Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land offers variations on half moon pose, extended hand to big toe pose, and dancer pose that can help you take your practice to the next level.
Our bodies thrive on variety, and one easy way to add variety to our yoga practice is to play with the poses we already practice. Balancing poses are a fantastic start as they push us to adapt to uncertain footing. We can create additional challenge by bypassing the ways we inadvertently make these poses easier for ourselves and avoid the very work we need to grow stronger.
Wondering how? These three options will help you amp up the challenge in your balancing poses.
All balancing poses can be difficult, and half moon pose (ardha chandrasana) is no exception. In this pose we may inadvertently reduce the challenge by placing our support hand farther from the little-toe edge of our standing foot or by leaning into that hand. But there’s a simple way to force ourselves to embrace the challenge and recruit underused muscles in this pose—by floating the support hand off the floor.
This modification targets the key muscles on the top side of our body—gluteus medius on our lateral hip and the quadratus lumborum and oblique abdominals on our lateral torso—muscles that are commonly neglected in life and in yoga practice. Lifting our torso higher to activate these muscle also increases the stability required in our standing leg.
To try it, start in warrior II (virabhadrasana II) with your right foot forward. Reach your right hand toward the wall in front of you, shifting the weight of your torso over your right leg and turning your right palm to face up. Keep your torso facing the long edge of your mat. Then drive down into your right foot and slide your left foot closer to your right until you feel stable enough to straighten your right leg and lift your left leg. Continue reaching forward through your right hand, bringing your left arm alongside the left side of your body. Keep your shoulders higher than your hips and lift your left leg up to hip height. Feel your right leg and foot working to maintain stability and your left side body engaging to lift your left leg and torso against the pull of gravity.
Stay for five or more slow breaths before bending your right knee, smoothly returning your left foot to the floor, and switching sides.
Extended hand to big toe pose (utthita hasta padangusthasana) is a balance challenge combined with a hamstring stretch. But all too often the weight of our lifted leg, or resistance from tight hamstrings, pulls us into a forward lean, meaning that we lose much of the opportunity for strengthening targeted muscles on the back of the standing leg and the front of the lifted leg. One way to reintroduce these benefits is to release our hold on the lifted foot, forcing ourselves to hold the full weight of the leg up against gravity.
This modification requires significantly more strength in our core muscles as well as the hip flexors (iliopsoas and tensor fasciae latae) and quadriceps (especially the rectus femoris) of the lifted leg. But even more importantly it targets the hamstrings and gluteus maximus of the standing leg, muscles commonly underutilized in yoga practice.
To try it, begin in mountain pose (tadasana). Reach your arms overhead, taking care to keep your low ribs drawn in and down. Shift your weight into your right foot, bend your left knee, and—without lowering your arms—lift your left thigh to hip height. Root down through your standing foot, lengthen through your crown, and slowly extend your left knee until your left leg is powerfully straight.
Hold strong for three to five slow breaths, seeking equilibrium between the effort in the front of your lifted leg and the back of your standing leg. Then release your left foot to the floor and switch sides.
Backbends are celebrated in yoga practice, and for good reason. We spend most of our lives sitting or using our arms in front of us—contracting the front of our body and lengthening the back. Backbends, including the graceful dancer pose (natarajasana), help counteract these postural patterns—lengthening our hip flexors and opening our chest. However, if we use our muscles to retain the shape of the pose, instead of holding our lifted foot with a hand or a strap, we access even more potent benefits.
This active variation on dancer pose strengthens commonly weak muscles on the back body, including the posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, middle trapezius, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings.
To try it, start in mountain pose. Draw your pubic bone toward your navel to lengthen your sacrum, and keep that engagement as you lean into your right foot, bend your left knee, and draw your left heel toward your left buttock, keeping your arms alongside you. Notice the length that creates down the front of your left thigh; and then press your left thighbone toward the back of your mat, feeling the muscles on the back of your left hip and thigh engage even more strongly. Now rotate your palms away from your side body and draw your arms behind you, thumbs pointing to the back of your mat. Squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other to broaden your collarbones.
Stay here for a few breaths, enjoying the way the power in the back of your body creates space in the front of your body. Then return to mountain pose and switch sides.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, practicing the same poses in the same way. To enable us to meet life’s varied demands, we need to challenge ourselves in new and different ways. These variations on well-known balancing poses ask us to step out of our comfort zones so that we can keep growing, becoming stronger and more stable with every breath.
Photography: Andrea Killam