I wanted to like Ustrasana, or Camel Pose, for years, but everything kept getting in my way. Everything, meaning, my lower back, my neck, and the way that my ego was offended when I practiced the pose.
Then, it dawned on me that one of the techniques in the posture that nearly every teacher (including myself) uses was totally irrational. The problem—for my body and many others—was forcing the pelvis to stay positioned directly over the knees. To say this another way, the cascade of problems stemmed from keeping the legs vertical and stacking the hips directly over the knees.
Now, before I continue, let me make something clear: Many people can keep their pelvis positioned vertically over their knees. This alignment is not bad. In fact, it works very well for students who have fairly flexible hip-flexors. However, there are plenty of students—like myself—for whom this instruction does greater harm than good.
Should the Hips Stack Over the Knees in Ustrasana?
Let’s look at why keeping the pelvis directly over the knees doesn’t work for everyone.
To begin, think about Bridge Pose for a moment. With the exception of the position of your neck, Bridge pose is just like doing Camel Pose— but on your back. When students practice Bridge Pose, they are never told that they must lift their hips to the same height as their knees.
Of course, lifting the hips this high is a good thing if it doesn’t cause compression in the lower back. But, making this a prerequisite for the pose would be silly. There are zero mechanical reasons to lift the hips as high as the knees, and requiring them to lift this high would likely cause students with tighter hip flexors to move too far in the lower-back in order to make up the difference.
The same goes for Ustrasana. If you require your hips to stay vertically aligned over your knees and you don’t have sufficient hip flexor mobility, you’re likely to compress your lower back. Another way to say this: Your lower back is likely to move too far in order to compensate for your lack of hip flexor mobility. And if your lower back is excessively arched (and compressed) in this pose, you’re more likely to misalign other parts of your body, including your neck.
First, let me reiterate that keeping the pelvis directly stacked over the knees is not a problem if you have sufficient hip flexor mobility. If you practice Camel this way and you’re comfortable in your lower back, there is no reason to change your approach. This alignment is only a problem if it is creating a problem. Unfortunately, this alignment does cause a problem for students with less hip flexibility.
So, what’s the fix? Easy. Simply allow your pelvis to move slightly toward your heels in this posture. Another way of saying this is allow your hips to move slightly back instead of pushing them forward. This should decrease compression in your lower back by reducing the demand on the hip flexors. While doing this posture, remember to engage the bottom of your buttocks and do all the other skillful things that you do in backbends.
One note about your neck in Ustrasana. It’s essential to sort out your lower back before sorting out your neck. However, if your neck is still uncomfortable after you’ve sorted out your lower back, try keeping your chin slightly tucked toward the throat in the posture. This will make the muscles on the front and side of your neck work while preventing your neck from hyperextending. Since this can be demanding on the neck, you might want to shorten your duration in the pose to a few breaths.
And, remember, if you’re still unable to make friends with the pose, there’s always Bridge Pose instead.
I think I’m pretty good at teaching yoga. But, I also think I get lazy once in a while and I don’t expose students to the world of backward bending that exist beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana. I regularly teach a couple of prone backbends, some bridge pose variations, then conclude the backward bending series with Urdhva Dhanurasana. That’s it. Time and time again. So, I’ve turned over a new leaf. We’re going beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana in all of my experienced-level classes. And, the first pose to tackle in this progression is Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana.
If you have a reasonable degree of proficiency in Urdhva Dhanurasana, you can start working on lifting one of your legs for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s literally one step away.
But, this step introduces a ton of instability into the posture, so there a few things I like to do in order to make the posture accessible—and less likely to make your SI and lower-back feel tweaky.
How to Find Balance in an Asymmetrical Pose
First, Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana is referred to as an asymmetrical backbend. There’s an essential component of alignment in asymmetrical backbends that applies to this one, too. Ready? It’s essential that only part of your body that is asymmetrical are your legs.
You do NOT want your hips to be asymmetrical or your spine to be asymmetrical. Your top leg is flexing and your bottom leg is extending. The pelvis, however, needs to stay level and your spine needs to backbend without any twisting motion. Rotating your spine while doing a deep backbend may over stress your lower-back.
There are a couple of ways to keep your hips level in Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, the leg that stays connected to the floor has to work much harder. Obvious, right? In particular, the abductors and the gluteus maximus on the standing leg need to work like mad. Without intense engagement in these muscles, your opposite hip (the side of the lifted leg) will drop slightly toward the floor. If this hip drops, the pelvis and spine will rotate. Not good. Also, be mindful that engaging your glutes and outer hip muscles may externally rotate and abduct your bottom leg. I don’t actually have a problem with this, since it’s preferable to the opposite hip collapsing. But, if you don’t like the feel of it, you can also hug your leg toward the midline by engaging your adductors.
Committing to strongly reaching your top leg toward the ceiling also helps keep the pelvis level. You can’t phone in this pose. You’ve got to reach the top leg full barrel. To do this, I like to pull my lifted knee toward my chest as strongly as I can. Then, I reach my top heel toward the ceiling. I find that flexing the top foot instead of pointing my top foot gives me more levity and height in the posture.
Tips for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana
There are two more details that help me with Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, I step my feet a little closer to each other before lifting my leg. Second, I place my hands wider apart than I do for Urdhva Dhanurasana by about six inches.
Think about it this way. In regular Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a rectangular base. When you lift one foot off the ground for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a triangular base. In order to make the triangular base of Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana more stable, it’s helpful to broaden the arms and center the remaining foot. This provides more stability in the posture, which allows for greater range of motion.
Give these steps a try and see how the pose feels in your body. Of course, your practice isn’t just about doing harder things like Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s also about continuing to learn and grow. And, even if you can’t do this variation, practicing it a time or two will make the regular version of Urdhva Dhanurasana feel like a piece of cake.
I’ve been easier, softer and lighter on my hips for the last couple of years. I used to bludgeon them with intense leverage and long holds, thinking that I was creating more flexibility. I finally came to terms with the reality that this approach usually left my hips feeling achy, sore, and stiff for a couple of days. After nearly two decades, I’ve changed my tactics.
I still stretch my hips and I still hold postures for a reasonable duration. I still practice lunges like Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), Crescent (High Lunge), Pigeon Pose, and Lizard—the topic of this instructional. I still love “hip-openers,” and I teach them regularly. Of course, I balance this approach more skillfully than I have in the past by including more strengthening work for my hips. But, also, I treat my hips like the dynamic joint they are when I do “opening” postures. Instead of staying for long periods in the same pose, I do several repetitions of the same posture. For example, instead of staying in Pigeon for 3 minutes, I might do 3 or 4 versions of Pigeon for approximately 1 minute each. Instead of loading all my weight onto my hips during deep lunges, I often use my arms actively so they take some of my weight instead of letting it all go into my hips.
Lizard Pose is perfect for this approach. When you look at the illustration of me in Lizard above, you’ll see two important details that will keep you lighter: My elbows are on the floor directly under the shoulders and my front shin is vertical. Try it this way—instead of sinking all of your weight into your hips, press your forearms and front foot down into the floor to lighten the load on your hips.
If you’re a little less flexible, put a block or two under your elbows. You’ll still get plenty of stretch in your hips, but these actions will slighty lessen the intensity. I’ve come to believe this is a good thing. If you want more intensity, add a few more repetitions.
Experiment with this approach to stretching your hips and see if having a lighter touch is helpful to you. Let me know how it goes in the comments section. Enjoy.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT ANATOMY, SEQUENCING, AND TEACHER TRAINING?
I offer both online trainings and live, in-the-flesh ones around the world. Here are a few of the courses that are currently open. (For a full schedule, go to my Schedule page.):
You don’t have to press the sitting bone that you’re leaning away from in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana into the floor. In fact, you may have a better all-around experience posture if you allow that sitting bone to lift up. Yes, you read that correctly. Here’s why:
The pelvis and spine work best when they work together. In fact, the pelvis and spine are so functionally integrated that I think of them as two parts of the same system when it comes to movement. When you do a forward bend with your spine, you do a forward bend with your pelvis (anterior tilt). When you do a backward bend with your spine, you do a backward bend with your pelvis (posterior tilt). There are a few minor exceptions and complications to this rule of thumb, but the logic is sound. In fact, if you take your pelvis and spine and move them in opposite directions you will typically produce excess compression and tension somewhere in the spine. And, while this may look fancy on Instagram, excess tension and compression at spinal junctions is not in anyone’s best interest, nor does it fall under the scope of teachings that we can fairly describe as “yoga.”
Since the spine and pelvis work best when they’re both sharing the same set of motions, I want you to experiment with lifting the sitting bone that you’re moving away from when you do Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. You read that correctly. Experiment with lifting the opposite buttock slightly instead of pressing it down so that your pelvis can rotate laterally over your thigh bones slightly. You’ll still receive a big ‘ole side-stretch, you’ll produce more length in your spine, and chances are that you’ll reduce excess compression in the lower back and sacroilliac region on the side that you’re moving toward. In short, you’ll probably like it. A lot. If not, feel free to press both sitting bones down and keep it old school.
Use the illustration above to hone your pose and experiment with changing the alignment of your base. Enjoy.
SEQUENCING FOR PARIVRTTA JANU SIRSASANA
You can find a fully-illustrated, 16-pose sequence for Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana here.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT ANATOMY, SEQUENCING, AND TEACHER TRAINING?
I offer both online trainings and live, in-the-flesh ones around the world. Here are a few of the courses that are currently open. (For a full schedule, go to my Schedule page):
There are 3 ways to use this blog about Pincha Mayurasana or Forearm Balance:
1. You can simply practice Foream Balance using the illustration above.
2. You can learn how to get into the posture by reading the “How To” Section below.
3. Or you can geek out on the sequencing and anatomy related to the pose, by skipping down to Part II of this column.
Don’t forget to pass this along to your students and colleagues!
Forearm Balance’s similarities to Handstand are striking, In fact, the two postures are identical from the feet all the way through the elbows. The point of differentiation between the postures is that you bend your elbows and place them on the floor in forearm balance and you keep them straight in Handstand. This is obvious to even the most casual observer. What is not obvious is the chain reaction that bending the elbows creates in the shoulders, core, spine, pelvis, and legs. Let’s look at this chain reaction and learn how to work with it.
One quick tip about Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana)
When you bend your elbows in and place them on the floor, it becomes much harder to flex your shoulder joints. This means that most students feel tighter and more restricted in their shoulders in Forearm Balance compared to Handstand. Yes, Forearm Balance has certain advantages that Handstand doesn’t. However, for many students it can be very challenging to get the upper-arms, shoulders, and ribs verticaly stacked in Forearm Balance. When the shoulders don’t flex easily, the core and spine compensate by moving too far into extension. Here’s another way of saying the same thing: when the shoulders don’t flex enough, the spine and core compensate by moving too far into a backbend – so your body is in a banana shape.
So, instead of just focusing on strengthening your core, my tip for this pose is to focus on creating more shoulder flexion by doing three things:
1. Stretch your triceps and lats
2. Stretching your rhomboids and traps
3. Stretching your pecs and anterior deltoids
This sounds like a lot, but it’s not rocket science. The warm-up below lists the postures that work best.
It’s a good idea to warm up your entire body with a few Sun Salutations before you focus on preparing your shoulders. Any kind of salutation will do the trick. Once you’ve done a few rounds, sit on the floor in Sukhasana or Vajrasana. Do the following four shoulder openers:
1) Half-Down Dog (hands on a wall or on a chair), Dolphin Pose, and Gomukhasana to stretch your triceps and lats
2) Cat Pose and Garudasana to stretch your rhomboids and traps
3) Fingers interlaced and arms straight behind your back to stretch your chest and the front of your shoulders.
Handstand is also great all around preparation if it’s part of your repertoire.
HOW TO DO FOREARM BALANCE (PINCHA MAYURASANA)
As with other inversions, it’s helpful to learn this pose at the wall and with the help of a skilled teacher. If you’re more experienced and able to work on balancing in the posture, you’re welcome to follow the same instructions while in the milddle of the room.
1. Set up facing a wall.
2. Place your forearms on the floor with your elbows shoulder-width apart. Your forearms should be parallel to each other and your palms should face down. Adjust your distance from the wall so that the wall is just barely beyond the reach of your fingertips.
3. There are many different ways to use a block in this pose and I’m an advocate for all of them! For the purpose of this blog, I’m simply going to suggest that you place a block between your hands.
More specifically, look at your fingers and place the block so that your index fingers touch the sides of the block and your thumbs touch the bottom of the block.
4. Bring your shoulders forward so that they’re direclty above your elbows. Step one foot half way to your elbow and bend your knee. Choose whichever leg feels the most natural.
5. Root down through the base of each finger and thumb.
6. Look at the floor in between your hands. Take a slow, deep breath. Don’t freak out.
7. As you exhale, bend the knee that you brought forward more deeply and strongly push the floor away. As this leg jumps, simultaneously swing the back leg toward the wall. Keep the knee of your “swinging” leg straight.
8. As one leg swings toward the wall and the other leg jumps, draw your navel toward your spine to recruit your core muscles and create greater lift.
9. You need to use enough strength and momentum to get your hips over your shoulders. Once your hips are above your shoulders, your “swinging” leg will make it to the wall and stay there. At this point, you can bring your second leg (your “jumping” leg to the wall).
10. Now that you’re in the pose, you can refine it by using the infographic above!
11. Hold the pose for a few seconds before slowly lowering one of your feet toward the floor. As you lower one leg, the second will follow shortly thereafter.
12. Spend a few moments in Child’s Pose or Standing Forward Bend.
IF I CAN’T DO FOREARM BALANCE YET, WHAT SHOULD I DO INSTEAD?
Pincha Mayurasan or Forearm Balance is not an easy posture. If you struggle with it, you’re in good company. Don’t beat yourself up. Respect yourself and remember that this is a practice. The following tips will help you make progress:
1. Focus on building shoulder strength and confidence by doing Half Dolphin Pose and Half-Handstand. You do this by standing about a legs’ distance away from the wall, placing your arms into position and walking your feet up the wall to hip height. (The first time you do it, recruit the help of a friend or a teacher.)
2. Focus on building core strength by practicing Forearm Plank, Navasana, and Ardha Navasana.
3. It’s easy to forget that it takes practice to coordinate the action of your legs and core as you jump into Handstand. So, one option is to simply focus on the action of jumping into Handstand without actually getting all the way there. Repeat the process of swinging and jumping several times to build your understanding and coordination of this process.
PART II: ANATOMY AND SEQUENCING FOR FOREARM BALANCE (PINCHA MAYURASANA)
WHICH MUSCLES DOES FOREARM BALANCE STRENGTHEN?
All the leg muscles are active in Forearm Balance. That said, the most notable exertion comes from the muscles that line your inner-legs, the adductors. Engaging these muscles not only engages the legs, it recruits your core, which creates better control in the pose. Your quadriceps are working to keep your knees straight. You’re also engaging your hamstrings to help your hips stay extended.
Your core’s primary job in Forearm Balance is to keep your pelvis, ribs, and lower spine aligned and prevent hyperextension in your lower back. Remember, this is more difficult if your core and spine are forced to compensate for limited shoulder mobility. In particular, you’re engaging your iliopsoas to help your legs stay vertically aligned and firing your transversus abdominus and obliques help keep your lower back from hyperextending.
Your Spinal Muscles
Your erector spinae are working to help maintain the vertical position of your spine and balance the muscular forces of your core.
Your Shoulders and Arms
While your legs, core, and spine work to maintain the position of your entire body, your shoulders and arms have the greatest amount of work in Forearm Balance. The four muscles of your rotator cuff are externally rotating and stabilizing your upper arm. Your deltoids and pecs are helping to flex your shoulders and keep your elbows from splaying. Your biceps and triceps are working to hold the position of your arms and support the weight of your body.
WHICH MUSCLES DOES FOREARM BALANCE STRETCH? Your Latissimus Dorsi
The lats are getting the most significant stretch of the entire body in this posture. If the lats are tight it’s much more likely that your elbows will splay. Some students may also feel a stretch in their rhomboids and middle fibers of their trapezius.