Balance, be it physical, mental, or emotional, is hard to come by these days, and the search for equilibrium is often a motive for practicing yoga. In hatha yoga the balancing postures bring a feeling of lightness and inner balance to the body and mind. They also increase strength, develop poise, and improve both concentration and confidence. The balancing postures challenge our weaknesses and test our calmness of mind and control over our nervous system. The arm balances in particular are effective in collecting a scattered mind and smoothing an erratic breathing pattern. The crow pose (kakasana, pronounced caw-caw-sana, like the crow’s call) is one of the arm balances that is easiest to master.
Balance, be it physical, mental, or emotional, is hard to come by these days, and the search for equilibrium is often a motive for practicing yoga.
In kakasana the arms become the legs of the crow, the hands become the crow’s feet, and the thighs and legs are folded up to become the body of the crow. Crows are light on their feet—they hop, they fly. They’re not earth-bound. Unlike us, their experience of gravity is not that of a pedestrian. Assuming the posture of a crow by supporting our weight on the hands and keeping the body compact and close to the ground gives us an opportunity to free ourselves from our usual patterns of locomotion and our habitual strategies for managing the body with respect to gravity.
Achieving this new sense of balance in the crow pose improves coordination and develops strength and flexibility. The wrists, arms, and shoulders are particularly benefited—they are not only stretched and strengthened, but also energized. This posture is especially stimulating to both the nervous system and the circulatory system in the upper limbs and torso. The pose imparts confidence in the ability of the arms to support the weight of the body, and it gives a sense of lifting and control through the pelvis and abdomen. This is vital for good health and for the performance of many other asanas as well as a variety of pranayama practices.
The crow pose can be challenging, but with the right technique and a bit of strength and flexibility it’s fun to try. It takes a measure of strength in the arms and shoulders, but it is not as difficult as it looks. The sun salutation is a good practice for developing strength and flexibility in the shoulders, as well as the whole-body integration required for balance. What is more, attempting the crow pose with stiff, weak arms and shoulders can result in wrist strain, and the downward- and upward-facing dog poses (which are part of the sun salutation) strengthen the wrists. Even so, those with wrist injuries or problems will want to work carefully with this pose, or avoid it in favor of balance poses that don’t extend the wrists, such as the headstand or the forearm balance.
The crow pose can be challenging, but with the right technique and a bit of strength and flexibility it’s fun to try.
Other factors that limit the crow pose are hip flexibility and lower abdominal strength, and with that in mind, the following postures can help prepare you for the posture.
Hip Balance Pose
This pose strengthens the abdominal muscles, especially the lower abdominal muscles, and the lumbar spine area. Good muscle tone and control, together with awareness in these areas, is essential for the crow pose (and most other postures!).
Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Keep the knees together and the hands on the floor beside the hips. Lean back slightly so that your weight rests on the outer edge of the sitting bones, and you can easily lift your feet off the floor. Straighten the spine, drawing the abdomen toward the thighs and the thighs toward the abdomen as you straighten the legs. Extend the arms forward from the shoulders, and lift the heart. Reach out through the fingers, toes, and top of the head, breathing into the middle abdomen and focusing on the strength in the lower abdomen.
You may bend the knees, keeping the shins parallel to the floor if your back and abdomen are weak or if the hamstrings are tight, both of which make it difficult to balance. Hold for a minute or longer, but come out if you start shaking or if the breath becomes uneven or labored. Repeat the pose a few times to help build strength.
As in many balancing postures, strength alone is not the key to success in the crow posture. Though the arms are weight-bearing, the rest of the body must cooperate and contribute to the posture. Even if you are strong enough to maintain the balance by physical strength alone, if the torso and legs are not enlivened as they draw in and up they become dead weight. Then the posture lacks the invigorating, uplifting quality that centers and quiets the mind and is one of the main benefits of the crow pose.
Though the arms are weight-bearing, the rest of the body must cooperate and contribute to the posture.
The scale pose is a great posture for developing the subtle aspects of balance. Like the crow pose, it requires lifting the lower body while pressing down through the arms. In both poses the legs and pelvis must draw up to make the body light on the hands. The scale pose develops arm strength as well, and gives you the opportunity to experience the energetic flow and pelvic alignment common to both postures.
Start by sitting cross-legged on the floor with the palms on the floor alongside the hips, fingers spread and pointed straight ahead. Press the hands into the floor as you exhale and lift the pelvis and legs. Draw the crossed legs up as much as you can. Don’t worry if your feet don’t clear the floor. With practice, you will soon be able to draw the feet toward the thighs and swing lightly between the hands, but in the beginning you may want to elevate the hands on blocks or phone books to make the pose a bit easier.
The hip flexibility that is developed by practicing the squat pose makes it easy to bring the knees and legs into position for the crow posture.
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and parallel. Bend your knees as you fold forward from the hips to place the hands on the floor in front of the feet. Lower the heels and pelvis toward the floor as the head and torso come upright. Press the torso forward between the thighs. Then squeeze the knees into the outer armpits and the thighs into the ribs. Press against the inner legs with the outer arms. Hold and breathe for a minute or more, drawing the pelvis down and relaxing deep in the hip joints. Your heels may not reach the floor, but press them in that direction, or bring the floor to the heels by placing a folded blanket or rolled mat under the heels. It may help to hold onto a window ledge or heavy piece of furniture if you are stiff and need a counterweight to allow the hips and lower back to open.
The Crow (Kakasana)
By now you’re no doubt feeling quite crow-like and ready to assume kakasana. It is done in three easy steps.
Step 1. The starting position for the crow resembles the squat. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees and fold forward, placing your hands on the floor directly beneath the shoulders with the fingers spread. Then bend your elbows to the side and come onto the balls of the feet as you bring the knees onto the upper arms close to the armpits. Squeeze the legs toward the sides of the body. Activate the lower abdomen and squeeze the hips together. You’ll feel compact and light on your feet.
Step 2. Holding the squeeze, lift the pelvis slightly, pitching the head and torso forward and becoming even lighter on your feet. Press down through the palms of the hands. Focus on a point on the floor in front of your hands. There is little or no weight on the feet now—you are balancing on your toes. Keep the hips and legs squeezed in and the abdomen contracted.
You can easily control how much weight you place on the hands by lifting the pelvis higher or lower in this step, so practice here until you’re comfortable. Try to keep the knees high on the arms, and the thighs and legs symmetrical and close together. Stabilize and concentrate on the breath, feeling your balance. When the breath is fine, smooth, and even, and the body feels alert, stable, and light, move on to the next step.
Step 3. Keeping the lower abdomen very firm, and your weight equally distributed on both hands, shift the torso forward enough to fold the feet toward the buttocks. You may lift one foot at a time to help find the point of balance and avoid pitching onto your nose. Keeping your head up will also help avoid the nose plant. (You may want to keep a folded blanket on the floor in front until you’ve mastered the pose.) Once you have found your balance, work to straighten the arms as much as possible, lifting the head, torso, and legs while keeping the lower body strong and pulled together. Breathe smoothly and hold for four or five breaths.
The lower body and legs become lighter as you activate them and work from a more subtle inner lifting that extends from the perineum up through the core of the body. The act of drawing up from this area just in front of the base of the spine both stabilizes and solidifies the posture while at the same time enlivening it. In this way the core energy, what the yogis call the inner body (which is not subject to gravity in the same way the physical body is), configures the posture, and the physical body more easily gives expression to that inner energy. If, instead, the crow posture is maintained only by brute strength the pose is merely external, static, and difficult.
The lower body and legs become lighter as you activate them and work from a more subtle inner lifting that extends from the perineum up through the core of the body.
To come out of the pose, bend the elbows and lower the toes to the floor. Sit back in the squat, and release. Rotate the wrists if necessary to relieve any tension. Now stand up and notice the flow of energy through the body—especially the arms, shoulders, chest, and pelvis. Then step into the rest of the day’s activities with inner and outer poise.