Are arm balances necessary to have a fulfilling yoga practice? No, they aren't. So why do I frequently teach them? Because they remind me of the beauty of life. Arm balancing is challenging and sometimes infuriating. Sometimes it clicks, and the body positions itself in a way that is conducive to creating flight. While other times, thoughts of" why do I bother," how am I supposed to this," I can't do this," and" I'm too weak" flood the mental gates. Doesn't that sound familiar beyond the context of yoga asana?
And it may sound odd, but when we conquer physically challenging demands on the mat, off the mat obstacles don't hold as much power over us. In terms of the yoga practice, we might become very comfortable and confident in our practice sans arm balancing, and internally it can feel defeating to encounter such a challenge 10, 20, 30 years into our standard practice. But isn't that like when the world flips us upside down, and we need to restart later in life?
So how does one overcome such a challenge? In the case of arm balancing, my theory is to take away the element that scares me, threatens me, or impairs me the most. Then the process becomes gentler, intriguing, and playful. When I teach arm balancing, I encourage the same principles - what's problematic about this pose and then take away that element before incrementally adding it back in when there's more strength, confidence, and curiosity.
Let's take Bakasana or Crane Pose (often referred to as "Crow Pose, Kakasana), for example. One common aspect of this arm balancing that feels threatening is falling on your head. First off, kudos to your nervous system for wanting to protect you. Fear is a normal response to this pose. But you want to experience this arm balance, and yet that fear continues to impede your progress. What can you do?
One is to keep practicing the same experience over and over again, but that sounds more like Einstein's definition of insanity. Whether you're frustrated or bored or continue to spark fear, none of those practice situations sound intriguing to be in, nor do they scream," this is a valuable tactic to overcoming challenges in life." So now what?
Well, my approach is to first taste flight because I want to know a little more about what I'm getting myself into. Changing the relationship of the pose to gravity is an excellent and accessible way to experience Bakasana. I might practice it in a supine position or seated. Now my body and mind become familiar with the shape and some mild expectations - just because you're not on your hands doesn't mean it's not challenging because it is. And if I enjoy exploring that challenge, I may want to involve my prop friends to help me continue onward in this most excellent adventure.
So I dip my toe in deeper and look for a way to be on my hands and feel flight without triggering the fear response. One way would be to have my head down on a prop, and that way, I know I can't fall on my head. And if I don't want to encourage a head-down position similar. A tripod headstand, to prepare for this arm balance, I could use a chair or a block bench that can support the majority of my body while feeling my hands on the floor, my feet in the air, and my eyes gazing forward. How glorious!
When you put all of these elements together, little by little, you start taking down the barriers of these poses are only for certain people - you can fill in the adjective you like. You find new routes to explore while removing the elements that once had you feeling scared, confused, or overwhelmed. But most of all, you teach yourself that there is more than one path, and maybe that original path of having to get on your hands for arm balancing led you on a completely different journey that opened you up to a wealth of new experiences. That is the yoga I want to practice. That's what I set out to teach and transmit to those who take a class with me. It's in this playful, exploratory experience that we topple our fears, discover what lights our world up, and empowers us to take on life's challenges with practice, grace, and support. And to me, that is beautiful.