I remember in the early days of my yoga practice not knowing my left from my right. I was so unrefined in my movements that I didn’t even realise how clumsy and awkward my relationship to my own body was. Over the changing seasons of my practice I have learned to be more skilful in my approach; to use only the muscles I need for a given asana, and to relax the others.
A huge breakthrough in my practice of more challenging asana came when I realised that I was overdoing things. Coming into poses such as Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana), Forearm Balance (Pincha Mayurasana) or this pose, Side Crow (Parsva Bakasana), I would anticipate falling and tense every muscle in my body. My teacher, David Life, co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga method, taught me that yoga means to have control over muscles that we don’t usually have control over.
Figuring out left from right is a challenge in the beginning, but through diligent practice, the very subtle details of physical body are mastered. It is then that we can tune in to the pulse of prana (life force) moving through us, or the whirl of the chakras (wheels of energy) swirling within us. When we tune in at this level, we realise that what really lifts us up in “flying” yoga asana is energy, or prana—not brute force or even muscular strength.
“Bird poses are especially good at teaching us to fly,” explains David Life. “Very quickly in bird poses we discover that our ability depends on conducting the force of gravity through the body, rather than defying gravity. The earth itself conducts gravity to propel through space.”
The gentle contraction of the pelvic floor that is Mula Bandha (not a desperate lifting, squeezing and pulling of the whole reproductive area and organs of elimination) coupled with an understanding that prana flows down (connecting us to the earth) and flows up (connecting us to infinite possibility or the enlightenment potential) will bring us into flight. In other words, you have to find the interplay, the balance point in your relationship with the earth and sky in order to become light and free in your body.
The poses that we find challenging are an opportunity to tune in to where we are over-tensing and overdoing. And there’s a lesson in this for our lives off the mat: instead of over-complicating things, just let go and fly!
Before You Begin
Start your practice on all fours. Align the hands under the shoulders and the knees under the hips. To warm up and lubricate the spine and joints, practise several rounds of Cat-Cow Pose. As you inhale, dip your belly, lift your tail and look up, then as you exhale, round the spine in the opposite direction, tucking the chin to chest. Then come into Child’s Pose, dropping the buttocks to the heels and the forehead to the earth. Rest here for a moment and regulate the breath.
1 Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
This classic posture teaches how to use your hands and prepares you for greater weight-bearing balances such as Eka Pada Galavasana (Flying Crow). To get “up” and balance you need to avoid gripping with the hands, however still have some tone and sense of activity in them. In Downward-Facing Dog, we have an opportunity to explore the balance of upward-moving energy in the body (prana vayu) and downward-moving energy (apana vayu). We are looking to cultivate a middle place that is not too heavy and not too light, and this begins with the connection to the earth in the hands. The pads of the fingers should engage the most with the ground, while the palms have the lightest contact. You will protect the wrists if you have a little lift through the gap between the heel and little finger-side edge of the palm (sometimes called a “hand bandha” or “horseshoe”). In all arm balance postures, a lack of fingertip control is a common reason for falling; Downward-Facing Dog provides a wonderful opportunity to practice finding this control without too much weight bearing or the fear of falling.
For the beginner, Downward-Facing Dog can be a huge challenge, but for the seasoned practitioner it becomes a restful and comfortable posture. Because it is a yoga pose that many of us repeat multiple times within a practice session, most of us have habits in this posture that we automatically fall into. When you come into Downward Dog, try not to fidget and habitually make the same adjustments. Instead, be fresh and mindful each time. As your body and practice evolve, so too will your relationship to this posture, which is a stepping stone to so many others.
2 Malasana (Garland Pose), variation
From standing, lift your heels and come onto your tiptoes, then with a slow exhale, move down into a squat. You will know if you have got the balance of upward- and downward-moving energies in your body, as your knees and ankles will not make a popping noise as you descend. If the joints pop and crack as you move down there is too much “grounding”—you are not flying like a bird! To correct this, think of your breath as providing a pneumatic lift or pressure valve that keeps you light as your body becomes more earthbound and moves down with gravity. The pressure valve happens in the lungs as the breath moves out and the diaphragm and internal organs move up. This is also how bandha works: by providing a sense of lift when gravity is overwhelming us with a binding to the earth. Bandhas and correct use of the diaphragm can help in all arm balances, as ultimately it is this energetic work that gets you up and holds you up—not just shear force or muscular strength. Here, in tiptoe descent, you can practise the diaphragmatic control you will need in the more advanced balances without throwing a fear of falling into the mix. In the final variation of this squat, the knees are parallel to the floor. Once you have descended into the full posture, lift the knees as high to the chest as possible. Play with the balance, perhaps even let yourself fall in an effort to find the point of perfect poise. The tiptoe element of this posture also warms up your toes for the twist and lift needed in Side Crow (you will move from the tips of toes to “flying”, so they need to be supple).
Don’t hunch your spine here; remember that located along the length of your spine is sushumna nadi, the main energy channel of the body. This energy line, called the “ray of light”, is where the exchange between prana vayu and apana vayu takes place, so keep it long and open, enabling the prana to flow freely.
3 Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), variation
Twists are such powerful and healing postures and among my favourite in the asana repertoire. When you twist, you “wring out” your internal organs, much like squeezing water out of a dishcloth. This happens on two levels: at the physical level, stale blood circulation is revitalised; at an energetic level, areas in which prana is depleted are reinvigorated. Twists are particularly helpful for nourishing and toning the reproductive systems and are especially good for women (but never in pregnancy, where the last thing you want to do is “wring out” the uterus).
This posture prepares us for the twisting action in Side Crow. A twist should always happen from the thoracic spine (middle back) and never from the lumbar (lower back), where the sacrum can become unstable and in time painful if twisted repetitively.
In this pose, anchor the big toe of the leg which has the knee lifted. There is a tendency for this foot to roll onto its outer, little-toe edge. Pressing the big toe into the floor will stabilise your twist and connect you to the earth. It will also encourage the sitting bones to be even and for the twist to happen in the correct area of the spine. Feel equal weight through the sitting bones, and do not tuck your feet under your hips.
To twist safely, cultivate a feeling of space between the vertebrae of the spine. Think of your spine as a string of pearls—lift up and make space between each “pearl” before you twist the “necklace”. If the beads are together too tightly there will be friction, resulting in distortion. Take an inhalation, breathing in a feeling of spaciousness in the spine—feel yourself growing taller. Exhaling, twist into the space you have created.
Always twist to the right first, because the ascending colon moves up the right side of the body before turning into the descending colon down the left side, so we want to stimulate elimination in this order. As you hold the posture, there should be some pressure on the levering arm (pressing against the outside of your thigh), but not at the cost of keeping the hips down. The upper body corkscrews in one direction while the legs corkscrew in the other direction. Postures where one part of the body levers against another part build core strength. This deep internal strength will serve you when you come to lift up into Side Crow.
4 Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), variation
You cannot let go and fly if you are feeling physically bunched up and constricted. This posture will teach you how to find spaciousness, lightness and a sense of freedom in your body. Birds have hollow bones, making them light so they can fly with a sense of effortlessness. We need to work towards finding this same lightness.
When you come into this posture, notice if your breath becomes laboured. If so, move slowly into the pose, gradually opening up (rather than rushing). If you are wobbly, first steady your breath (even if that means backing off), then stabilise and push straight down through both feet to open both hips and increase your lunge. There is the option of a lunge foot (elevated back heel) or positioning the feet as you would for the Warrior postures (a revolved, flat-to-the-floor back heel). Both options are helpful; the lifted heel will enable deeper hip opening, while the Warrior variation will increase the twist and, in the full pose, stretch your glute muscles, which are deep in the buttocks.
Keep your hands in prayer as you come into the pose. Extending your top arm at this stage can give a false sense of rotation when in fact the twist is incorrectly coming from the neck and shoulders, rather than the torso (thoracic spine), which is what we are aiming for here.
Torso flexibility will relate to how comfortably you can twist and lift in Side Crow, so engage with this but think about a smooth twist through the whole spine—no pushing and jarring into the neck or lower back.
5 Parsva Bakasana (Side Crow Pose)
Yoga asanas are drawn from observation of nature. The ancient yogis observed the trees and embodied them in Tree Pose. They observed the qualities and vibration of a snake and embodied that in Cobra Pose. For Side Crow Pose, we need to literally embody a bird. (A good first step for embodying the feeling of any animal in our yoga practice is to stop eating them.) Birds are graceful, light and perfectly poised in balance.
Finding balance in your asana practice is like playing with children’s wood blocks to build the highest tower possible. We have to stack the bones and joints and play with gravity carefully and skilfully so that we (the tower) doesn’t fall over. The great thing about this pose is that you are low to the ground, so the fear of falling is reduced (if you are scared, place a cushion or bolster on the floor in front of you). Sometimes we have to fall to get our spacial awareness figured out.
When in the pose, look up. If you look at the floor that is where you will end up! Keep your seat up too—if your seat drops too much the whole pose becomes earthbound and you will fall. Keep your hands shoulder-distance apart—many people make the mistake of having the hands too close together in both Crow and Side Crow. And it’s better to lift both feet together, as if you lift one foot and your seat drops you’ll lose your alignment.
Feel free to repeat the pose a few times on each side. Keep in mind that one side will always feel easier and one clumsier. Try not to give into that bias, practise equanimity by working on your “good” side and your “bad” side equally. If you are not strong in the upper body or wrists, you may fatigue quickly. Remember that you can always take a break (practise something else for a few minutes) and come back to Side Crow Pose. In my experience with arm balances, working little and often into a pose is more successful than pushing yourself in one session, which can result in burn out or injury.
After practising Side Crow on both sides, return to your squat and from there step into Downward-Facing Dog once again. Stretch out the backs of your legs and your arms for a few breaths. Drop the knees to the floor and rest in Child’s Pose. From Child’s Pose come onto your back and make yourself comfortable (using any props you find helpful) so you can rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose) for at least 10 minutes. Savasana is a very important part of every yoga practice, allowing the physical body, the subtle body and the psyche to assimilate and absorb the benefits of the practice. Do not skimp on Savasana, ever. The asana practice itself is effortful, while Savasana is a pure experience of gracefully letting go.
My teacher, David Life, encouraged me to really get to know my body—inside and out. He also taught me to visualise myself doing each and every posture beautifully as I came into it. All too often when the teacher in a yoga class says the name of our least favourite pose we instantly create a mental image of our failure and shortcomings. Experiment with reversing this negative psychology: the next time your teacher suggests coming into a pose you are challenged by, smile and in your mind’s eye see yourself in that posture with grace and ease. You will be amazed how much this will transform your practice. Be playful, take your time, breathe—and fly!
Katie Manitsas is co-director of Jivamukti Yoga Sydney. Visit www.jivamuktiyoga.com.au.
Benefits: Tones organs of reproduction and elimination; Strengthens wrists and upper body; Enables us to see things from a different perspective. Contraindications: Pregnancy; Menstruation; Loose bowel.
Related: Mermaid Masterclass Pose