There are a number of yoga postures that seem to favor the thin, fit, flexible, and fearless. When I run into these poses, instead of feeling intimidated or excluded, I allow myself to become intrigued. Using my discomfort as motivation, I look for ways to make these postures more accessible to students who don’t fit the yoga “norm.” I love deconstructing traditional yoga postures and taking a nontraditional approach to experiencing the benefits of the pose without causing harm or injury.
Kakasana, or “crow pose,” is an arm balance that requires tremendous upper body strength, as well as balance and core stability. Watching other yoga practitioners fearlessly float into crow is both empowering and inspiring. Yet, personally, I am always afraid of falling flat on my face. To help alleviate this fear and make crow more accessible, I’ve developed five simple steps building up to a version of crow that uses props for support.
Before You Get Started
I recommend that you begin by warming up your hips and lower back with a hip-opening practice. Typically, I like to introduce crow pose a third of the way into my asana practice or class.
Lie on your back, and begin by bringing your awareness to your breath. Put your hands on your belly and close your eyes. From here, awaken your ujjayi (victorious) breath: When you inhale, take a full, deep breath in through your nose. When you exhale, allow a little constriction in the back of the throat to give your breath an audible quality as you breath out through your nose. Ujjayi breath heats the body from within and serves as a reminder to stay connected to your breath as you move through your practice. You can constrict your throat to create the ujjayi sound on just the exhale or on both the inhale and the exhale. Or instead of ujjayi breath, you can simply breathe in and out through your nose slowly or choose any breathing style that is comfortable for you. The key is to be mindful and to observe the breath as a practice on its own.
Take a moment to explore your breath.
Remember: Your breath is always your ally in your asana practice. The breath is the body’s way of telling you what is possible, when you need to slow down, and how you can proceed. The breath will tell you by its intensity if you can go further or if you need to back off.
Next, plant your feet on the floor about hip-width apart, with your heels under your knees, and tuck your shoulder blades underneath you to prepare for a few cycles of bridge pose: Inhale and lift your hips; exhale and lower them. Be sure to press into your feet as you inhale and lift your hips. Do three to four repetitions.
After you finish your last bridge pose, keep your hips on the floor, cross your right ankle over your left thigh just above the knee, and draw your left knee into your chest for reclining pigeon pose (also known as “figure four” stretch). Flex both of your feet to keep your muscles engaged. Take a few rounds of breath here, then place both feet back on the floor.
Next, transition to half happy baby pose. Keeping your left foot on the floor, draw your right knee toward your right armpit and use your right hand to grab your right calf, ankle, or the outer edge of your right foot. With the sole of your right foot facing the ceiling, bring your right shin close to perpendicular to the floor. Push up through the inner edge of your right foot and pull down on the outer edge with your right hand.
Stay here for a few rounds of breath, and then on an exhale release your right foot to the floor.
Pause and then repeat reclining pigeon and half happy baby on the second side.
Experiencing the mechanics of kakasana from the safety of a reclined position is a great way to alleviate the fear of falling that often accompanies the arm-balancing version of this pose. It’s also a great way to explore the benefits of crow as you work on building the upper body strength required to balance on your hands.
The body mechanics of crow involve moving the ribs closer to the hips; specifically, you are rounding your back and lifting your mid back up toward the ceiling by squeezing your abs and drawing your low ribs toward your hip bones. So, in this supine crow, engage your abs as you bring your low ribs toward your hip bones. See if you can feel your back pressing into the floor. It is important to observe what this feels like as you breathe into the sensations.
To come into reclined crow, lie on your back and bring your knees toward your chest. Draw the inner edges of your feet together and separate your knees wide. Take your elbows to the insides of your knees, and imagine that you’re placing your hands on the floor. (You can play with bringing your knees higher up on your arms as well.) Turn your palms to face the ceiling. Squeeze your knees into your elbows, push your elbows out against your knees, and work on drawing your low ribs toward your hips and pressing your lower and middle back into the floor. You can keep your head on the floor or lift it up.
Observe the sensations in your low back and mid back. These are the same body mechanics required in lifting your body weight in kakasana. It takes a great deal of core strength to find stability in this pose, and the core work involved in this reclined variation can be intense! Aim to stay for as many breaths as feel comfortable (or dare I say “interesting”?) and then release.
If you’re ready to try crow on your hands, start by placing a folded blanket in front of you. In order to work through my fear of falling in this pose, I first explored kakasana on my lawn—I knew that if I fell, it would be on soft grass, and therefore less scary than crashing onto a hard floor. The blanket provides a similar sense of comfort. Try approaching this pose through the lens of childlike whimsy: When children learn, for example, to do cartwheels, they sometimes fall down. No big deal! It’s part of the learning process.
Now place a yoga block (you may prefer wooden or cork, as they’re a bit more stable to stand on than foam) about two feet away from the blanket and stand on it with your feet together. Then come into a squat with your knees wide, and place your hands on the floor in front of you, shoulder-width apart. Make sure you’re pressing your knuckles and finger pads into the floor.
As you begin to shift your weight forward, work your knees high up onto the backs of your arms (standing on the yoga block gives you an opportunity to get your knees higher!). Use your knees to squeeze the outside of your arms while at the same time pushing outward with your arms. You might be able to lift one foot off the block, or two, but it’s okay if you don’t lift your feet off the block.
Come down when you’re ready, one foot at a time.
This is another fun variation of kakasana that uses a yoga block to help you balance longer. This time, you’ll place your forehead on the block to help maintain your balance and keep from falling forward. This variation is especially helpful for those who can get into kakasana but struggle to hold the pose for longer than a few seconds.
Place a yoga block in front of you at its highest setting, with the small face horizontal. (You may need to adjust the placement of the block slightly once you begin to explore the pose.)
From standing, come into a squat with your knees wide and your feet together. Rise up onto the balls of your feet, and plant your hands on the floor for crow, just as you did in the previous step. Begin to shift your weight forward to bring your knees up onto your triceps. Hug your knees in and lift from your mid back. Slowly lean forward and allow your forehead to rest on the block. The block will facilitate your balance and stability as you lift one or maybe both of your feet away from the ground. Keep your forehead on the block and your neck muscles strong and engaged as you press your forehead into the block. With your head supported, you may be able to balance a lot longer. When you’re ready, lift your head and place one foot at a time back on the floor.
Try these five steps in progression, moving from one step to the next if you’re comfortable doing so. Even after you master crow pose, breaking the posture down into its component parts as we just did is a great way to move deeper into your body. You may find new opportunities for muscle engagement or new sensations that you can safely begin exploring.
Learning is always better when we do it together. Experiment with these steps and share your experiences with me in the comments below!