Bird of Paradise to “Standing Archer”
Find Your Bind and Find Your Balance
by Kat Heagberg
Thanks in part to my shameless Hunger Games fan-girling (which also inspired months of braided hair styles), about a year ago I convinced myself to take up archery. As my sister was more experienced than I in the bow-and-arrow department (thanks to her penchant for Renaissance fairs), I figured a trip to the Midwest to visit her was in order.
Until that point, the last time I’d shot a non-nerf arrow at anything was during a school camping trip when I was 11 years old. In my memory, shooting little wooden arrows at paper targets was fun, something so engaging that I felt I could do it for hours and hours on end.
So when I walked into the fair where my sis had booked us some arrow time, I was feeling pretty confident—despite the fact that I really had no idea what I was doing.
I set up my stance, aimed at the paper target, and let my arrow fly, but it landed nowhere near where I thought I’d aimed. I’d drawn my bowstring back underneath my chin, raised the elbow of my bent arm a little higher than my wrist, and remembered not to lock my straight arm. But none of it seemed to matter. This was awkward. It was hard.
Frustrated and humbled, I managed to stick with it for a couple of hours. And I did get a little better. Ultimately, though, I realized my foolishness. Archery is a skill that takes tons of time and practice—kind of like yoga. Maybe that’s why archery is such a common metaphor in the yoga tradition. Maybe that’s why there are so many bow-and-arrow-inspired asanas.
My archery-related frustrations reminded me of my relationship with one asana in particular: svarga dvijasana, or bird of paradise. Its name literally means “twice born pose.” As in “bird” and “egg.” Kind of cool, right? I thought the pose looked really interesting, and I was eager to try it the first time it was offered in a yoga class I attended (despite the fact that it’s a challenging pose, and I hadn’t been practicing yoga for very long at the time). I figured, Hey, my hamstrings are flexible, I can stand on one leg—how hard can this be? Answer: Pretty darn challenging. It turns out that this is something that takes time, patience, practice, and focus. You know, kind of like archery.
While I won’t be writing instructional articles on archery technique anytime soon, I feel that I have some useful bird of paradise tips to share (because unlike archery, this is a practice I’ve actually stuck with through the years)—tips like how to approach this asana one step at a time, how to find a comfortable bind, how to rise up into the pose with more stability, how to remain stable once you get there, and how to increase the challenge when you’re ready for it.
Here are some of my now-favorite takes on svarga dvijasana, broken down step by step. They include a balance prep, a fun archery-inspired variation, plus two routes you can take to move into the more traditional version of the pose.
Take your time, and enjoy the journey!
Note that this is not a stand-alone sequence. These variations are intended to be included as part of a complete practice (preferably one that includes plenty of simpler shoulder, hip, and hamstring openers and balancing poses).
Balance Prep: Eka Pada Malasana (One-Legged Garland Pose)
Think of this pose as a super-strength-building, tighter-hamstring-friendly (at least more so than the traditional form of the pose) version of bird of paradise. It’s great for learning to rise up with strength and control.
Begin in *malasana (garland pose, i.e., a low squat) with your feet a comfortable distance apart and your toes turned out a little. (Think about a 45-degree angle to start, but check to make sure that your knees are pointing in the same direction as your toes, and adjust your turnout as needed).
Extend your right arm forward and walk your right hand over to the right, planting your palm or fingertips on the floor, and bringing your right outer shoulder into contact with your right inner knee/thigh.
Keeping that, twist open to the left and stretch your left arm up. Now you’re in a revolved version of malasana.
Bend your left elbow and bring the back of your left hand to your lower back. Reach your right hand around, and see if you can catch a bind. If your arms are on the longer side and/or your shoulders are feeling exceptionally “open,” you may be able to comfortably hold your left wrist with your right hand. If not, clasp the fingers of your right and left hands together. If your hands don’t quite meet, don’t force it (not only is that not great for your shoulders, it will make standing up in the pose really hard); you can hold a strap or a towel between your hands to get a similar effect. Keeping your bind, look down toward your right big toe, and lift your hips so they’re the same height as your knees.
Scoot your left foot in toward the center of your mat (about halfway between where your right and left foot were in malasana); direct your left toes straight forward (so they’re no longer turned out). Lift your right heel so that you’re balancing on the ball of your right foot.
Maintain the connection between your arm and your leg, while you lift up through your low belly, spread the toes of your right foot (it helps, I promise!), and try to float your right foot away from the floor to rise up to standing.
Once you’re standing, broaden through your chest and lengthen up through your crown.
You won’t be able to straighten your right leg for this variation. But if you’d like an added challenge, lower down with as much control as you had coming up (in other words, a helluva lot!); tap your right toes down, then rise back up again. Try three to five rounds of tapping down and rising up before returning to malasana. Then repeat on the second side.
*Note: It’s fine to take malasana with your heels propped up on a blanket if that’s normally how you practice. Just make sure your standing-leg foot comes off the blanket and flat onto the floor in step 5.
Entrance from Bound Side Angle (Baddha Parsvakonasana)
Ready to try bird of paradise? This entrance is probably the one I encounter the most frequently, and it’s a lovely way to incorporate svarga dvijasana into a standing pose flow.
I'll start on the left side for this one, but feel free to begin on whichever side you prefer.
Begin in baddha parsvakonasana with your left leg forward. You can hold a strap or towel between your hands, clasp the fingers of your left and right hand, or hold your right wrist with your left hand. Make sure that your bind lands around your outer left buttock. I personally find that even though I’m usually able to hold my right wrist, I prefer to clasp my hands together because it makes the pose feel a little more spacious, and the transition to standing a little easier. If you find yourself feeling restricted in the transition that follows, you might try “backing off” a step—clasping hands instead of clasping your wrist, holding a strap instead of clasping your hands, or taking a bit of a wider grip on your strap.
Step your back (right) foot forward to meet your front (left) foot, so that your right toes are pointing in the same direction as your left toes and your feet are a little wider than hip-width apart. You might find that you can do this in one step, or that you need to take a couple of steps to get there. Either way is fine.
Shift your weight into your right foot and lift your left heel up. If this stance feels too wide, lower your left heel down for a moment and wiggle your right foot in slightly.
Just as you did in the previous variation, keep a strong connection between your left upper arm and left leg, and recruit your core strength. On an inhale, spread your toes to lift them away from the floor, and rise to standing. For now, keep your right knee bent.
When you reach the top, aim to line up the back of your head with the back of your pelvis, and broaden through your collarbones. Once your balance is steady, you can start to extend your left leg if you’d like. (Remember: You don’t have to extend it all the way!)
See if you can come out of the pose the way you came into it, but in reverse. Rebend your left knee and hinge forward, lowering your left foot to the floor with control. Then step your right foot back into bound side angle, release your bind, and rise up to standing. Step your feet together, and repeat on the second side.
Entrance from “Twisted Trunk” Pose
This is my favorite way to come into bird of paradise! I find that starting in a narrower stance helps me to enter the pose with a little more control, and I love the twisty little “detour” along the way!
I'll start on the right side this time.
Begin in a wide uttanasana (standing forward bend), with your feet about as wide as your mat.
Bend your knees and work your right shoulder under your thigh. I find that this is way easier if I lift my right heel up off the ground. I also like to bring my left hand to brace my outer right shin—but if you find this to be destabilizing, just keep your fingertips on the floor. Bring your right hand to your right calf and lift the flesh of your calf up as you widen your right thigh back to create more space to work your shoulder under. Work: calf up, thigh back, shoulder under, calf up, thigh back, shoulder under, until your shoulder is as “under” as it’s going to get.
Hug your right thigh against your right outer upper arm to keep it in place. Bring the back of your right hand to your lower back, and see if you can catch hold of your bind. You can catch hold of your left wrist, spin your right palm down to clasp the fingers of your right and left hands, or hold onto a strap. As in the previous variation, make sure you bind around the outer side of your right buttock. Once you have the bind, you can explore this shape a little before you rise up into your balance—perhaps lowering your right heel, straightening your left leg, and twisting open to the left.
Then keep your bind, but release your twist so that you’re gazing down toward the floor again, and re-bend your left knee. Scoot your left foot in a little closer to your right (which you may find makes it easier to balance when your rise up into the pose), and lift up onto the ball of your right foot. You may also find that “backing” out of your bind (clasping hands instead of opposite wrist, or using a strap instead of clasping hands) makes the following transition a little smoother.
Keep the connection between your right upper arm and right inner thigh as you inhale and rise up, keeping your toes active and spread. If your balance is steady, you can start to extend your right leg toward straight.
As with the previous variation, come out of the pose by reversing the order in which you came into it. Once your right foot returns to the earth, release your bind and rise to standing before repeating on the second side.
Want to Explore Further?
If you’re feeling super-steady in your bird of paradise and want to aim (pun intended) for some additional challenges, try the following two variations. I recommend practicing them first with your back near a wall, which can provide some extra support if needed.
Trivikramasana (Standing Splits)
From bird of paradise, re-bend your right knee. Keep hugging your leg against your arm, but release your bind. Keeping contact between your right outer arm and your right inner leg, bring your right hand to your right heel, and your left hand to the pinky-toe side of your right foot. Keep your standing leg straight and strong, pressing the top of your left thigh back, and stay broad through your chest as you begin extending your right leg. This can be a big balance challenge, so make sure you’re still breathing calmly and comfortably! Broaden your collarbones and stand tall, keeping the back of your head in line with the back of your pelvis as you draw your left elbow back (as though you were pulling back a bow).
You can stay here for a few breaths (or as long as you can balance!) before releasing and repeating on the second side, or you can move right into the "standing archer" variation below.
Standing Archer Variation
From trivikramasana, keep your left hand where it is (holding the pinky-toe side of your right foot), and extend your right arm out to the right (shoulder height and palm facing forward), as though you were shooting an arrow. I like to make a fist with my right hand, but it’s fine to keep the palm open if you prefer. Keep pressing the top of your left thigh back, and lifting up through your chest. If you feel stable, turn your head to gaze along the line of your right arm, as though you were setting your aim. Keep drawing your left elbow back, as though drawing back tension on a bow. Remain steady and smooth with your breath as you gaze outward.
When you’re ready to come out of the pose, bend your right knee, release your foot, and lower your right foot down to meet your left.
Repeat on the second side.
Have fun exploring these variations, and remember that far more important than accomplishing any particular form of a pose is what you learn in the process. Perhaps the "target" isn't so much the asana itself, but the awareness, confidence, and focus that you build along the way.