I used to assume that astavakrasana, eight-angle pose, referred to the eight limbs of yoga. This is far from the case. The asymmetrical arm balance is named after the sage Astavakra, who earned his name while in the womb. The story goes like this.
Before Astavakra was born, through his mother's womb he absorbed Vedic teachings from his father. One day his father made a mistake in his teachings, and the unborn sage let his father know that he heard the mistake. As a punishment, his father proclaimed that the boy would be born with eight deformities. When the boy was born, these eight deformities appeared as crooked angles in his body—one in the chest, one in the head/neck, and one in each hand, each foot, and each knee. And so he was named Astavakra (eight angles).
Despite the physical challenges he faced, Astavakra prevailed as a wise and patient man, highly connected with his atma (Self). In the Astavakra Gita, we read the following: “If you wish to be free, Know you are the Self, The witness of all these, The heart of awareness. Set your body aside. Sit in your own awareness. You will at once be happy, Forever still, Forever free.” (From the Ashtavakra Gita translation Heart of Awareness by Thomas Byron.)
This is solid advice as we explore the arm balance, astavakrasana. We ask a whole lot from our body for this pose, so we must sit in our own awareness. Prepare with hip openers (such as pigeon or any figure-four shape); upper body strength builders (chaturangas, baby!); and shoulder and chest openers (like supported fish with your arms opened into a cactus shape). Lubricating your hip flexors will be helpful here too, so consider an extended side angle pose on each side, enhanced with a bind or half-bind to get back into your shoulders. And either an upavistha konasana (seated wide-angle forward bend) or prasarita padotanasana (standing wide-legged forward bend) will help lengthen your hamstrings and further prep your hip flexors.
Consider Astavakra’s advice—for focus and self-awareness—as you begin to explore this pose through the ten steps below. You'll want two yoga blocks for this exercise.
Ten Steps to Astavakrasana
1. Begin in dandasana, staff pose, with a block at its lowest height framing each hip. With your palms pressing into the blocks, flex your feet so that your heels move forward and your toes draw back toward your body. This flexion will be important later when we “lock” our feet.
2. Keep your left leg extended, and bend your right knee so that your knee points toward the ceiling and your right heel draws toward your right sit bone.
3. Hold onto your right shin with your right hand, and use your left hand to lift your right foot off the ground.
4. Keeping your right foot lifted like this, bring your right arm toward the inside of your right thigh. Still holding your right foot with your left hand, you should now have contact between your inner right thigh and your upper-outer right arm.
5. Holding onto your right foot with your left hand (with your right arm still on the inside of your right thigh), try to wiggle your right upper arm (or even your shoulder!) underneath your right thigh. Think of your right leg as the strap of a tote bag—the higher it is on your arm or shoulder, the less likely it will slide off your arm.
6. This next part is key. Squeeze your right calf and right thigh around your upper right arm. Squeeze so much that you can release your left hand from your right foot, while maintaining contact between your right thigh and right arm. With both hands now free, you can place your palms onto the blocks. Your palms can be shoulder-distance apart or a little wider. Keep your torso perpendicular to the ground and your chest lifted as you continue to squeeze your right leg around your right upper arm.
7. Draw your left heel toward your groin, and then lift your left foot off the ground so you can cross your left ankle over your right ankle. Once your ankles are crossed, flex your feet (as you did in dandasana) so that your feet become locked and interlaced.
8. Inhale, retain your breath, and then press your palms into the blocks. As your arms begin to straighten, your seat will lift off the ground. Now breathe! If you feel steady, you're ready to move deeper into astavakrasana.
9. Maintaining your ankle lock, begin to straighten both legs so they extend out to the right.
10. Bend your arms like chaturanga, elbows pointing straight back toward your hips, and lean your chest forward so that your torso becomes parallel to the ground. Keep your shoulder heads lifted at least as high as your elbows, just as your would in chaturanga. And keep your head lifted with your gaze forward (to balance out your hips).
To come out of astavakrasana, back it up the same way you moved into the pose. First, straighten your arms and lift your chest. Then, keeping your ankles locked, bend your knees to bring your heels back toward your seat. Slowly unlock your ankles. Straighten your left leg back into dandasana. Lower your seat down to the ground. And finally, unwrap your right leg from your right arm and return to rest your body in a strong, symmetrical dandasana.