To start with, kapinjalasana (partridge pose) is really fun to say. Secondly, it is an incredibly difficult pose, requiring 100 percent attention, 100 percent of the time. And lastly, it is comprised of two seemingly contrary pose categories—an arm balance and a backbend. Kapinjalasana is part of the vasisthasana (side plank) family, and I often picture it as a fallen-dancer pose.
Whether you intend to practice kapinjalasana at home or teach it in class, it can be challenging to come up with a preparatory sequence for it. Do you focus on backbending? Arm balancing? And isn’t there some rule that says you shouldn’t practice backbending and arm balancing together? (At least that’s what I learned in my teacher training.1 ) These are important questions to ask when preparing to practice or teach this pose. To understand how to sequence kapinjalasana, you first must understand how to deconstruct it (and perhaps be okay with breaking some of the “rules” you learned along the way!). Teasing out its elements will help you construct a safe and satisfying sequence that prepares your body for the challenge it’s about to undertake.
Tadasana and Extension
To break down this pose I start with tadasana (mountain pose), which offers a clear roadmap of what a neutral body position looks and feels like, and from there I explore extension (when the limbs move behind the body).
Stand in tadasana with your big toes parallel to each other, your ankles, knees, and hips aligned perpendicularly, your shoulders stacked over your hips, and your head centered between your shoulders.
Now step your right foot behind you and point it, placing just the tip of your big toe on the mat. This is hip extension. Feel how different it is from a neutral hip position (tadasana).
Take your right arm straight back behind you. This is extension of the arm at the shoulder joint.
Now lift your left arm out to the side (abduction) until that wrist is slightly above your shoulder. Extend your wrist (so that your fingers point up) and press your palm away from you.
Then, bend your right knee, grab hold of the inside of your right foot with your right hand, and gently press your foot into your hand as you extend your right thigh behind you (as you would for dancer pose). This is a standing version of kapinjalasana. (Be sure to repeat on the other side!)
Let’s continue to dissect.
The Side Plank of Kapinjalasana
The Supporting Arm
Proficiency in side plank is a prerequisite for kapinjalasana, which means that you will definitely want to include side plank in your sequence. This will allow you to feel steady in kapinjalasana by the time you get there, and you’ll be able to move your top arm and leg into position without falling over. The vast majority of your balance and stability comes from the supporting hand. Your fingers are spread evenly apart, with your wrist slightly in front of your shoulder. The shoulder blade protracts (the inner border of the shoulder blade moves away from the spine through the engagement of the serratus anterior muscle), which will keep your entire shoulder girdle stable as you practice.
In your sequence: Incorporate tabletop, plank, and side plank variations so that you can work the side plank actions of kapinjalasana in more readily accessible poses.
The Bottom Foot
Your secondary foundation is the outer edge of your bottom foot. Just as in tadasana, the ankles should not be rolling in or out. When gravity comes into play, as in side plank and kapinjalasana, the outer ankle of your bottom foot may tend to sickle (supinate). To counter this tendency, while practicing your lunges and standing poses press into the big-toe joint and concentrate on what it feels like to firm the outer ankle in (while still keeping the outer edge of the foot pressing down into the floor).
In your sequence: Try this in low lunge and baby dancer, pressing the front or standing foot’s big-toe mound into the floor.
While practicing side plank, channel your standing practice by pressing out firmly through the big-toe mound as if you were pressing it into the floor.
The Bottom Hip
Another part of the body that often succumbs to gravity is the bottom hip. For example, in kapinjalasana you may look something like a banana, with your bottom hip sinking toward the floor. Building outer hip strength will help you to lift the side body away from the floor.
Here’s one of my favorite exercises for this (you’ll need two or three blocks): Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Stack the two or three blocks horizontally at their lowest setting under your right heel, and then lie down on your back. Bend your left knee and place your left foot on the floor. Place your arms next to your torso, palms down. Externally rotate your right leg until the outer edge of that foot is flush against the top block. Without pressing into your hands or your left foot, press the outer edge of your right foot into the blocks; then, using the outer hip muscles (gluteus medius and minimus in particular) of your right hip, lift your right hip away from the floor (both hips will lift).
This creates the outer hip imprint for the bottom hip in kapinjalasana and the firming of the outer ankle. Hold for a few breaths, then lower down and switch sides.
For a more challenging variation, try reaching your arms up toward the ceiling before lifting your hips.
For an extra challenge—still rooting down into the outer edge of your right foot and keeping your outer right hip firm—lift your left foot away from the floor a few inches.
The Top Side of Kapinjalasana
The top of kapinjalasana requires the top hip and thigh, as well as the top arm, to be in extension. (There is a version with the arm overhead in flexion, but we’ll be working the top arm in extension.)
In your sequence: For hip extension and knee flexion (bending the knee), incorporate lunges into your practice. Include versions with the back knee also bent, and upright quad stretches such as baby dancer or standing ardha bhekasana (one-legged frog pose).
The backbend in kapinjalasana reminds me of an arch or a bow. Instead of pulling the foot into the body as you would for a quad stretch, you are going to move the foot away from the body as you extend the upper arm away from you.
In your sequence: Since the arm moves into extension to grab the foot, you can add shoulder extension into your sequence, for instance, by incorporating backbends that involve moving your arms back behind you—like salabhasana (locust pose) and ustrasana (camel pose), and taking your arms behind you while holding a strap in lunges. Even if you can interlace your hands behind your back in a lunge, try the strap version because pulling the strap apart allows you to create a sensation of space and strength (which is more like the action of grabbing the foot in kapinjalasana than squeezing the shoulder blades to clasp the hands together behind the back).
When working toward kapinjalasana, it’s also a good idea to practice simpler backbends that include moving a foot (or feet) away from the body. These include dancer pose (natarajasana), half bow (ardha dhanurasana, pictured below), and bow pose (dhanurasana).
Personally, I like to warm up for almost all big backbends with locust pose, then half bow pose, and then return to a symmetrical backbend like either salabhasana again or upward facing dog.
Peaking to Kapinjalasana
When you’re ready to move into kapinjalasana, start in side plank with your right hand and the outer edge of your right foot on the floor. For now, keep your left hand alongside your body.
Lift your left leg a few inches away from your right. Look down at your right hand. Keep your right outer hip firm, lifting it away the floor, and your big-toe mound and inner leg reaching away from you. Some will find that the sole of the bottom foot comes to the ground, but it does not have to.
Gradually move your left thigh back into extension.
Then, bend your left knee and turn your left palm to face up (keeping your left arm alongside your body).
Reach your left arm behind you until you find and can grab the inside of your foot. Establish your foundation in the outer edge of your right foot and right hand, and then slowly press your left foot into your hand as the left side of your body forms an arch (as in half bow pose). Firm your outer hips (particularly the bottom hip), draw your side waist in toward your navel, and draw your navel in toward your spine. Then lengthen your spine as your left thigh moves back.
Without letting go of the inner “corset” of your abdomen, counterbalance the extension of your left thigh by curling your upper spine back and then opening across your chest. Notice how your shoulder blades move closer together to support the backbend in the upper spine. Lift your sternum without aggressively pushing out your front ribs. Press your right hand into the floor to prevent collapsing into the front of your shoulder joint.
If you feel steady, try turning your head to look straight out in front of you. Or take it a step further by bringing your head back, following the arc of the backbend, gazing either up at the ceiling or behind you.
Stay for a few breaths, and then release your foot, return to side plank briefly, and come back into plank.
Take downward facing dog or rest in child’s pose. Then switch sides.
Not only does kapinjalasana fall into dual yoga categories, but those categories are two of the most intense of all poses—arm balances and backbends. Keeping this in mind, do a short series of twists and then forward bends for your cooldown. You may even feel a restorative pose calling you after all your exertion!
Even if you cannot access kapinjalasana right now, or you realize that it’s a “this may be a lifetime’s work” type of pose, the sequence you create to prepare for it will help to open and strengthen all of the key areas of your body so that eventually you may be able to access the pose. Be patient with yourself during this process and take sequencing and practicing kapinjalasana one step at a time.
1. Because backbends and arm balances are both strenuous poses, often working in opposition to each other in a sequence (many arm balances being forward bends after all, though kapinjalasana is not), I was taught that they should not be practiced together. Breaking that “rule” was a hurdle I had to cross when determining how to build a sequence leading up to kapinjalasana.
Photography: Andrea Killam