“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
—Leonardo da Vinci
Arm balances are among the most complex poses to sequence, and even more intricate to teach. Though arm balances are sometimes nonchalantly offered as an option during vinyasa sequences (“Take a crow pose here if you’d like,” or “You can come into eka pada galavasana if you want…), they are rarely taught.
It’s time to break down instruction for flying poses into the component steps. Well-crafted sequences, along with clear instructions, will help prepare our students’ bodies for liftoff.
Intelligent sequencing can provide all students with preparation and alternatives, allowing even those who don’t “lift off” to proactively work toward arm balancing.
In order to make class more challenging, some teachers may feel pressured to include arm balances in their sequences. While arm balance options may be rewarding for students who are already adept at these poses, they can be very discouraging for students who are newer to flying. Some students may be left with the impression that arm balances are only for advanced yogis, impossible to do, and not even worth trying. But intelligent sequencing can provide all students with preparation and alternatives, allowing even those who don’t “lift off” to proactively work toward arm balancing.
When teaching a class, have you ever instructed students in virabhadrasana I (warrior I) to step back into chaturanga, with the option to go into eka pada koundinyasana II? This is a common transition I’ve seen thrown into sequences in vinyasa classes, but without first being taught. There are looks of awe around the room for the few who choose that option. It’s a fun transition for students who know the arm balance, but it is a head-scratcher for those who don’t. Creating a clear, comprehensive “arm balance sequence,” however, encourages all students to practice arm balance preps (even if they don’t get both feet off the floor).
Choose Your Arm Balance
Focusing on a single arm balance helps to cultivate ekagrata—the Sanskrit word for “one-pointedness.” In this case, it’s a single, concentrated focus for building your class. As an intro to crafting arm balance sequences, we will start with a single peak experience from which to grow a solid foundation for arm balances. When selecting an arm balance, choose one already in your current practice—one that you yourself find especially interesting. The pose you choose is the key to your sequencing. It is the destination on your road map. For our purposes here (i.e., sequencing toward a single arm balance), let's choose parsva bakasana (side crow).
Break Down the Pose
You’ve chosen your peak pose, and now you are ready to break it down and extract the other poses in your sequence. When you look at parsva bakasana, what do you see? I see a squat with a twist seated on chaturanga dandasana (4-limb staff pose) arms. By breaking the pose down into its basic elements, you discover the ingredients to add and focus on in the sequence. These ingredients create an "imprint," or muscle memory, for the student’s body in a less demanding version of the peak pose.
Here’s one approach to guiding students toward parsva bakasana. Teach and repeat malasana (garland pose/squat) so that the body assimilates to the compact position. Since twisting will be a key element for the peak pose, help prepare students’ bodies for this by teaching twisting postures like parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle), parivrtta anjaneyasana (revolved crescent lunge), and parivrtta utkatasana (revolved chair/fierce pose). The latter two poses are particularly useful because they prepare the body to twist, and also allow you to introduce the concept of the upper body joining the lower body (as the elbow connects with the opposite outer thigh). In addition to your squatting and twisting poses, include and teach the alignment of chaturanga, as “chaturanga arms” will be the same arms used when moving into parsva bakasana.
A New Foundation
In many yoga classes, teachers speak at length about the importance of the feet—the foundation—in tadasana (mountain pose). In the case of arm balances, the foundation is in the hands. Make it a point in your class to focus on what the hands are doing in arm balances. There are plenty of opportunities to do this—from the palms meeting in anjali mudra (prayer hands) in tadasana and parivrtta anjaneyasana, to the placement of the hands in tabletop and plank.
Because using the hands as support may be new to some students, they may tire easily when preparing for and practicing arm balances. Be strategic when determining how much students are on their hands. Can you teach them the positioning of the hands and arms while they’re not having to bear much weight on their hands and wrists? For example, in prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend) with the hands on the floor or blocks, you can teach the alignment of chaturanga arms. Such moments allow students a break from being on their hands while still moving them toward the peak pose.
Can you teach them the positioning of the hands and arms while they’re not having to bear much weight on their hands and wrists?
Just because you’re not on your feet in arm balances doesn’t mean you are not using your legs! While resting the hands and focusing on standing postures, focus on what the legs are doing. In parsva bakasana, you may be teaching how to hinge at the hips or to hug the legs into the midline. You can introduce these leg actions in poses like tadasana, parsvottanasana (pyramid pose), utkatasana, and low lunge.
After combining the elements of your sequence, warm-up, actions of the hands, and standing poses, it is time to add the peak pose to your sequence. When teaching arm balances, creativity helps tremendously—especially for those students who have had unpleasurable experiences with arm balances in the past, are fearful of making their hands their foundation, or are still working on the fundamentals and are not quite ready to move to “arm balances.” You can get creative sequencing arm balances using props like a wall, chairs, straps, and blocks. You may also want to bring students down onto their backs, giving them a way to feel the pose without placing pressure on the hands, wrists, and shoulders.
In one of the first arm balancing workshops I led, I had a wonderful student who had all the elements necessary for parsva bakasana. She could hold chaturanga, had no problem twisting and squatting, and had great abdominal strength and midline engagement. But every time she attempted parsva bakasana, she struggled to lift off. After a while, she wanted to give up (as most anyone would). When she had a firm connection between upper and lower body, her elbows would splay, giving out underneath her. When she focused on pinning her elbows in toward the midline, her hips didn’t come up as high over the upper arms, or the contraction of the inner thighs dissipated.
One of the main reasons arm balances are considered to be complex is that numerous actions need to occur simultaneously in order to lift off. If one element is missing, it can hinder the entire process. Since we had sufficient time in the workshop, we created a deluxe propped version of parsva bakasana—with a strap around the upper arms to keep her elbows from splaying out, blocks under her shoulders to maintain chaturanga arms, and blocks under her outer lower hip. From here, she walked her feet up the wall. This fully propped version created an “imprint” (muscle memory) and gave her the ability to feel all of the actions of the pose. A few weeks later, with practice, this same student moved into her first parsva bakasana without the assistance of props.
Step by Step
In his interview at the beginning of The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar reminisces about his father Krishnamacharya’s teachings and writes “[A]s my father said, if you go step by step, there will be no problems. Enjoy each step. Trying to leap many steps at once can be a problem.”
Carve out time in your sequence to teach the arm balance step by step. This way each student can work at her own pace on any phase of the process. For parsva bakasana, you may divide the steps in this way:
- Squat down with the knees together.
- Place the hands on the floor beside the outer right thigh, shoulder-width apart, as you would place them for chaturanga.
- Inhale, find length in the spine.
- Exhale, twist to the right.
- Move deeper into the connection between left elbow and right thigh.
- Bend the elbows and move your chest forward as you lift the center of the navel toward the spine.
- Hug the inner thighs into the midline.
- Continue to move the chest forward and lift the toes up toward the outer left hip.
Finishing Your Sequence
Arm balancing sequences are often strenuous and may take a lot out of your students. Assess the class. If your students look tired, give them opportunities to restore. Padahastasana (hand under foot pose) is a good choice to lengthen the backs of the legs and release the wrists. I often wind down the class by inviting students to lie over a bolster (so the bolster is under the head and back, with the base of the bolster at the sacrum and the buttocks on the floor) to open their chests and release the backs of the legs. Combine this restorative pose with a few wrist circles, and give your students time to become quiet with the breath. Then lead them into a long savasana.
Arm balances can be accessible to all students if thoughtfully introduced through a well-crafted sequence that readies the body and mind. Teaching arm balances on the back are another way to feel the pose without placing pressure on the hands, wrists, and shoulders, making this version accessible to anyone with injuries in these areas. For students who are unable to physically make it down onto the floor, they can visualize their body moving into these arm balances as you instruct the pose step by step.
The road map for preparing the body will become apparent when you choose a single arm balance to sequence toward and help your students learn to allow their hands to take over the responsibility generally given to the feet (while staying connected to the legs and feet). Leading students through a step-by-step process allows all students in the room to feel included. It gives them the opportunity to learn the foundations for the arm balance, rather than resting in child’s pose or some other unrelated pose while everyone else is practicing.
Next time you choose an arm-balancing theme for your yoga class, do it in a way that creates an opportunity to bring more of your students closer to experiencing these exhilarating asanas!