Parsva Bakasana - Side Crow

*Originally posted June 2017. Updated November 2018.

I do love me some hand balances and Side Crow is up there as one of my favorites. However, it's a fairly deceiving posture. It's often attempted after a student feels like they've figured out traditional Crow, but there's an incredible amount of preparation required for most practitioners to get into an easeful Side Crow. Broken down it's a huge twist on Chaturanga arms. 

There's two ways that I see the posture done: Two Elbow Approach and One Elbow Approach. Let's take a look at both.

Two Elbow Approach:

I was originally taught to rest my leg across both of my elbows in Side Crow. Of course balancing on two elbows makes way more sense than trying to balance on one! Sure two elbows offers a higher likelihood of balancing in the posture, however, using both elbows is rather limiting. As you can see in the picture below on the left, my shoulders are rounded forward and my right shoulder is actually dipping down quite a bit in comparison to my left. The shape becomes very boxed in, restricted, and the lifting of the shin bones away from the floor becomes more challenging. When using both elbows Side Crow starts to lose it's length and it becomes less about the twist in the body and just more about getting into the shape. 

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One Elbow Approach:

When I was first told to only balance my body on one elbow in Side Crow I'm sure I threw a mini mental temper tantrum. Why change a posture that I'm already good at?!? Turns out, with time, the one elbow approach became way more accessible for me. The one elbow approach allows for more space--more space to lengthen the spine, more space to work the twist, and more space to breathe. The free arm, my right arm in the pictures below, is then able to push down since my leg isn't resting on it. That push is everything. The push keeps the chest elevated and keeps the posture feeling light. And although I'm only resting on one arm, I'm able to lift my legs even farther away from my mat compared to when I'm balancing on two elbows. 

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As much as I don't want to say that one approach is better than the other, it's hard not to. At least in my own body the one elbow option feels more stable and sustainable. Once I was able to fine tune the one elbow approach in my body I never went back to balancing on two elbows for Side Crow. I do think there's tremendous value in just trying to find the shape of the posture, however, with time that second elbow just becomes a limiting crutch. Just as so many of us rely on the wall for Handstand, sometimes you have to take a leap and eliminate that crutch. Why not give it a shot? You just might surprise yourself. 

Want more insight? Here’s a video for your viewing pleasure!

Lots of gabbing, but also lots of good information!

Side note, check out Iyengar rocking his Side Crow in Light on Yoga. Pretty amazing!

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Crescent/High Lunge

I don't believe I have ever enjoyed Crescent Lunge. I think my lumbar spine is too arched, I never feel like my hips are on the same page, and I always sense that I'm one second away from toppling over. I've played with this posture for years to find some sense of ease. Even with all the experimentation I still don't feel comfortable while holding the shape. I've just come to terms with the idea that I may never feel great in the posture and that's okay. 

For the majority of my practice and teaching I emphasized the drive of the back heel toward the back of the mat. The energetic press of the heel back gives the calf a great stretch and helps me feel more stable in a fairly unstable posture. Last year I was taking a class in LA from a teacher who was new to me. During practice the teacher came around and pushed my heel up in Crescent Lunge. Full disclosure, before the adjustment even happened I was instantly turned off by some statements made by this teacher in the first couple minutes of class. I instantly established a terrible attitude toward this teacher and let that attitude bleed into how I received her adjustment. "I do this posture this way and I don't like how this teacher wants me to do it."

Crescent Lunge with the back heel pressing back. 

Crescent Lunge with the back heel pressing back. 

Fast forward to this year, my teacher expressed his experimentation with lifting the back heel high in Crescent Lunge. Wait a second... no... Ugh. I respect his knowledge and perspective so I gave it a shot. Okay. The LA teacher and my teacher have a point. (Side note: The comparison between the LA teacher and my teacher has been a huge learning process for me. I'm a self described yoga snob and I need to constantly check myself in practice with teachers I don't know well. All teachers have something to teach me and I need to respect that process.)

Crescent Lunge with the back heel lifted over the toes. 

Crescent Lunge with the back heel lifted over the toes. 

For the last few months I've encouraged my students to lift their back heel over their toes in Crescent Lunge. For many it makes the posture less stable, however, it forces more muscles in the legs to fire which in turn creates stability. I have a lot of highly mobile students in my classes and the lift of the back heel forces them to engage the legs and glutes and not dump into their flexibility. Also, since so many students, myself included, have been programmed to drive the back heel back, a tiny shift of alignment forces them to stay forced and mentally engaged. 

I'm not saying one is right and one is wrong. I'm saying it's worth experimenting. Try out the two variations. Does one feel better for you? What differences do you feel between the two options? Yoga is all about exploration. Give yourself permission to explore and go from there. 

Utthita Trikonasana--Triangle Pose

Like most yoga practitioners I have had a love/hate relationship with Triangle Pose ever since I started practicing over ten years ago. The journey went as follows:

Year 1: "Oh, I get this Triangle thing. My legs create a triangle shape so I must be doing the posture."

Year 2: "What? It's not all about the triangle formed by my legs? Is anything real?"

Year 5: "Blocks are pretty cool. Why didn't I use a block five years ago?"

Year 7: "I refuse to do Triangle without a block. Those suckers without blocks don't realize what they're missing."

Year 10: "I never want to stop learning about Triangle!"

With that, let's dissect all that is Trikonasana. Full disclosure, most of these tricks are straight from my teacher, Jason Crandell. He often reminisces on when he used to teach a beginner level series and how his students' Triangles blew all other beginner yogis' Triangles out of the water. Of course, there's no competition in yoga, but dude knows his stuff and I'm happy to share his knowledge with you since it's made a huge difference in my practice and how I teach Trikonasana. 

Prop It Up!

I encourage about 95% of my students to prop up their bottom hand either with a block or by lightly putting weight into the front shin. I get it. There's a lot of ego wrapped up with using props. Yes, you are strong. No, using a prop doesn't show signs of weakness. Using a prop just allows for you to settle into the shape with more ease. Who wouldn't want that?

By placing some weight in your bottom hand you're able to use leverage to lengthen the sides of the torso and feel the true expansion of the posture. I prefer the block along the small toe side of the front foot. In my practice I've noticed that placing the block along the big toe side causes my pelvis to push too far behind me and out of alignment with my spine. 

Deflated Triangle

Here we've got a sad Trikonasana. The right side of my ribs are collapsed and the triangle between my front thigh, bottom ribs, and bottom arm is almost nonexistent. Usually a simple propping of the bottom hand and reaching up with the top hand helps a deflated Triangle, but there's other adjustments that can help too.

Yoga teachers often assist with manual adjustments throughout class, but I find that I'm frequently giving myself adjustments in my own practice. To help with a very rounded Trikonasana play with assisting yourself. Take your top hand to your top ribs. Use your hand to cinch the top ribs and waist together. By drawing those two points closer together you'll automatically lengthen the bottom ribs and spine while minimizing roundness. 

To Rotate or Not to Rotate? And What Direction?

Have you ever been told you should turn the top hip open in Triangle? Something about two panes of glass may have also been thrown in there. I have zero intention of disrespecting any teacher who uses these cues, but I encourage you to explore something a little different. These next steps changed Trikonasana for me forever and I can now happily say that I feel very free in the posture. Since slowing down and taking the time to really break down this posture isn't typical in a Vinyasa practice, but I encourage you to explore some of these tips in your own practice. 

First, let's tackle the hips. Start with your feet where you'd place them for Triangle, but turn your chest down and hinge over the front leg like you're doing a modified Parsvottanasana--Pyramid Pose allowing the hips to naturally follow along.

Place your bottom hand on your shine or a block and place your top hand on your top hip point. Without cranking on the top hip, allow your top hip to roll open only as much as it will naturally and then just stop. For most people the top hip will stop while it's still rotated slightly downward. 

Lastly, to create the open and expansive feeling of Triangle, place your top hand on your chest and just allow the rest of the rotation to happen from there without forcing the hips to open any further. From there reach the top hand straight up and feel all the glory that is your Trikonasana. 

Triangle Pose will look different on everyone, however, I've been working with a few students on some of these tips over the last couple of months and they, just like me, have experienced more freedom in the posture. I could go on about the SI joint and why it's not best to force the top hip to rotate away from the floor, but I won't. The easy feeling of the posture when done without forcing the top hip open will speak for itself. 

Yogis, I hope you take the time to explore Trikonasana in your own practice. What works? What doesn't? Don't get too wrapped up with it, but it's worth it to experiment and find where you feel the most ease. 

Chaturanga Dandasana--High to Low Plank

Oh, Chaturanga. My favorite misunderstood yoga posture. It's also my favorite posture to hear us Minnesotans with thick accents pronounce. It always makes me chuckle. 

Chaturanga is used so frequently in the Vinyasa style of yoga, but I often find that its frequency causes students to become less mindful of their alignment and just whip through it on a quick exhalation. The most common injuries I hear about from yoga students are shoulder injuries. Not that Chaturanga is the main culprit, however, I do think it has a lot of influence on shoulder injuries. 

Although there are many styles of yoga and different perspectives on alignment and form within the various yoga postures, I like to look at postures from an anatomically sustainable place. What I have to share may be very different from another teacher, but I believe that the longer yoga is around the more we get to learn about the human body and how it moves in space. We know more about the body now than we did 50, 100, 150 years ago. We also can't ignore the fact that our bodies are used every day in a very different way than they were 50, 100, 150 years ago.

With that, let's talk about Chaturanga Dandasana:

Shoulder and Elbow Relationship:

As much I as love inversions and hand balancing postures, I have to acknowledge that the anatomical structure of the shoulder joint isn't exactly ideal for hand and arm weight bearing. In brief the shoulders are mobile, weak joints. If compared to the hips they are the complete opposite. As humans we were designed to walk on our feet and use our legs hence our strong, less mobile hips. In some yoga postures we have to educate our body to now bear the weight of our body on our hands and arms. Of course it's totally possible to hold your entire bodyweight in your hands in a safe manner, but it has to be done in a way that is supportive of the structure of your shoulder joints. 

In order to keep the shoulder joints happy in Chaturanga it's important to keep the heads of the shoulders in line with or higher than the elbows, especially when transitioning to Upward Facing Dog. It's quite efficient for the shoulder joints to move to Upward Facing Dog if the shoulders stay slightly higher than the elbows in Chaturanga. Continuous dropping of the shoulders below the elbows causes the shoulders to be less stable and could lead to rotator issues or injuries. No bueño. 

A lot of yoga practitioners have no idea how low they're going in Chaturanga unless they're looking at their profile in a mirror or someone points it out to them. From time to time I have my students put a yoga block under their torso or shoulders and ask them to hover above the block. A reference point can make a big difference. 

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Elbow and Torso Relationship:

Not only do you want to keep your shoulders in line with or above your elbows, but in Chaturanga you want the elbows to hug into your torso. When the elbows wing out it, again, leads to less stability in the shoulder joints. 

To get students to feel the hug of the elbows into the torso I often have them place a strap just above their elbows. The loop in the strap should be pulled tight enough so that the elbows are just outside the ribcage. When lowering into Chaturanga students get to feel the draw of the elbows inwards PLUS the strap will catch their chest and stop them from dropping too low. Bonus! Students are usually amazed when they try this trick. 

If someone is unable to keep the heads of the shoulders above their elbows I just encourage them to drop to their knees. Taking some of the pressure out of the hands and into the legs will allow students to refine their alignment in a sustainable way. Same goes for students who become fatigued throughout practice. As a student gets tired alignment often becomes an afterthought. After your 50th Chaturanga it's okay to take a knee or even skip it entirely. Knowing when to modify and back off in a yoga practice will allow for you to maintain a happy and healthy practice for a long time. 

Vasisthasana B--Side Plank Variation

I wouldn't say that I love Vasisthasana, Side Plank, but I do think the posture has a lot of value. Especially in a Vinyasa class where Chaturanga is very prevalent, Side Plank teaches students to engage all parts of the body while balancing on one hand. I use this posture frequently as a gateway to many hand balancing postures to get students aware of the importance of shoulder alignment and stability.

Although I might not love Vasisthasana, I do love the expansive feeling of Vasisthasana B. Here's some tips on general alignment and form in traditional Vasisthasana and how to explore variation B.

Hand Placement in Vasisthasana:

When I first started to practice yoga I always moved my hand to the middle of my yoga mat the moment I heard the instructor say, "Side Plank". I would grimace and move my hand a few inches closer to my other hand and I was miserable for every breath I took while holding that godforsaken pose. Light bulbs went off once an instructor told me to keep my hand in the same place as High Plank when I transitioned to Side Plank. It now seems so intuitive! I gained more ease and strength in Side Plank with this revelation.

Notice the difference in the body alignment with the shift of the hand to center verses keeping the hand in place. When the hand is moved to center the body is forced into an angle and the hand has to be readjusted to transition back to High Plank. When the hand doesn't move the body is in a straight line and the joints align in a supportive manner with the shoulder stacked directly over the wrist. For some students a slight shift of the hand forward can be helpful. The body is still in one strong line with the shoulder over the hand and wrist. 

When I started to break down this transition in my classes, even with well seasoned practitioners, I had a lot of students thank me for pointing out this subtle yet important difference. One student said he voluntarily stayed away from Side Plank due to some shoulder issues, but he said that once he stopped moving his hand to the middle of his mat he was able to hold Side Plank without pain. Try it out!

A strong and stable Vasisthasana is essential before variations are added. Once you feel confident with traditional Side Plank, start to play with lifting the top foot. Eventually you may move towards Vasistasana B, however, there's quite a bit of prep work that needs to be done before you reach down, grab your big toe, and extend your leg up. 

Upavistha Konasana--Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend

When attempting to lift the top leg in Side Plank, it's essential that the inner thighs, groin, and hamstrings are warm and ready. This seated forward fold variation does just that. Be mindful that the knees don't drop too far forward in the fold. Use your abductors and rotate the things slightly back to keep some engagement in the legs during the stretch.

 

Trikonasana--Triangle Pose

Triangle Pose is  really just Vasisthasana B  without balancing on your hand. In Triangle focus on simultaneously stretching and engaging the legs while lengthening both sides of the torso and rotating the top shoulder away from the floor. These same concepts translate into the big Side Plank variation.

 

 

Uttitha Padangustasana--Hand to Big Toe Pose

Similar to Triangle Pose, Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose is Vasisthasana B in a different dimension. Stretch your standing leg and extend out through your lifted heel. Be sure to engage your abdominals to help with balance. The same muscles, and more, will have to be engaged when balancing on one hand with the big toe hold. 

 

Anantasana--Side Reclining Leg Lift (Vishnu's Couch)

I believe it's absolutely impossible to not grin in this posture. Try it out! Once you're able to balance I dare you not to smile! Vishnu's Couch is simply a lower risk Vasisthasana B. You're able to figure out the mechanics of grabbing your big toe without having to balance on one hand. Don't let this cute posture deceive you though. It's quite hard to balance on your side with one leg in the air. Engage your abdominals and extend up fully through your top heel and the balance will come. 

 

Vasisthasana--Side Plank

Of course the basic level of Side Plank is essential before you grab your big toe and extend your top leg. As pointed out in the video play with either keeping your hand in place or moving your hand a few inches forward when transitioning from High Plank. Engage your legs and abdominals, turn your top shoulder away from the floor, reach up through your top hand, and push down and slightly forward through your bottom hand. If you're still working on your balance in this one simply lower down to your bottom knee. 

Vasisthasana B

If you're ready to add on to your Side Plank start with your solid traditional variation. Actively push through your bottom hand and hug your abdominals in toward your spine. To add the big toe hold lift your hips away from the floor, bend your top knee and draw your heel toward your groin. Reach down with your top hand and grab your big toe. Although it seems like it'll topple you over, the extension of your top leg will help to balance you out. Broaden your chest and maybe even look upward. Revel in your ability to balance on one hand, kick your top leg up, and smile all at the same time. Enjoy! 

 

 

Eka Pada Galavasana--Flying Pigeon

For my first posture breakdown I'm going to tackle my least favorite arm balance of all time: Eka Pada Galavasana--Flying Pigeon Pose. Why start with my least favorite? Because it's important to do things you don't always enjoy!

To oversimplify Eka Pada Galavasana, it's equal parts Pigeon and Chaturanga. This posture requires very open hips, active arms, and a rounded spine. Hand balances come pretty easily for me due to my strength, however, my tight hips typically hold me back on this one. Here's a few postures that are essential when preparing for Eka Pada Galavasana.

Modified Eka Pada Rajakapotasana--Crooked Pigeon

Crooked Pigeon

Begin in Half Pigeon Pose but rather than folding forward over the front shin walk your hands about 45 degrees away from the front knee (i.e. if the right shin is forward walk your hands left). Your palms can stay down, but if available release your forearms down. Let this be an active posture. Press your palms or forearms into the floor, round through your spine, and press your hips in the opposite direction of your arms (i.e. if right shin is forward press your hips back and right). The movement of the hips back and to the side will intensify the stretch in your outer hip. Stay here for at least ten breaths. 

                                                                                                                                                   Eka Pada Utkatasana--Figure Four with Hand Press

Start in Utkatasana and cross one ankle over the opposite thigh to set up Figure Four. Once in the posture sink your hips down and back and actively push through your standing heel. Begin to hinge forward a bit to intensify the hip stretch. To get even deeper press your hand into the lifted foot (i.e. press your left hand into your right foot). Let the pressure be equal parts foot into hand and hand into foot. To help stabilize yourself it can be helpful to place one hand on the floor if accessible or on a block as pictured. Hold for ten breaths. 

 

Gomukhasana--Cow Face Pose

From a seated position cross your legs at your knees, draw your feet just to the outside of your hips, and connect your sitting bones onto your mat. This posture is not always the most accessible for all students so it can be helpful to sit on the front edge of a yoga block to get the knees closer. The posture can be done upright or you can hinge forward from your hips. Press both sitting bones equally into your mat or block. To take it one step further, if you're hinged forward, actively press your palms into the floor and dome your spine as you push back. Indulge and hold for a few minutes. 

                                                                                                                                                     Modified Ardha Pawanmuktasana--Half Wind Relieving Pose

This variation helps to stretch and lengthen the hip flexors and psoas while engaging the glutes and hamstrings of the extended leg. Place a block under your sacrum at its lowest height. Extend your left leg long on your mat and pull your right knee toward your right armpit. There's a good chance the extended leg will lift off your mat, but push through your heel and try to get your heel to your mat. Keep the leg active. You want the same length and engagement with the extension of the back leg in Eka Pada Galavasana. Hold for a few breaths on each side. 

 

Chaturanga--High to Low Plank

Since Eka Pada Galavasana is one part Pigeon and one part Chaturanga, it's important to work Chaturanga into the prep process. When working this pose focus specifically on the heads of your shoulders in relationship to your elbows. Depth isn't the goal here. Keep the heads of your shoulders slightly higher than the tips of your elbows. As you lower down draw your navel toward your spine and energize your heels back to engage the muscles in your legs. To alleviate pressure in the shoulders or wrists simply lower to your knees.

Time to Fly!

Two blocks can be extremely helpful when trying Eka Pada Galavasana, especially if you're a fellow member of the Short Arm Club or if you have tight hips. But heads up that the blocks bring you farther away from the ground and that can amp up the fear factor. 

  • From Figure Four hinge forward until you can place your hands on your mat or on your blocks.
  • Once you have a solid foundation bend your elbows straight back a la Chaturanga.
  • It seems like a minor detail, but hook your lifted toes around the outside of your opposite tricep (i.e. hook right toes around your left tricep).
  • With your shin resting on your arm, begin to tip weight forward into your hands.
  • Keep your gaze in front of you. 
  • Round through your upper spine.
  • If you feel stable there try to pick up your back foot and pull  your heel up to your hips.
  • When you're ready to take it further extend your back leg up and back. This final part is typically the trickiest.
  • Hug your abdominals toward your spine, continue to gaze forward, and do your best to keep equal pressure in both hands.
  • Do all of those things and remember to breathe! There's a lot going on in this posture, but help yourself out and continue to breathe. 

Remember, your practice and you are more than just your ability or inability to move into a specific shape. Be patient with yourself and enjoy the journey of your practice. Never take yourself too serious and remember to laugh a little. A stumble or fall will probably bruise your ego more than your body. Also, face plants are an essential part of the practice. Enjoy it!! 

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