your joints. Also, give focus to strengthening and stretching your hips and shoulders through poses like plank, chaturanga, lunges, standing forward bends, and eagle arms, as well as core work, externally rotated poses like warrior II and triangle pose, and shoulder stability work.
Variation 1: Concentrated Eka Pada Koundinyasana II
In eka pada koundinyasana II, the legs appear to be extending for days, yet there is an undeniable need to pull inward to create stability before expanding outward. This is one reason I often practice or teach a concentrated version of the pose—it’s the reveal before what we consider the “final version.” You find strength, stability, and balance before straightening your legs. Here’s how it goes:
Props: You will need four blocks.
Who this variation is for: This prop setup is great for those who have tight hamstrings, difficulty maintaining shoulder stability, or trouble balancing.
How to do it:
1. Stack your blocks in pairs, on their lowest height, shoulder width apart, and perpendicular to the top of your mat. Begin by standing behind your blocks in uttanasana (standing forward bend) but with your feet about as wide as your mat. Step your left foot back into a lunge that’s a little shorter than what is normal for you. Lower your left knee to the floor (your left knee should be right under your hip), and place your hands on the floor inside your right foot.
2. Leading with your shoulder, begin to weave your right upper arm under your right thigh. As you do this, it can be helpful to straighten and bend your right leg a few times as you work your arm under.
3. Once your right upper arm is secured against the hamstrings of your right leg, place your hands into chaturanga position on either side of your right foot with the tips of your middle fingers grazing the back of the blocks. Bend your elbows and lower your shoulders onto the blocks. Note that as you move into the pose, your inner thigh (rather than your hamstrings) may come to rest on your upper arm.
4. As the blocks support the weight of your upper body, peel your right foot off the floor and sweep your right heel out to the side, keeping it outside of your right arm as you squeeze it in toward your buttocks. (Note that placing your shoulders on the blocks [step 3] and lifting the front foot [step 4] simultaneously may feel more fluid. Experiment with this if you feel stuck at step 3.)
5. Lean your weight slightly forward into your fingertips so that your left knee becomes lighter on the floor; lifting your left knee away from the floor, squeeze your left heel toward your buttocks.
6. You can balance here with both knees bent or slowly start to straighten your legs simultaneously. Stay here for up to three breaths to begin, but always come out of the arm balance before you need to (i.e., before you collapse!).
Why it’s helpful: Your legs are like levers, so the shorter they are (as they are when bent), the closer they are to your center and the easier it is to balance on your hands. (Note that when your legs are straight, there’s more demand on your legs, core, shoulders, and hands.) This is a great variation to try if attempting to straighten your legs before coming into the arm balance prevents you from getting into the pose at all. In a sense, trying to straighten the front leg before lifting off is like attempting to walk without crawling first.
Variation 2: Balancing on the Pelvis
When teaching this pose, giving students the option of supporting the pelvis was a game changer for me. As practitioners, and even as teachers, we may wonder, “Why can’t I get my back foot to lift off the floor?” Often, this is due to feeling a disconnection between the back leg and the torso, a lack of engagement of the glute and hamstring muscles of the back leg, and an inability to shift more weight into the front of the body (so that the back foot can lift away from the floor). I’ve found that students are more successful in lifting their back foot off the floor when they are first able to support the fronts of their hips and engage their buttocks and hamstrings.
Props: You will need two blocks and a bolster.
Who this variation is for: Those struggling to lift the back leg and those who have difficulty maintaining the pose long enough to work on their alignment.
How to do it:
1. Stack your blocks on their lowest setting horizontally across the center of your mat and place your bolster on the blocks to create a ramp. Stand at the foot of the ramp, facing it, step your right foot forward over the ramp to the floor, and come into a lunge. Lower your left thigh to the bolster. The ramp should be able to bear the weight of your hips (the left more than the right), which may take some finessing.
2. Make any adjustments you need to feel steady here, and then fold forward to the inside of your right foot, planting your hands on the floor and walking your right foot out to the right a little.
3. Then, leading with your shoulder, start working your right upper arm under your right thigh. Once your thigh is secured against your upper arm, place your hands shoulder width apart and bend your elbows as you would in chaturanga.
4. From here, with your right thigh securely hugging your right upper arm, shift your weight forward and lift your right foot away from the floor; drawing a crescent moon with your heel to keep it outside of your right arm, bring the heel toward your buttock.
5. Press your hips into the bolster and engage your left hamstrings and buttock to leverage your straightened left leg away from the bolster.
6. Once your back leg is lifted, work on straightening the front leg. As long as you feel steady here, you can stay for three to five breaths to start. Keep your hands pressing into the floor and your elbows squeezing toward each other so that your shoulders lift away from the floor and your chest remains broad.
An alternative is to keep your left leg on the bolster, and work on straightening the right leg while maintaining shoulder stability.
To come out, bend your right knee and place your left foot on the floor (if it was lifted). Lower your left knee to the bolster. Unwind your upper arm from your front leg and step your right foot back to return to your starting position at the foot of the bolster. Then switch sides.
Why it’s helpful: The beauty of the bolster ramp is that with the pelvis supported, taking weight off your hands, you can progressively build strength rather than having to support all of your body weight from the get-go. Also, since your pelvis is supported, you can focus more on the alignment and function of your limbs—like chaturanga alignment in your upper body—and the lifting, drawing inward, and extending outward actions of the legs. We can sometimes become so focused on lifting the feet away from the floor that we cease to remember how the other parts of the body contribute to the liftoff!
When we support the body, we also support the mind.
When I use props, I find my mind is less preoccupied with getting my feet off the floor and more focused on feeling my whole body in space while balancing on my hands. Arm balances are complicated poses that require all of your attention, all of the time. When we begin arm balancing, it can feel like information overload, even though we may already possess all the tools we need to fly. By deconstructing the demanding parts of the asana, we often avoid devolving into utter frustration. Rather than continually approaching eka pada koundinyasana II with the idea, “I can never get my feet off the floor when I practice this asana,” and reinforcing those negative thought patterns, we can establish new, positive thought patterns of, “Hey, I just might be able to get my feet off the floor one of these days!”
When we support the body, we also support the mind. Having my shoulders or hips propped up has never diminished my experience of an arm balance. In a way, it feels more like an arm balance because I’m able to give myself permission to get on top of my hands, stay there, and work the pose. And with that, the shore is far in the distance, and I can then find myself in a new auspicious ocean of the inner workings of my body and mind.
Photo credit: Andrea Killam