Arm Balance Breakdown: A Guide to Shoulder-Pressing Pose

September 1, 2016    BY Amber Burke

Eka hasta bhujasana, which you might know as shoulder-pressing pose, leg-over-the-shoulder balance, or even elephant’s trunk pose, is an arm balance that requires a good degree of commitment to one’s roots on the ground but also to a spirit of playful exploration. The many benefits of shoulder-pressing pose include building strength in your arms and the quadriceps of your straight leg while opening the hip of your bent leg. Like many arm balances, it can also foster core engagement if properly approached. 

Shoulder-pressing pose requires a high degree of wrist extension; those with wrist limitations may want to skip it or modify as discussed below. Similarly, because of the demands it places on your hips, if you have a limited range of hip mobility, this may not be the pose for you. Finally, as a pose in which your spine is in mild flexion (rounded), shoulder-pressing pose is not recommended for those with disc injuries or osteoporosis. 

Before approaching shoulder-pressing pose, try Sandra Anderson’s sequence to warm up the hips for the work required on the bent-leg side of the pose. Preparatory core work can be valuable, too. 

While it’s axiomatic that “the core”—a term often used to describe your deeper abdominal muscles and those muscles that gird the pelvis and support the lower back—is meant to do some of the work in arm balances, it can be unclear exactly which action is required to channel the challenge of this arm balance to your core. You can find that action, a pelvic tilt, in dandasana, staff pose

To find this action in staff pose, first sit with your legs straight out in front of you and your hands on the ground alongside your hips. Aim your knees and your middle toes up toward the ceiling. Anchor your heels and your sitting bones. Move your lower back in and up and lift through the crown of your head.

Next, hover your left foot up slightly, bend your left knee toward the ceiling, and draw it a few inches closer to you—a milder version of the bent-leg position in shoulder-pressing pose. Notice if your left hip gets lighter or heavier. You want it to get lighter as the left side of your pelvis moves a few degrees into a posterior (backward) tilt (like in cat pose). The right side of your pelvis stays rooted (it’s still in a slight anterior tilt, like in cow pose). Keep your left leg and the left side of your pelvis lifted for a few breaths while pressing down through the right sitting bone and reaching up through the crown of your head; then return to dandasana and switch sides, lifting the bent right leg (and the right side of your pelvis).

Dr. Jonina Turzi (physical therapist) and I explain the importance of differentiating the work of the two halves of the pelvis in this article, but ideally, you’ll feel the importance of this differentiation when you practice these actions in staff pose (and many others) and experience a payoff in core engagement. 

Now let’s try lifting one straight leg at a time, an action that can be surprisingly challenging in shoulder-pressing pose. From staff pose, lift your left leg (keeping the toes and knees pointing straight up). Do you only feel this work in your quadriceps? While they certainly activate here, differentiating the work of the two sides of the pelvis can channel some of the challenge from the legs to the core. To do that, as your left leg lifts, make the left side of your pelvis lighter by moving it into more of a posterior tilt. Stay grounded through the right sitting bone, and work to lift up through the crown of your head. Hold for a few breaths; then return to dandasana and repeat on your right side.

Now you’re ready to bring these core-engaging actions into shoulder-pressing pose. Beginners (and those with shorter arms and longer torsos!) may want to place two blocks on their flattest sides by the hips to make liftoff easier. If your wrists are sensitive, you can employ yoga wedges to decrease the amount of wrist extension required. You can also transform your yoga blocks into wedges; simply put a thin book under one end of each block to create a slant that will lift the heels of your hands higher than your fingers.

1. Sit upright with your legs stretched out in front of you in dandasana. Root down with your heels and both sitting bones, and lift through the crown of your head. Commit to being a little less serious: you’re just seeing what happens today. Commit to breathing fully and evenly, no matter what else happens!

2. Bend your right knee, lift the right foot, and bring both hands to your right foot. Press your hands into your right foot and draw your knee back for a few breaths. Note: Lifting your right leg up and back can and should move the right side of your pelvis deep into a posterior tilt (like in cat); your right hip is lighter on the earth and further forward than the left, which is serving as your anchor.

3. You’ve just been pressing the right knee back with the help of your hands; keep your hands on your foot, but stop pressing. Imagine your right knee drawing itself back, the knee crease heading for the back of the room of its own accord. Perhaps it moves another inch further back.

4. Keep your left hand attached to your right foot, but release your right hand. Move your right shoulder under your right knee and place your right hand on the floor (or block) alongside your right hip (just like you did in dandasana). As you place the back of your right knee as high on your right shoulder (or upper arm) as you can, the right side of your pelvis moves into such a posterior tilt that it’s likely your right sitting bone lifts entirely off the mat, leaving you to balance on the left sitting bone and left leg. Root through your left sitting bone and work to lift your heart. Commit to keeping this length in your spine and width across your chest!

5. In a second, you’ll need to keep your right leg on your right shoulder without the help of your left hand, so commit! Try pressing your right upper arm and your leg against each other: knee to shoulder, shoulder to knee. Flex your right foot, and spread your right toes as you begin to lighten your left hand.

6. Place your left hand alongside your left hip. Hint: If your hands are too far back toward your tailbone, this pose will be impossible. Place the heels of both your hands in line with the left-leg hip crease (where your thigh meets your pelvis).

7. Keep your fingers and thumbs close together and your wrist creases parallel to the front of your mat; commit to your hands, while keeping your elbows soft and elbow creases aiming toward your thumbs. To keep your wrists safe, root down with the bases of all your fingers, with all your knuckles, and even with your fingertips and the outside edges of your thumbs.

8. Peg your gaze down toward the front of the mat, and lean slightly forward (continuing to lengthen your spine and broaden across your chest), moving more weight toward your fingertips and your left heel.

9. Press down with your hands and your left heel and straighten your arms to lift your hips up. (Note: This is where elbows that can hyperextend often do. Keep your elbows “soft” and continue to attempt to spin the elbow creases toward your thumbs.)

10. Tip your heart forward by another few degrees and drag your left heel a couple of inches back.

11. Scoop the left sitting bone forward toward the left knee, moving the left side of the pelvis into a slight posterior tilt, and lift your left heel off the mat, bringing your left leg parallel to the ground. If you succeed in hovering, recommit to keeping an even breath and a steady gaze even through any feelings of elation that might have risen along with you.

12. Hold eka hasta bhujasana for eight to ten breaths before landing and trying the pose on the second side.  

If you did not lift off today, commit to being uncommitted to having any particular outcome occur at any particular time, and yet commit to trying again, when the mood strikes.

#poses Photography: Andrea Killam

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>

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