Whenever I felt I was “done” with a posture my Yoga Teachers challenge me to lift up higher and be stronger. Sometimes the most useful work on the mat involves taking a step back. It can be very rewarding and humbling to retrace your steps in service of building a better foundation. Revisiting poses you think you’ve mastered to eliminate bad habits and relied-on cheats can add all kinds of new challenge to “old” asana.
We all have to start somewhere and I definitely recommend doing postures at whatever level is appropriate for you. Many modifications are important stepping stones to build strength and flexibility—others are just bad habits. Once you’ve been relying on modified or improper alignment for a while, I recommend refining your practice, removing the training wheels, and challenging yourself to take it the next level.
The most difficult postures in yoga push you up against the edge of your comfort zone. And it is so tempting to take the easy way out instead of slowly and steadily putting in the work. Part of the inner tradition of yoga includes developing the humility to put the effort into whatever task is at hand. Right now, that task is the arm balance Crow Pose (Bakasana) and its relatives. Let’s work on cleaning up some of the most common cheats.
So many people say that they can only do the challenging arm balances when they are wearing leggings because if they wear shorts they slide down their arms. The more sweaty you are the less friction you can rely on and the more core strength you have to use.
In Bakasana and its many variations some students find it easier to park their shins on the shelf of the upper arm, bend the elbows a little out to the side and rest their body weight on the arms. While this is better than not doing the posture at all, after you have been relying on this cheat for a while, you might be ready to move beyond it.
The Challenge: Using your whole body
To move past this cheat start off in the bent-elbow, shin-parked Bakasana and then slowly increase the level of activation throughout your whole body. Spread your shoulder blades, engage your core, knit your rib cage together, draw your inner thighs toward each other, and stabilize the muscles of the shoulder. Straighten your arms while pressing into the floor and gripping with your fingertips. Allow your body to lift upward, aiming your knees toward your armpits. While you will most likely avoid this cheat entirely if you set up for the posture with straight arms and plug your knees right into your armpits as you lift up.
Leaving the feet closer to the ground helps students get over the fear of toppling forward while balancing their weight fully on their arms. But to take Bakasana to its highest level you need to draw the feet in toward the pelvis by activating the core and abs.
The Challenge: Lifting feet
To bring the feet closer in, spread the shoulder blades while engaging the muscles around the shoulder, activating the abs, and pushing the knees forward into the armpits. Draw the lower ribs in and press firmly into the arms.
A common place where many Ashtanga students “cheat” is in the transition from Bakasana to Chaturanga Dandasana. Instead of jumping directly back many times the toes touch down before jumping all the way back. This little cheat deprives you of building muscular and mental endurance.
The Challenge: Trusting your arms
The way to combat this cheat is to bend your elbow a little to generate momentum and take the leap of faith to jump all the way back. For more on fear, see also Sally Kempton’s Fear Not.
Some students find that bending the elbows to the side and turning the hands outward gives them more traction or strength. I do not recommend doing this at all—even as a training wheel—because it creates a movement mechanic in the body that can lead to wrist and shoulder injuries.
The Challenge: Aligning elbows and wrists
Begin by making sure your wrists are parallel with the front of the mat and the collarbone. Then squeeze your elbows in line with your shoulders as you lift into the pose.