Shift into Strength: Crow/Crane Sequence (July 2017)
For many, Crow (or Crane, if you work it with straight arms) is their first arm balance in yoga. That doesn't mean it's easy! It requires core strength, a strong chaturanga, and relatively open hips to get those knees up on the back of your arms. The back slightly rounds as you draw the navel up and in toward the spine and push the floor away. Gaze forward so you can create this engagement and keep the knees hugging in on the arms.
The secret: As long as you can get your knees above your elbows and you shift forward while gazing forward, balance is possible!
Part 1: Warm up!
It's always wise to start moving with a couple Surya Namaskar A's (or even Surya B's if you're somewhere chilly), but before you get there, try working back and forth between Child's Pose(first picture) to Cat/Cow(second and third picture), ending your Surya A's with arm sweeps in Utkatasana(Chair pose--last three photos).
With the arms sweeps, start by reaching out in Chair then flip palms down, exhale as you sweep hands down to graze the mat with your fingertips and keep going as you press palms up toward the sky behind you. Inhale the sweep forward. Repeat a couple times until you've build a good deal of heat in the legs.
These will get your spine, hips and hip flexors warm, while dynamically stretching to begin opening up the areas on which Crow demands the most.
Part 2: Heating hips, shoulders, and core
Take Warrior 2 with Eagle arms(first picture) to begin opening the space between the shoulder blades--that protraction (separation) will be needed later, and this arm variation will also work the legs deeper, as you point elbows in the same direction of the hips. Isometrically drag your heels together as you hold here for about 5 slow breaths.
Prasarita Padottanasana C(second picture) works deeper into the hips, core and hamstrings while continuing the shoulder opening, and Prasarita Padottanasana A(third picture) encourages that slight rounding/drawing inward to further deepen the hip and hamstring stretch.
Warrior 3, Warrior 1 and Humble Warrior(fourth, fifth, and sixth pictures, respectively) with arm variations continue to warm and open the shoulders, tap into core strength, and warm the legs and outer hips in preparation for our arm balance.
Another great addition here in between sides would be knee-to-nose movements from Downward Facing Dog, and a couple side body releases into Reverse Warrior from Warrior 2 before heading to Prasarita.
Part 3: Opening hips, shoulders, and core
Turn the heat up on your hips now with Utkatakonasana (first picture), known also as Durgasana/Goddess and Horse Pose, to further warm glutes, quadriceps and hip flexors. From here you can release down into Malasana (second picture)or yogic squat, an essential prep for Crow as it's the same shape on the hips with just a different relationship to gravity.
The core strength poses above all target hip flexors (Navasana, third picture), abdominals and spine (Forearm Plank, fourth picture), and shoulders (Dolphin, fifth picture). You might just be inspired to pop into Crow from here, and feel the fire needed to push the floor away more so you can shift into Crane (sixth photo) with straight arms!
In addition to these, you can work Ardha Navasana (half boat) lowering and coming back up to Navasana to really strengthen your center.
Before moving on, go back to some cat/cow movements. You'll want this same spinal extension and core engagement in the final pose. Cat/Cow is even more effective when done in forearm tabletop, which also gives the wrists a break before the arm balance.
Part 4: Time to fly!
There are many ways to enter this pose. Do what works for you, but I'll run through two of my favorite propped options here for beginners. If you have a good grasp of this pose, work toward Crane (straightening the arms), longer hold with breath, add toe-taps, or work on transitioning to tripod headstand or jumping back!
If you're new to it or not as confident practicing at home, 3 blocks are a great way to ease into it (or anything block-like--stacked heavy books or small stable furniture pieces can work--avoid propping with pets or small children!).
Blocks #1 and #2 are on the lowest level, placed side by side. You stand on them, so use something stable! Wood and cork blocks are ideal. This can seem scary at first because you're up higher, but once you crouch down, you'll notice it's much easier to get knees higher on the back of the arms, plus you don't have to lift feet up so far once you shift forward to balance.
It'll take trial and error figuring out where to place block #3 forward and center from the first two blocks, and this is on the highest level so it can meet the center of your forehead as you shift forward in the balance--which actually takes the balance out of the equation.
Your body is still taking the shape with knees perched and elbows over wrists--much of the weight of the pose remains, even, so this allows you to feel it out and start safely building some muscle memory.
Wrists and elbows stay in line as you shift forward
Shoulders draw back against the knees squeezing into the arms
Toes come together and heels draw in toward your bottom
One more option here, focusing more on the feet being propped, with block #3 making an appearance mainly for psychological comfort.
A soft pillow or thick blanket in place of block #3 is a great way to prop this as a safe "crash pad" if needed.
The key to mastering this pose:
Keep your gaze forward
Draw belly in as you round the back
Push the floor away
I love arm balances because they are humbling and require our full focus. I approach them with lightness and humor--because how else would you meet something that humbles you time and again?
Arm balances are a great reminder of the yogic principle of non-attachment and that everything is transient. Some days we feel strong here, other days it's a struggle. The joy is in the practice, not the pose.
Let me know how it goes for you, below! Have questions or feedback? Leave a comment!