The secret to better arm balances
"Falling flat on your face" is a metaphor for failure, and an all-too-literal description of what can happen to most of us when practising arm balances.
Practising in the Cayman Islands means that we have ample amounts of sand to plant our face into! Far more appealing than a bamboo floor, or worse, concrete. A soft landing can build confidence, which is key to balancing. You have to mentally push aside all fears that your arms may not be strong enough to get you airborne, and come to grips that yes, you may wind up with a few bruises on your body - and ego.
Strength, determination, and most importantly balance are your best friends when balancing on your arms like in Bakasana (Crow Pose).
To come into Crow Pose from standing, squat down and place your hands flat on the mat about shoulder-width apart with the fingers spread wide. Make sure to press into the pads of your fingers to encourage strength in your wrists. Now, keep the hands and feet where they are but lift the hips way up toward the sky, bend the knees and lift the heels off the floor so just the balls of the feet are down. If you need extra assistance here, perch your feet on a block. Gently press the knees into the backs of the triceps and begin to shift your weight forward, as you look forward, to prevent you rolling forward. As your weight shifts, your toes will feel lighter and may even float off the earth. Heavenly.
Look down. If your knuckles are turning white, you're gritting your teeth, and your face is the colour of beetroot, come out of the pose safely, take several deep breaths and try again if you wish. Don't force the pose, but rather master the foundation, to ensure you have the sufficient support you need to hold the pose energetically but effortlessly. Relax the body and allow balance to do most of the heavy lifting, rather than using solely strength.
What often gets over-looked is that arm balances require you to relax deeply and release many of your joints and muscles. You need a lot of suppleness in your groins, hamstrings, hips, knees, and torso just to get into the shape of most of these poses; once you develop this, you won't have to work so hard. That's not to say you can forget all about strength, but if your upper body is strong enough to support a healthy Plank Pose or Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), you probably don't need any more arm strength than you already have.
To prepare my students for Tripod Headstand, Headstand or Handstand, ask them to practise 20 repetitions of the following flow sequence, without resting in between, and holding each pose for one breath to maintain control:
Dolphin Pose strengthens and stretches the shoulders, arms, upper back, and legs, and helps bring flexibility to the spine, hamstrings, calves, and arches; all important when turning upside down on your arms.
If the above challenge is accepted and completed, then you have the right tools in your toolbox to start practising arm balances.
Need a harder goal? Check out my Arm Balance Toner class on the Activ Life Online Studio. You'll need a wall (or palm tree!) and one of my favourite exercises is place my palms shoulder-width apart on the earth and then step up onto the wall so that my hips come into a 90 degree angle, soles planted. Step down, step up, step down, step up. Do three sets of 10 repetitions and I can guarantee your arms will not only feel like jelly, but also receive an endorphin-fuelled buzz!
Tempted to throw in the towel because arm balances seem too challenging? Let go and search for the delicate balance between effort and relaxation. Each time you feel that you’ve reached a limit, ask yourself whether it is mental or physical. If it’s mental and your body feels OK, ask yourself if you can stay for one more breath. If it’s physical, back off and focus on one of the preparatory poses instead. With careful emphasis on technique and strategic preparatory poses, you will find the energy to move beyond your limits one breath at a time.
Perhaps the most important thing is to cultivate a playful, curious, and non-striving attitude.
Louise FitzRoy is the Principal of Activ Life, a leading health and wellness company based in the Cayman Islands. If you enjoyed this article you may also like: Turn your yoga class into a cardio workout, Get yoga motivated with this one tip, and Can yoga tone my body?