Long before photos of Handstand ruled the social media kingdom, Astavakrasana was king of the hill. Teachers would get one or two photos of themselves every few years to adorn their bios and show aptitude in their flyers.
There were 3 distinctly different looks that teachers would cast while being photographed in the pose: 1) a joyous smile that gave the look and feel of a yogi’s Senior Picture, 2) a far-off gaze that implied the teacher was being caught in their natural habitat, and 3) the somewhat surly (my favorite) mug that proved the teacher was not being photographed for their Senior Picture.
Astavakrasana is no longer as ubiquitous, but it’s still a great pose. It strengthens the upper body as well as the rotational muscles of the core. If you do it correctly, the pose also strengthens the adductors and outer hips. Plus, it still looks great on flyers.
Like all the postures I breakdown on my blog, Astavakrasana has many layers. Many of the cues I use for the pose are featured in the illustration. But, there are three quick tips that I want to give you.
These are the most common elements of the posture I’ve found myself troubleshooting for my students over the last 20 years.
3 Tips for Astavakrasana
1. Placement of the hands
The most common error that students make when they practice Astavakrasana is placing their hands too close to their hips when setting up for the pose. I’m not talking about the width of the hands from each other. I’m talking about the proximity of the hands to the hips. You need to be able to lean forward into your hands in order to bend your elbows and lift your hips. This is not possible if your hands are too close to your hips.
When you set up for the pose, set your hands about a foot forward of your hips. This way, you can lean forward into your hands. This will make bending your elbows and lifting your hips much more accessible.
2. The Outside Elbow
Get. It. In. The outside elbow likes to drift outward. But, this often leads to the outside shoulder dropping too low. When the outside shoulder drops low, it can easily put excess stress on the socket.
In order to help avoid this—and, provide your body with greater stability from your arms—hug your top elbow towards the ribs. It’s okay to set your hand a little wider than your shoulders, but be sure to hug your outside elbow in rather than allowing it to bow out.
3. The Often Overlooked Twist
When we practice arm balances, it’s easy to overlook their subtleties. In Astavakrasana, it’s common for students to forget that one of the posture’s defining element’s is spinal rotation. We get so focused on the hand-balancing element, that we omit the action of twisting. So, don’t drop the ball next time you practice Astavakrasana. Remember to use the squeeze of your legs, press of your hands, and action of your core to maximize your twist.
If you’ve spent time practicing with me, you know that I like to organize postures into categories. Sorry, I’m a Virgo. I’m also from the Midwest which is why I’m apologizing for something I don’t need to apologize for. In my defense, Patanjali was an organizer and list maker. So was the Buddha. I’m in good company.
Naturajasana falls into the backbending category in which the arms are reaching overhead and holding the foot/feet. Notable members of this family include the One-Legged King of Pigeon postures (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana postures), the ridiculously difficult arm balance named Kapinjalasana, and Hand-to-Foot Boat Pose (Padangusthasana Dhanurasana). So, yeah, this pose group is difficult.
Writing as someone with a mortal’s body who can’t directly hold my foot in ANY of these postures, I am thankful that they’re all highly accessible with a strap. In fact, these are my favorite backbends to practice, and I’m convinced that I feel every bit as good in these postures as someone who can hold their foot without a strap (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself while I cry myself to sleep).
This entire family is challenging, but Natarajasana’s difficultly stands out. In fact, a highly skilled and capable student in my recent workshop in Copenhagen asked me why she wasn’t able to do Natarajasana, even though she had deep backbends. This is how the conversation went (with a few embellishments here for your entertainment):
Student: Why can’t I hold my foot in Natarajasana, when I can hold my foot in similar postures like Pigeon Pose?
Me: You’re not spirituality pure enough and the only way to burn the necessary samskaras is to provide your teacher with significant cash donations.
Me: OK. There’s another reason, and it’s simple. If you have the flexibility to hold your foot in Pigeon Pose, you probably have the flexibility to hold your foot in Natarajasana. The challenge is that it’s much more difficult to access your flexibility in Natarajasana than Pigeon.
Me: Let’s quickly break this down. In Pigeon Pose, you have a lot of contact with the floor. Your front shin, your front knee, your front hip, and your back knee are in contact with the ground (or props). This means you’re stable and you have good leverage. When you’re stable and you have good leverage, you can generate more motion in your body to do your backbend. Plus, in Pigeon Pose, your center of gravity is close to the floor.
Therefore, in Pigeon Pose you have: More stability + more leverage + lower center of gravity = more range of motion.
Compare this to Natarajasana. In Natarajasana, your entire base consists of your standing foot. That’s all. In addition, you’re standing upright so your center of gravity is much higher. Pigeon is short and squat, Natarajasana is long and narrow.. This means that you have much less stability in Natarajasana than you do in Pigeon Pose.
When you have less stability, your body creates greater tension to stabilize your shape. This leads to less mobility—or, more accurately, less access to your mobility. You’re still just as flexible, but you can’t access it under the current conditions.
Get the difference? Yes? Good, come to my yoga teacher trainings. No? Good, come to one of my teacher trainings. Sorry, for the shameless plug, but if you’ve made it this far in this tedious article, we share common ground.
Therefore, in Natarajasana you have: Less stability + less leverage + higher center of gravity = less range of motion.
Student: You’re still not getting a cash donation.
That’s how the story goes.
To prove that she was able to do Natarajasana, I supported her raised knee properly and she easily reached back and took hold of her foot. When I provided her with additional base and stability, she was able to access her flexibility—just like she does in the other postures in this family.
When you don’t have a friend or a teacher to help create stability for you, you can do so by rooting through the base of the big toe, grounding the inner heel, and engaging quadriceps. You could also stand parallel to a wall (on the standing leg side) and place you hand against the wall so that you can feel the activation in your standing leg.
What’s the simple take-away that goes beyond Natarajasana? Sadly, you don’t need to give your teachers cash donations to do more difficult postures. Instead, you have to focus on producing greater stability and activity in your base, so your body is able to move more freely.
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.
“Meditation and yoga are for New Age, magical thinkers who are out of touch with reality and have too much time on their hands.”
These might have been some of my own personal excuses I made to the person that was dragging me to my first yoga class more than 20 years ago. She didn’t listen to me. And, really, why should she have listened? I was wrong on all counts. At the time, it was unclear just how profoundly wrong I was. Time would tell a different story.
So, what was my deal? Well, it was simple: I didn’t understand anything about meditation or yoga. So, my mind made up an incorrect story based on very little information. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we all do it from time to time. One of the many problems with this hard-headed tendency is that we cut ourselves off from experiences that can be incredibly valuable to us—like yoga and meditation.
If we fast-forward two decades to the present moment, I do meditate and I do practice yoga. Both are inextricable elements of my life. If you’re familiar with my classes or online content, you already know that I practice yoga. It’s possible, however, that you don’t know that I meditate. I do. Here’s why.
Why I Meditate
There are countless modern articles that extol the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation. Arguably the entire tradition of yoga would not exist without meditation. Personally, I meditate for three reasons—any other positive side effects of my sitting practice are an added bonus:
1) Sometimes my life feels like a run-on sentence and my meditation practice gives me much needed punctuation. Like everyone else I know, I jump from one thing to another thing in a seemingly endless series of minor events. My meditation practice helps me press the pause button in my life. It helps curb my neurotic impulse to plow through every moment of my life without registering any of them.
2) My meditation practice helps me bear witness to the sensations of my body, the thoughts of my mind, and the feeling of my breath. All of these things are genuinely interesting to me. I’ve always been curious about the human condition and my meditation practice gives me a live glimpse into the phenomenon.
3) My meditation practice balances my active practice by providing me with a complementary physical experience. I like to work intensely in my body. But, I also like the sensory experience of being still. Working intensely and being still both provide physical feedback loops that I use to focus my attention. For me, they’re an inseparable pair.
5 Common Excuses for not Meditating—and why MOST of them are weak
Excuse #1, “My mind isn’t still.”
Counterpoint: Your mind is never going to be still. Never. And, whoever gave you that impression didn’t meditate either. Instead, when you meditate, you’re going to simply observe the activity of your mind so that you can witness your thoughts with greater objectivity. Your mind will still be active because you’re still alive. But, when you meditate consistently, your mind’s activity (usually) settles just enough that there is a lessening of pressure around your thoughts.
Excuse #2, “I don’t have time.”
Counterpoint: You actually do have time, you’re just in the habit of doing other things with your time. And, honestly, you may not be able to make time for meditation every day of your life. Life can get away from us once in a while. However, sitting for 10 minutes a few times a week is plausible for nearly everyone.
Excuse #3, “Meditation is for New Age, magical thinkers who are out of touch with reality and have too much time on their hands.”
Counterpoint: What kind of a person would think this?!?!
Excuse #4, “I can’t sit still.”
Counterpoint: Honestly, this is someone of sound and able body saying, “I can’t move.” Yes, you can. You can sit still. You might be lousy at sitting still. Sitting still might drive you crazy. But, you can sit still. In fact, this makes me think that you might need some practice sitting still. But, wait, how can one practice sitting still??? Oh, that’s right.
Excuse #5, “I don’t know how to meditate.”
Counterpoint: This is NOT lame. This is legitimate. Like so many other things in life, it’s helpful to have some guidance when you’re starting something new—or, trying to stay consistent. If this is your excuse, you’re in luck. I have answers for you below.
How to Start Meditating: Yoga and Meditation Tips for People Who Don’t Meditate
There are countless resources on meditation online, in books, and in local communities. Here are a few resources that you may find helpful.
#1. I’ve released a program on Yogaglo.com called, “I Don’t Meditate.” Clearly, this program was the inspiration for the title of this blog and my recent podcast on Yogaland with Andrea Ferretti. The program consists of 6, 10-minute meditations. You can learn more about the Yogaglo program, here. And, if you haven’t listed to the podcast, please check it out here. Yogaglo has additional meditation classes from exceptional teachers like Sally Kempton, Harshada Wagner, and more.
#2. Jack Kornfield and other meditation teachers at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA and the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, are exceptional resources. Jack—and many of the other teachers at Spirit Rock—offer podcasts, guided meditation, and dharma talks that will provide you with endless guidance along the path of meditation.
#3. Local dharma teachers or groups in your area can provide you with guidance and community. Not everyone will have access to a local community of meditators. However, many do. You may even consider driving to a meditation center or sitting group once a month if you live further away. These communities provide support and inspiration that can be invaluable.
I hope that these resources will get you sitting, taking inventory of yourself, and making sure that you don’t make the mistake that I made of saying that you “don’t meditate.”
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.