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This is mini-practice designed to help you better understand and teach a specific pose: bakasana (crow pose). Note: this script is the counterpart to the audio file above.
Props Needed: Yoga mat and a yoga block, small pillow, or tightly rolled blanket or towel.
When you understand the different actions and intentions of a pose, it’s easy to develop a sequence of poses that offers every person in a mixed-level class the opportunity to experience some of the benefits of a pose—while also providing adaptations that take into account common injuries or limitations.
This pose clinic analyzes the actions and benefits of one specific, challenging pose—bakasana, also known as crane or crow arm balancing pose. We’ll explore how different aspects of the pose can be used to create a set of preparatory poses, modifications and counterposes. By the end of this mini-practice, you’ll either be taking flight in bakasana, or enjoying the many variations and foundational movements that pave the way for later strength and ease in the pose. Any of the poses we do on the way to bakasana can be offered to students as an alternative to the pose.
Let’s start by considering the foundation of the pose: balancing on the hands. Come to all fours. Bring the wrists slightly in front of the shoulders. We’ll practice a spine wave here that engages the arms, chest and abdominal muscles in much the way that bakasana does, but with far less strength and weight-bearing on the hands and wrists. As you exhale, press through the arms and draw the belly in and up, rounding the back. As you inhale, release to neutral. Continue this movement with the breath. As you exhale, imagine that you are pushing the floor away from you. Feel the shoulder blades broaden on the back. Feel the connection between the engagement of your arms, chest, abdominals and even the serratus anterior – a muscle at the side of the ribs that helps to broaden the shoulder blades.
If this movement—or if being on all fours to begin with—is uncomfortable, then an arm balance like bakasana is not a reasonable part of your yoga practice. People who are unable to take weight in their hands and wrists can benefit from the upcoming poses that use a different foundation to practice other aspects of the pose.
If this movement was comfortable, you can make it more like bakasana in two ways. The next two preparatory poses take more weight in the arms and require more strength from the coordinated action of the arms, chest and core.
First, on all fours, press through the arms, draw the belly in slightly, and lift your knees just an inch or two off the floor. Hold. You can have your toes tucked if that’s more comfortable. Practice breathing in this pose without releasing core support—that will be an important part of practicing any arm balance with steady ease. If this pose was comfortable, take it one step further: come to a kneeling position with your ankles crossed and place your hands just in front of the knees. Press into the arms and lift both knees off the ground, also lifting the hips off the heels. Practice the chest and core contraction of the spine wave you did on all fours. Rather than trying to lift the hips as high as you can, lift the knees into the core. Practice breathing comfortably here.
The next preparatory action is also an excellent modification for people who cannot take weight in the hands and wrists. It’s a simple abdominal exercise. Lie down on your back, knees bent. Place a yoga block or tightly rolled towel or blanket between your knees, and squeeze the inner thighs to hold it in place. Bring your hands behind your head. Draw the elbows off the ground first, engaging the chest, then lift the head and shoulders off the ground. Hold, and breathe. Feel the shape and coordinated actions of the upper body here—it is similar to the spine wave on all fours. As you hold, draw the knees in toward the core in a double abdominal curl. This action—inner thighs hugging in as the core engages—is a critical action in bakasana. It is the primary source of lower body support for the pose.
Finally, let’s explore the shape of the pose without lift-off. Rock up to sitting, and take a wide squatting position: malasana, or garland pose. Your feet are separated and turned out. Heels are on the ground if possible. The knees are wide, turned out in line with the feet. The hips drop low, and the arms rest in front of the body. You can place a block or other support under the hips if that helps you balance in the pose. You can also roll your mat or a towel under the heels if the heels do not naturally touch the ground. In this squatting shape, bring your hands into anjali mudra (palms touching at the heart). Now, recreate some of the core actions we’ve been practicing. Hug the inner thighs onto the upper arms. Press the palms together to engage the chest. Feel the connection between drawing the inner thighs to the arms, and pressing the hands into each other. As you exhale, add the abdominal engagement.
If you’re ready for lift-off, now’s the time to try the full pose. In the malasana squat, place your palms on the ground slightly in front of the shoulders and lean forward a bit from the upper arms and shoulders. You can bend the arms as you do so. Lift the heels until you are balancing more on the balls of the feet. Then lift the hips slightly. Connect to the inner thigh action—thighs hugging arms. Now connect to the arm and chest pressing action—push the hands into the ground. If you feel strength here, see if you can lift the feet off the ground. Keep connecting to the core actions: legs hugging, arms and chest pushing and core engaging. Keep just enough softness in the core to breathe, making the pose strong and supported but not rigid.
How did it go? Often, students who have never been able to find balance in this pose before will be delighted to find that one of the preparatory poses revealed some “secret” to the pose that made it possible for them. But it doesn’t really matter how well the final pose worked—every student who was able to practice any of the preparatory poses will have realized some of the main benefits of the pose.
Now the counter poses. How do you choose good counter poses for bakasana? Simple: let’s reverse some of the key actions of the pose. We want to relax and stretch the muscles that supported the pose. We also want to change the foundation of the pose as well as our relationship to gravity.
- Take half gomukhasana (cow’s face arms) while kneeling—also known as a good old-fashioned triceps stretch. Lift one arm over head, bend at the elbow, and use the other hand to hold the elbow (do both sides).
- Take a kneeling chest stretch, clasping your hands behind your back, drawing the shoulder blades together, and lifting the hands and arms away from the back.
- Add in a abdominal stretch with half or full ustrasana (camel pose). Still kneeling, lean back and place your hands on the floor behind you. Draw the tail bone under, lift the hips, and press through the hands, drawing the spine into the back body. Draw the shoulder blades closer together. For full camel, the hands are on the ankles or feet, not the floor.
- Release the inner thighs, belly, chest, and arms in a pose that uses gravity rather than resists gravity: supta baddha konasana, or reclining bound angle pose. Lie all the way down on your back. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Drop your knees open and bring the soles of your feet together, making a diamond shape with the legs. Relax completely, let go. Place the hands on your belly and watch it rise and fall. Or, if comfortable, bring the arms overhead on the floor, making a diamond shape from shoulder to elbow to hands.
This is the loveliest counterpose of all, because it counters not just the physical actions of the pose, but the energetic and mental effort to resist gravity. In this pose, surrender to gravity. This is a pose you “receive” rather than “do.” Notice the quality of ease in this pose. If you found yourself struggling in any of the preparatory poses, working so hard that the breath became ragged or rushed, try to bring a bit of the attitude of this resting pose to the bakasana sequence. Eventually, the breath becomes as relaxed in bakasana as it is in supta baddha konasana. The key is to find steady ease in the preparatory poses so that the actions of bakasana become instinct—and like a bird, taking flight will not be a miracle or a struggle, but a reflection of natural skill and grace.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches psychology, yoga and group fitness at Stanford University. Contact her at email@example.com or www.openmindbody.com.