Saturday, 16 March 2013

Hip & Arm Balance Workshop Study Points

Bakasana ('crow pose') as shown by an expert

The short of it!
We had a fabulous workshop yesterday by the lake with 22 yogis of various levels of experience from beginners to teachers enjoying (or so they told me!) our two hour hip and arm balance workshop.

We focussed on techniques for using the hands, shoulders, and spine to help us learn the feel and shape of the arm balance postures bakasana and eka pada galavasana.

Among many things we learned how important it is to lengthen and curve the spine away from the floor broadening across the back body without squashing the front body; to hug the armpits down to the waist while pushing the arms through the floor; to squeeze the elbows towards one another; and to create ha-mani bandha by gripping the floor with our hands as though making a fist.

We also practiced these postures in various orientations to gravity (lying on our back) to feel whether our bodies could move into position without pressure on the arms.

We built strength, stability, and mobility (freedom) in the hips with a sequence of standing and lunging postures, and used some one-legged standing balance postures for deeper strengthening and opening.

We also did a great mandala hip opening sequence that included two of my specialties, which have to remain nameless since the first is a transition pose that I stumbled upon in my own practice and the other is one a posture my teacher taught me and I can't be sure she didn't make it up.  Pigeon and dying warrior variations also made an appearance.

All topped off with some meditation and savasana beneath a clear Canberra sky.  Aaaah.

Unfortunately I didn't get to cover some of the other interesting poses.  So, as my sister suggested, that will be part II!

The long of it!
Wow!  The weather could not have been more perfect for us yesterday at the hip and arm balance workshop.  I thought we'd have about ten people but 22 of you decided doing some yoga by the lake would be a great way to start your weekend.

When I have run this workshop previously it is usually three hours.  Since I am new to Canberra and to most of you I thought I would start with the gentle approach and cut it back to two.  It means there was stuff I had to skip.  Astavakrasana and eka pada koundinyasana II got the boot.

Instead, we covered some of the basics of bakasana (crow pose) and eka pada galavasana (one-legged balance).

Eka pada galavasana

Basic ideas
One of my main intentions was to help people understand the 'push and lift' feel in arm many of the balance postures.  That is, the spine is rounding and lifting away from the floor as the arms lengthen and press down.  A crucial part of this is making sure the shoulder blades wrap around the outside of the ribs and your upper back gets very broad.

In these poses, the spine becomes gently curved. Some people baulk at this because they think they are hunching.  But this is not hunching.  This is lengthening the spine in a forward curve.  From the centre of your sternum (breastbone or hard bony plate that runs down the front of the chest) you are moving back and up rather than collapsing the chest down.  Imagine a strong gush of water coming from below (like the water fountain at Lake Burley Griffin) that is pushing up strongly and lifting you in the centre of the chest.

At the same time the tail goes down and under-imagine the tail of a submissive dog so that rather than squashing the belly in you are trying to curl the back side under.

These sorts of instructions are aimed at trying to get you to attend to the stretch/lengthened don't squash principle.  That is, the front of the torso should feel like it is getting longer not squashing or collapsing in on itself.    

At the same time as all of this is going on, the armpits need to gently hug down towards the waist so that the neck can remain free.  The outer elbows need to wrap under and around as they hug towards one another so that in the final arm balances the elbows do not splay out and drop you.

Basic sequences
We started by warming up the wrists in standing poses before taking a few slow suriya namaskars with lunges and high lunges.  Between the suriya namaskars we came into low squats with knees around the outside of the shoulders, which helped our hips start to ease into the bakasana position.

We moved to some standing hip opening postures (including trikonasana, virabhadrasana II, and parsvakonasana).  We also did one legged standing variations of bakasana--drawing one thigh up to the outer shoulder with and without using our hands.  We kept the spine and arms in the 'bakasana' feel mentioned in the 'basic ideas' above.

We moved to bakasana on our backs, hugging the thighs up and into the upper arms as we curled our chest high and through the knees.

After practicing lying down it was time for the real thing, putting everything together that we had learned.

There were plenty of delightful crows bobbing around on their mats and even if we didn't come all the way up it was not the end of the world because we remained mindful that poses come with practice and if we continue to practice with dedication and compassion we will likely get there in the end.

Balancing into bakasana

Phew, it was getting pretty tiring out there by this time so we headed for a seated/lying sequence of hip openers, starting with a long, slow pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana).  Here, I reminded everyone to stay mindful that the knees were not experiencing strain.  We never move into pain!  I encouraged us to see what a difference it made to move the front hip back and move the back hip forward while in pigeon.  When I say encouraged, I came around and gently coaxed you there!  Wow, what a difference that makes to the posture!

My special pose--we won't forget this one in a hurry!

We moved into my special pose (pictured above) and then a dying warrior sequence, topped off with another special pose that I don't have a picture and remains the nameless creation of my teacher, Paddy.  Suffice it to say, it was very special.

From there it was time to practice eka pada galavasana on our backs and from there moved to a one legged standing variation before coming into the arm balance position.

One thing some of us noticed was that this arm balance pose demands a lot of your hips.  If you cannot do the pose in lying then you might be better of practicing pigeon for a while or the standing variation that we practiced on the day (pictured).  Better to practice safely and without pain so that the hip gently opens rather than try to force yourself into something your body is not ready for.

Throughout the practice we interspersed some back bending and finished with seth bandhasana, some lying and seated twists, as well as some neck releasing postures.  Then is was time for meditation and a well deserved savasana.

A Few Words on Strength
Those of you there on the day might have noticed I did not talk much about strength.  This was deliberate.  While is it true that all arm balance poses require upper body and core strength to help create the lift, it wasn't my priority to do a lot of strengthening in this sequence.

This is because I wanted you to have energy to try modified versions of the pose without coming into them fatigued.  This is especially if you have not quite figured out how to use your hands and arms to take weight from the wrists (be sure to read my previous blog post on this).

However, we did do some strengthening work, which you might like to practice at home.  They were slipped into the general sequence and included the ones mentioned below:

  • in standing, bending the knees slightly, evenly rounding the spine, pushing the arms and shoulder blades forward as you send the chest up and back between the shoulder blades, gently hugging the armpits to the waist.  Keep these same actions throughout as you practice the next positions

  • high plank (with chest pushing back through the shoulder blades) and spine evenly curving and pubic bone moving towards the ribs
  • from high plank slowly lowering knees towards the floor until they hover a few millimetres from the earth

  • from there lift your hips and start to walk forward on your tip-toes with your hands still on the ground.  Knees can stay bent.  Keep walking forward as far as you can take the feet while keeping the hands flat on the ground and shoulders over the wrists.  Stay as high on your tip-toes as you can. 
  • come into a high squat on your tip-toes.  Adopt the spine and arm position in the first standing position described above.  Gradually fold forward, keeping the shoulder blade/arm/spine position and position your hands flat on the floor in front of you.   Keep leaning forward over your hands, gradually taking more weight off the feet until we are on our tip-toes
Leaning forward into hands, come higher onto your tip-toes (higher than in this picture!)
  • from there, walking back on tip-toes to high plank again
  • practicing both of the poses (bakasana and eka pada galavasana) on your back (helps with the core)
Practicing the standing, squatting, and plank versions described above helps you cultivate the overall shape and feel of the postures.  In particular, it will help with regard to what you are trying to do in your arms and shoulder blades as well as along the front and back sides of your spine.

The standing variations are important to practice first because you don't have to bear any weight through the arms you can focus on how to position yourself and the general action/feel without concern about whether you are going to collapse under your own weight!

Plank is a good position--either in kneeling (easier) or with legs straight (harder)--to cultivate strength in weight bearing for this posture.  However, you want to practice the high arched plank with the chest doming up for best results.

Tip-toeing forward and backwards and leaning into the hands from the semi-squatting position are harder than plank because there is going to be more weight over your hands as your centre of gravity shifts forward.   Ideally, you want to be able to get your shoulders in front of your wrists and be able to stand on your tip-toes fairly close to your hands.  If you can do that you will know you definitely have more than enough strength for the arm balances!

A Few Words on Balance
The arm balance postures are balances.  We float into them by shifting our centre of gravity forward until we find our tipping points.  It is important to be able to relax the face and breathe.  Remember, there is no facepullasana.

If you can't find your tipping point then you might need to spend some more time strengthening and cultivating the overall shape of the posture in various orientations to gravity.  Especially in the case of eka pada galavasana, you might need to spend more time on hip opening.  If you have the hip opening and the strength and you can get yourself into position on your back then perhaps get your teacher to have a look at you to see if your technique is correct.   There might be a few minor adjustments that they can help you with.

Looking Forward to Hip & Arm Balance 2
I have more to cover so look out for part 2 of this fun and challenging workshop series!  Until then, happy and safe practicing.

Classes (current at time of posting.  See class schedule page for updated details):

Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]

Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12

Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah

Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5

Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15

Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15

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