Side crow is a thrilling and complicated arm balance that involves placing your body in a compact, rotated shape while balancing on your hands. It takes a wealth of preparation, which still doesn’t guarantee that you’ll take flight. I love to create accessible opportunities for students to experience challenging poses like this one in their own way. If you have difficulty lifting your feet away from the ground in this asana, or even catching the twist, try this sequence to help you soar!
Get a Feel for Side Crow (Spinal Twist With a Bolster)
Props: 1 bolster and 1 to 3 blocks
It's hard to work toward something if you don't have an inkling of what the goal is—in the case of a pose, what it feels like to practice it. Making a few tweaks to an already familiar asana, like a spinal twist, can give you the feeling of side crow while remaining close to the ground.
Place your props within reach. Begin lying on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart or wider. Open your arms into a T shape with your palms facing up. Windshield wiper your legs from side to side for a few rounds to warm up.
When you are ready, walk your feet closer together, pull your knees into your chest, and twist to the right, allowing your outer right thigh to rest on a block. Balance your bolster or two other blocks on your hands, which should be about shoulder-width apart. Slowly bend your elbows, directing them toward your outer right thigh, then straighten them toward the ceiling. Bend and straighten your arms five to eight times slowly, mildly gripping your prop(s). Try to do this with your torso facing up toward the ceiling. If your torso is turning toward the right, place more support under your outer right thigh.
You can also lift your head and shoulders away from the ground to intensify the action.
When you’re done, place your bolster or blocks on the floor, bring your feet to the floor, and unwind from your twist. Switch sides.
Unleash Your Side Body for Deeper Twists (Gate Pose)
Props: 1 block
Side bends are a wonderful way to get into the nooks and crannies of the spine in order to create more space for deeper rotation.
From a kneeling position facing the long edge of your mat, step your right foot out to the side and externally rotate your thigh. Your leg can be bent or straight with your right heel in line with your left knee. Place your block inside your right thigh, at whichever height works best for your proportions. Press your left shin into the mat as you lift your left arm up alongside your ear. Side bend to the right and place your right hand on the block, reaching your left fingertips toward the right.
Stay here for eight to ten breaths, either statically or moving dynamically in and out of the pose with each breath. Then switch sides.
Get a Feel for Weight-Bearing (Super Cat With a Twist)
Weight-bearing on your hands is integral to arm balancing. This practice can serve as an intermediary step that warms and prepares the whole body for side crow. It also introduces the complexity of balancing on your hands while rotating the spine and hinging at the hips.
Begin on all fours with your hands about shoulder-width apart and your toes tucked under. Push down and grip through your hands, just as you did when you were gripping your props during the spinal twist with the bolster. Press into the tops of your feet if your feet are pointed or into the balls of your feet if they are flexed in order to hover your knees away from the floor. As you hover, take a few breaths, paying attention to the back, sides, and front of your waist and ribs; feel these areas move toward your midline on your exhalation and expand in all directions on your inhalation.
Rest for a few breaths.
Repeat, but this time swivel your knees slowly from side to side, gradually making these movements bigger and perhaps lifting the foot of your outside leg to increase the challenge. Repeat six to ten times, then lower your knees and come to a resting position like child's pose, a seated position, or lying on your belly.
Slide and Twist to Embrace Connection (Revolved Lunge and Revolved Chair Pose)
Props: blanket, a sliding surface to stand on, and maybe a wall
Connecting the elbow to the outer thigh is a major component of side crow. This lunge series helps to not only deepen your twist but also to forge a greater awareness of this upper-to-lower-body connection.
Place your blanket on a sliding surface, like a bare floor. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and your right foot on the blanket. Slide your foot back while simultaneously hinging forward from your hips, twisting to the left, and bending your left knee so you can bring your right elbow to the outside of your left thigh. Then slide your right foot back to its starting position without losing the elbow-to-thigh connection. You are now in a revolved chair pose, parivrtta utkatasana. Repeat a few more times, then unwind your twist and stand in tadasana (mountain pose). Switch sides.
I also love practicing this transition at a wall. Stand just a little bit away from the wall with your left side facing it. As you slide your right foot back, hinge forward, and twist to the left, place your hands on the wall shoulder-width apart and bend your elbows. (See the relationship with the arm balance?) To feel more secure, you may need to adjust your distance away from the wall. Then, keep your hands on the wall as you slide your right foot forward and back. Repeat a few more times, then unwind your twist and stand in mountain pose.
Note that in this version you don’t necessarily need to make the upper/lower body connection, which can make it a more accessible option for some people.
Take Rest Before Flight (Prasarita Padottanasana)
Props: Use anything that feels supportive for your body.
Releasing the back body in forward bends can help you move deeper into your side crow and provide a nice break from the work you’ve done so far. This is a good place to pause and readjust your mind before heading into the arm balance.
Start standing with your feet about your leg's distance apart. Slightly bend your knees and press them out to the sides a little. Hinge at your hips, keeping your spine in a neutral position. When you can no longer maintain a neutral spine, allow your back to round and place your hands on a supportive surface.
Take a few breaths here. Once you feel refreshed and ready to move on to the arm balance, ground into your feet, take your hands to your hips, and rise up.
Soar High With Support (Side Crow on Blocks)
Props: 2 blocks
Even with all this preparation for side crow, you still might not feel ready to lift off, which is why this prop setup is so helpful: It not only supports the weight of your hips so that you can hover your feet, it also makes the upper/lower body connection optional so that if that connection feels inaccessible it doesn’t inhibit your ability to fly.
To begin, stack at least two blocks on top of each other on their lowest setting (more height or a wider base may be necessary) in the middle of your mat, so the long edges of the blocks are parallel to the short edge of your mat. Stand next to your blocks facing the long edge of your mat and squat. Take your time to adjust as you place your outer right hip on the blocks and your hands on the floor to the outside of your blocks as you move into a twist. Pull your feet in closer to you and angle them slightly in front of you so that your body becomes more compact. Readjust your hands so they’re shoulder-width apart, and feel free to keep your hands well out in front of you (without the elbow-to-thigh connection) or scoop your left elbow to the outside of your right thigh. (If you need more than two blocks under your outer hip it will become clear now.) Lean into your hands and let your feet fly away from the floor. Take a few breaths here as you soak in the feeling of flight and make any adjustments to accommodate the twist.
When you're ready to come down, shift your weight back into your feet and lift your torso up. Switch sides.
Props: 2 blocks and a blanket
The feeling of flight is exhilarating, so be sure to land and recover. These next few poses will help down-regulate your nervous system and counter some of the repetitive positions you've been practicing so that your time in savasana, the concluding pose, is as integrative as possible.
Unfold your blanket entirely and then fold it once in half, fringe to fringe, if you are using a yoga blanket. Fold the long sides of the blanket two to four times, depending on how much height and width you'd like to support your back. Place the blanket lengthwise on your mat.
Sit at the short edge of your blanket and set one block on each side of you. Lie down on your blanket so it supports your back. Roll the blanket so that it fills in the curve of your neck and allows your chin to slightly tuck (as pictured below).
Bend your knees and bring your feet together for supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose), or cross one ankle on top of the other for supta sukhasana (reclined cross-legged pose). You may wish to turn the blocks at a slight angle so that their flat surface snuggles against your outer thighs.
Open your arms to the sides with your palms facing up and curl your hands toward your forearms to flex your wrists. Hold here for a few seconds, then press the backs of your hands into the floor as if you were going to extend your wrists past the floor. Hold here for a few seconds. Repeat these actions a few times and then allow your hands to settle wherever they feel at ease. Stay here for five to fifteen minutes.
After you've rested, slowly come into savasana by placing the soles of your feet on the floor and then extending your legs. Or roll to one side, remove your blanket, and prop your savasana as you see fit. Rest here for an additional five to fifteen minutes to conclude your practice.
Finding workarounds in our asana practice gives us the opportunity to build strength and confidence and liberates us from feeling continuously stuck in a pinnacle feature of a sequence. These are the uplifting moments that allow us to continue to forge ahead in our practice, find a sense of play, and an unrelenting spirit to discover what’s possible.