A long and healthy life is one of yoga’s oft-touted benefits. Many of us come to the practice (at least in part) because we want to build strength and flexibility, preserve joint mobility, gain focus, and maintain mental clarity—all of which play key roles in keeping us healthy and vibrant.
Bakasana, or crane pose—sometimes referred to as crow pose, though technically crow, or kakasana, is practiced with bent arms, while crane is practiced with straight arms—and its preps help to engender all of the wonderful results so typical of yoga practice (i.e., mental clarity, focus, strength, and flexibility). The mental and physical progress we see with consistent practice of the pose reminds us of our innate strength and vitality as living beings.
Throughout history, cranes have frequently been depicted in art, storytelling, and even on tombs (such as that of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, circa 220 BCE, where archaeologists discovered numerous bronze statues of cranes). In a retelling of an ancient Chinese folktale, “Lord of the Crane,” it’s said that cranes use their immense wings to carry the souls of the dead safely up to heaven. Traditionally, this idea was preserved by placing paper cranes on the coffins of those who pass away.
Historically, cranes have also been used to symbolize longevity. This possibly derived from the fact that cranes have existed for millions of years, with the oldest existing crane fossil dating back 10 million years! Cranes also have long life spans compared to other birds, averaging 20 to 30 years, and can fly at very high altitudes. And they have some interesting talents, like the ability to grasp a stone with one foot, while maintaining a strong connection to the earth with the other foot.
Stories and legends about cranes can be powerfully evocative, perhaps suggesting there may be more to this arm balance than first appears. Maybe this isn’t just another fancy pose, but rather an opportunity to embody the wonderful qualities of the crane—the elegance, the vigilance, and the earthly connection— and to remind us of our own inherent beauty and strength, our ability to soar past challenges, or to see them as stepping stones along the path to longevity and freedom.
Achieving flight in crane pose is a grand accomplishment for many yoga practitioners who spread their wings (or scapulae) to rise above the challenge of gravity and find balance on their hands. Even though some yogis may not lift their feet away from the floor right away, practicing with grace and awareness can still create a feeling of satisfaction.
As a teacher, I enjoy teaching bakasana. But I’m disheartened when I notice a sense of defeat from students who struggle with the pose, as their heads turn to watch other yogis take flight.
Even if you struggle, you can work on different aspects of bakasana to develop balance, concentration, confidence, and strength. Below, I’ll deconstruct the actions of bakasana. These instructions will help you ease your way into the fundamental bakasana setup, help you work toward straightening your arms, and provide you with a specific technique to progress toward eventually lifting your feet off the floor.
Even if you struggle, you can work on different aspects of bakasana to develop balance, concentration, confidence, and strength.
We need to plant our hands firmly onto the earth before we can even think about lifting and spreading our wings (or, in this case, our hips!).
Begin in malasana, garland pose, or a “deep squat.” If this is inaccessible right now, come into tabletop (hands and knees) instead to work on your hand placement. Place your hands on the floor. Spread your fingers wide, and press down through the inner edges of your hands (especially the mounds below the index fingers and thumbs). This helps you to evenly bear weight in your hands, as there’s a general tendency to shift weight more into the outer edges. With a firmly established base, you are then prepared to move on to the next steps of bakasana.
The rotation of the arms is vital to stabilizing the shoulder girdle, which is the platform on which you will build a solid foundation to bear the weight of your lower body in crane. Begin in malasana. With your hands on the ground and a generous bend of your elbows (but no more than 90 degrees—think “chaturanga arms”), turn your upper arms outward (external rotation) so that your elbows point in the direction of your legs rather than out to the sides (as they would for a pushup). Continue to ground down through the bases of your index fingers and thumbs.Helpful poses for practicing external rotation of the upper arms: balasana (extended child’s pose) and adho mukha svanasana.
Continue to practice the actions of pressing down into your hands and externally rotating your upper arm bones. As you do this, push the floor away from you to lift your back ribs up toward your shoulder blades. This spreads the shoulder blades apart, helping you find a long, rounded back, which is an important part of the pose.
Helpful poses to practice spreading the upper back: cat pose, spinal balance (tabletop with the opposite leg and arm lifted and outstretched), and drawing the knee toward the opposite elbow (thereby rounding the back).
Now that we’ve established your foundation for crane, it is time to connect the upper and lower limbs to each other. Start in malasana. Make an “egg shape” with your body by pressing into your hands and rounding your back. Once you’ve found this shape, connect your lower body to your upper body by lifting high onto the balls of your feet and placing your knees as high as possible onto the backs of your arms, toward the backs of your armpits. For extra height, you may find that standing on blocks provides the leverage you need to hike your hips up a few extra inches. The higher your hips are, the easier the pose will be! Think about elevating your hips over the backs of your arms, like a downward kneeling action over your triceps. Activate your abdominals by pressing your hands into the floor and your knees into the backs of your arms. Play with this step for a while until you feel a solid connection between your upper and lower body (i.e., your knees aren’t slipping down toward the ground).
Helpful prep poses: wide-knee child’s pose and malasana.
When you’re initially setting up for crane, look at what you’re doing with your hands and shoulders. But once you find your foundation and connect your knees to the backs of your arms, look straight ahead. When cranes fly they lengthen their necks, stretching them out in front of them. If you look down, you’re moving toward a crash landing rather than high flying. Trust that you have set up your body correctly so that you can vigilantly gaze in front of you, completely aware of all that is happening within and around you.
You may want to sing that lullaby to yourself while practicing this next step to calm any anxiety or fears you may have about lifting your feet away from the floor! Personally, I value this exercise more than the actual lifting my feet off my mat. With your hands and balls of the feet on the floor, shift your weight forward and back. As you rock your weight forward, move your chest forward too. Allow more weight to move into your hands, and get lighter on your feet (maybe with just the tips of your big toes remaining on the floor). Then rock back, giving your weight back to the feet. Keep your hips high and gaze forward the entire time. One day you might just rock forward from baby crane into crane or crow.
Helpful prep poses: Concentrate on moving your chest forward while lowering from plank to chaturanga; keep your hips lifted.
Cranes can fly, and at very high altitude. With careful preparation and focus, you can, too! As you practice bakasana, the groundwork described above sets you up for a healthy, happy crane. If you have been working with these elements for a while and are ready to lift off, you can rock forward from rockabye baby crane into a full-grown crane by lifting your big toes away from the floor, and drawing your heels up toward your buttocks. This can be done with both feet at the same time, or by lifting one foot off the floor and then the other. When you lift your second foot, squeeze the big-toe sides of your feet together, push the floor away from you, and draw up a bit more through your belly.
The action of finding the long crane arms is challenging and should be worked on over time. One approach to straightening your arms is to imagine pressing yourself up from chaturanga to plank.
Use the instructions from the previous setup. Feel your knees firmly perched on the back of your arms and your abdominals strongly engaged. Press into the bases of your thumbs and index fingers, and maintain the external rotation of your upper arms. Then firm your triceps to begin to straighten your arms, just as you would if you were pressing up into plank from chaturanga. (Your arms may only straighten a millimeter at first!) Continue to gradually move your chest forward to maintain your balance. Those two actions—firming the triceps to straighten the arms, and moving your chest forward—work simultaneously.
Remember to press your hands down into the mat as you engage your core, lifting your navel up toward your spine. This creates an “up and down” sensation, which lightens the load of the pose and prepares the triceps to straighten the arms even more fully over time as you increase your shoulder strength.
Another approach to straightening the arms is to enter crane directly without bending the elbows. Set up like the previous version, but start with straight arms. Place your knees high up on the back of your arms and lean your weight forward. Once your toes are light on the floor, turn your focus to drawing your heels toward your buttocks!
Helpful poses for straightening the arms: pressing up into plank from chaturanga or a knees-down version of chaturanga.
The crane is rich with symbolic meaning. As yoga practitioners, we can embody that rich meaning. We can mimic the crane’s movements by using our arms just as it uses its legs, and by lifting our feet away from the ground with our necks long and extended. Our bodies become stronger and more flexible as we practice bakasana. Feeling our hips lifting high and our feet moving away from the ground builds confidence and reminds us that we can indeed rise above our challenges.
But it takes time. Practicing bakasana and all of its lessons requires dedicated and continued practice with knowledge and compassion for yourself. Remember, lifting your feet away from the floor is only another step in the process. It’s no more important or meaningful, really, than just placing your hands on the ground.