The Secret to Good Arm Balances - think relaxation, not strength.
If the mention of arm balances and inversions makes your heart beat faster and your palms sweat, in a good or bad way, then read on my yogis and yogini’s. The first pose we often think of when we imagine arm balances is the crow. When you first see this pose, it does kind of seem impossible.
Crane pose seemingly asks us to tap into our inner levitator to make this magic happen right? It is not surprise then that a lot of people approach arm balances with a certain amount of fear, anxiety or in the very least nervousness. Some point blank refuse to get close to even trying them because the fear factor is just too big. There can be an ingrained fear that your arms are not strong enough, and falling can not only hurt, but also bruise the ego. The thing most people fear is ‘face planting’. Which translates to failure for most of us, or looking silly in front of a room full of other yogis who we all presume to be superstars! All too often face planting is a mind over matter thing, which I will come to a little later in the article! People always think that arm balances come down to sheer strength, and have concerns that they are not strong enough to hold themselves up on their arms. Which kind of makes sense after a lifetime of holding ourselves upright on our feet! However it is super important to realize that it takes more than just muscle strength to perch comfortably in crow or side crow pose.
I am here to remind you that it is ok to throw all of those moments of self-doubt or fear out of the window, and grab life by the lapels and just go for it! What’s the worst that can happen? Yep you might fall, you may feel silly for all of two seconds…but isn’t that better than a lifetime of allowing fear to direct your thoughts, always thinking you aren’t good enough, never letting your head have enough space to think how awesome am I to even try to learn how to fly? You will feel so fabulously empowered as you start to flick away each of these ill-serving thoughts off one by one. Honestly, as a yoga teacher I can’t even begin to tell you how exciting and rewarding it is to see the pure excitement and amazement in a students eyes when they realize that “whoa I can actually do that”. Then the head spinning moment of trying to make sure that I, and anyone else around, happened to see as their smile gets broader and wider across their face! Yay to small miracles!
Do you need to be strong to do arm balances?
Absolutely. But the good news there is SO much more to arm balances than just being strong. Sure, strength is a big part of the equation. But so are some other things that may surprise you, and give you hope in your quest to become someone who learns how to fly! In order to master some of the arm balance poses there come a few true realizations: You will need to practice, practice, and practice some more, and know that ultimately, these poses are all about getting your mind on board. Along with a little help from our friends flexibility, co-ordination, relaxation, playfulness, letting go and core strength as you will see below.
So if it isn’t just strength that is needed, what else is?
Relax & Release the Muscles
As well as arm strength, you also need to relax and release many of the muscles and joints in the body. You need a degree of flexibility to be able to get the muscles, hips, knees, ankles and torso into some of the starting positions for these poses. For example side plank pose requires you to activate the muscles on one side of your body to hold the correct hip and shoulder alignment, yet the other side of your body needs to remain relaxed so as to not add too much weight or strain to the activated side. Once you start to develop a fuller, more rounded yoga practice you will find that the effort required to get into the arm balances lessens, and one day you will surprise yourself as you unexpectedly catch yourself gliding up effortlessly and gracefully into a full crane pose while wearing a smile plastered across your face from ear to ear!
One reason arm balances are so challenging is that they require both strength and flexibility. You may be very strong but still not be able to do arm balances if you don’t have the necessary flexibility. And yet excellent flexibility is no guarantee of success if you don’t have the needed upper body and torso strength. While you are working on your upper body strength and abdominal strength, a few key areas also need work on in terms of flexibility. These include the spine – in flexion (rounding forward) and twisting – and the hips. Any of the sitting twists will help build rotational flexibility in the spine and rib cage, which is needed for arm balances like side crow. Starting and maintaining a regular yoga practice will help to give you general flexibility that the body requires to move into more advanced arm balance poses.
A Degree of Strength
That’s not to say that you should forget about strength all together. If your body strength is such that you can successfully hold a plank pose, or lower yourself down easily into chaturanga then you will find that you probably won’t need too much more arm strength than you already have. However since our upper bodies aren’t used to supporting the weight of our lower bodies, it is important to strengthen your core, upper back, shoulders, arms, and even the muscles in your hands and wrists to feel strong and stable enough to take a stab at a headstand or handstand.
Success in arm balances has another sprinkling of a secret ingredient – abdominal strength. Most balance poses, including inversions, require abdominal strength to support and stabilize the center of your body. In many of these poses the abdominal muscles must contract even more strongly to lift the weight of your pelvis and legs off the floor. So if you come to yoga without a regular practice of abdominal work, arm balances are likely to be a study in frustration.
Playfulness and Curiosity
The most important thing is to be able to come to your mat and your practice with is a light-hearted playfulness, an Alice in Wonderland degree of curiosity and an open heart and mind. And of course, a gentle optimism that TODAY IS THE DAY that “lift off” will happen for you. That mental focus on being weightless and confidence in your ability to do these poses will assist you more than anything else when it comes to taking flight.
Mental Discipline - an open mind and mastering the art of letting go
Now it is is time to consider another necessary ingredient for progress: mental discipline. Just as much as you will be excited by your first successes, you will be deeply frustrated and discouraged by your failures. Be open to that. Embrace that. Use the failures as learning opportunities. Think of it like this - if you didn’t fall you wouldn’t be able to pick yourself back up and learn how to correct your progress in your next attempt, and the one after that. Falling down is how we learn to get back up, and how to better avoid falling again. Yoga gives you a sense of self-confidence, of self-assurance, and inner strength. Therefore, arm balances are the perfect poses to practice persistence in the face of challenge, as well as non-attachment to the actual outcome of your practice. Knowing that some days we just have it, and some days we don’t. The key to it all is then learning to be ok with that. And when you spend time to explore what you learn during these challenging times, it is that much more powerful. Because THAT is how you grow. It’s almost the perfect metaphor for life!
The most important thing to remember with any arm balance or inversion is to move into it slowly. A common mistake that often happens is when people power themselves forward into these poses without taking the time to properly align hands, elbows, shoulders, pelvis and move from the core. I recently studies with the wonderful Tiffany Cruikshank in Hong Kong, at the Evolution – Asia Yoga Conference. Tiffany is a huge fan of seeing the body set up properly in terms of alignment before attempting these hard core arm balances that we all either love or fear immensely! When the foundation of the pose is carefully considered and set up, when you move with more integrity and core strength, the feet start to float away from the floor with a lot more grace and a lot less effort. And that, my yogis, is when you start to learn to fly!
Learning to Fly is the Most Exciting Thing in the World, so SMILE!
Remember, arm balances and inversions help to cultivate a deeper sense of strength, stamina, and self-confidence helping you to feel physically stronger on AND off the mat. All of which helps you to learn to live the life you love!!!
Caroline Layzell is a certified 500-hour yoga instructor, based on the paradise island of Nusa Lembongan, just off Bali, where she is lucky enough to be teaching yoga full time at the Yoga Shack Lembongan. When she is not doing yoga she can be found underwater diving with the beautiful manta rays in Lembongan. Diving is her moving meditation! Caroline came to yoga after a lifetime of marathon training, cross country running, triathlons and short distance races. It helped her to put her body back together after numerous injuries, and it is here that her passion for yoga began. Now she is a self-confessed yoga addict! Join Caroline on Facebook, Instagram or her website