Arm balances, which require lots of preparation, strength, and determination, are challenging for many yoga practitioners. But with props, we can access and sustain these poses much more easily, allowing us to build greater endurance and strength. While there are many ways to use props to help with arm balances, you can do a lot with a relatively minimal prop setup. As an example, I’m going to share how to use only two (yes, only two!) blocks to explore five different arm balances below.
Crow pose is one of the first arm balances that many of us learn, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy pose! It involves a playful dance of transferring your weight from your feet to your hands without falling on your face. The setup below gives you more height, shifting more weight into your hands to start, which provides you with a boost when it comes to getting your feet off the ground and your knees onto your arms. It also mitigates the risk of falling forward by providing a pillar of support for your head. To get started: Place one block horizontally on its tallest setting toward the front of your mat and the second block about 18 inches away, on its lowest setting.
Stand in mountain pose (tadasana) with your feet on either side of the lower block and your hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart, between both blocks. Perch on the lower block and squat with the balls of your feet together and your knees slightly apart. Walk your knees high up onto the backs of your arms, shifting more weight into your hands as you do so. Lower your forehead onto the taller block and press your forehead down slightly as you lift your feet off the lower block.
Press down through your hands, spreading your shoulder blades and allowing your upper back to round. Remain here, or lift your forehead off the block. Stay in your chosen position for a few breaths, then lower your feet and rest.
Side crow and eka pada koundinyasana I involve deep twists and require balancing the weight of the body solely on one arm while maintaining a strong connection between the lower and upper body, which is essential for success. The following setup makes the arm-leg connection more attainable by supporting the weight of the hips. To get started: Start with two blocks stacked on top of each other on their lowest setting.
Sit sideways with your right hip on the blocks, Your knees can be stacked (but it’s not mandatory) and bent, and your feet on the floor. Squeeze your legs together. Turn your torso to the right and hook your left elbow outside your right thigh, sealing this connection between your arm and leg.
Lean to the right (note that the left hip should not be on the block, and the outer right hip should be on the block as you may need to adjust yourself on the blocks) and place both your hands on the floor, a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Your hands should be facing forward, with your wrists parallel to the front edge of your mat. Bend both elbows as you lean forward onto your hands and lift your feet off the floor into side crow.
Take the time here to deepen your twist by turning your left ribs toward the floor and lifting your right ribs away from the floor. Stay here for a few breaths, then lower your feet to the floor and try the other side. To move into eka pada koundinyasana I, come into side crow as you just did, and then straighten your legs, scissoring them open in opposite directions: Your bottom leg will extend perpendicularly to your body, your top leg behind you. Reach actively through the balls of both feet. Continue to rotate your torso, and work toward squaring your shoulders to the front of your mat.
To come out, bend your knees, returning to side crow, and then lower your feet to the floor and try the other side.
In both shoulder pressing pose and firefly, the arms and shoulders act as a fulcrum for the legs and hips. These arm balances require the body to be quite compact, with deeper hip flexion than the other poses we’ve explored. But they also tend to be more accessible—mentally, at least—as there is less risk of face planting. If you fall out of these poses, you’ll probably land on your seat, which is why propping it with blocks can be useful. To get started: Start with the same block setup as for side crow and eka pada koundinyasana I.
Stand a few inches in front of your blocks with your feet slightly wider than your hips. Fold forward and bend your knees, keeping your hips lifted in a high squat as you weave your upper arms through your legs and around the backs of your thighs. From there, plant your hands behind your heels, fingers facing forward, and bend your knees until you can sit on your blocks.
Hug your legs to your arms and press the backs of your arms into your legs. Move your hips back a tiny bit—this will make your blocks tilt back—and then lift your feet off the floor and cross your ankles to come into bhujapidasana. Try to “break” the lock of the ankles (though you won’t actually unlock them) while hugging your inner thighs to your upper arms.
Stay here for a few breaths, then uncross your ankles, lower your feet to the ground, and rest before moving on to the next pose. To come into firefly, start as if you are coming into bhujapidasana. As you approach breaking the lock of your ankles, continue to strongly hug your legs to your upper arms, then uncross your ankles and straighten your legs, reaching through the balls of your feet like two beams of light. Remain here for a few breaths, and then exit the pose by bending your knees, placing your feet on the floor, and lifting your torso upright.
Using props to explore arm balances can reveal insights into the key components required for each one. I hope that these variations allow you to access and enjoy greater ease in these poses. Happy flying!
Photography: Andrea Killam