During the first few years of my yoga practice, arm balances seemed like an abstract impossibility. I was fearful that I didn’t have enough strength, or that my shoulders were too hyper-mobile. Most of all, I was fearful of falling on my face. Essentially, I felt overwhelmed!
The shift to feeling comfortable with arm balances came quickly, however, when I realized that they’re far more about patient organization than sheer strength. The first time I managed to hold bhujapidasana, or shoulder-pressing pose, for a few breaths was a huge “ah-ha!” moment. My arms were not very strong. I was able to stay in the pose, however, by working slowly to find the ideal balance between strength, focal point, heart opening, and flexibility. And, I remembered to breathe!
If I could find the correct formula between these components in this arm balance, then why not in others? As it played out, this confidence-inspiring discovery was invaluable. It strengthened my physical practice and, more importantly, helped me develop a new level of personal trust. This found confidence transformed my practice.
When I teach asanas (yoga postures), watching my students conquer their first arm balances is incredibly rewarding. It’s like reliving the freeing enthusiasm I felt doing that first bhujapidasana all over again.
Whether you are newer to arm balances or more experienced, I hope these tips will help you find more freedom on the mat, develop a greater sense of trust with your body/mind, and increase upper body strength (which can wane with age, putting us at a greater risk of osteoporosis).
1. Good news! Every two-arm balance I can think of shares the same foundation. Hands should be shoulder-width apart and fingers spread wide. Like downward dog and plank, distribute the weight through the finger pads, especially the index fingers and thumbs.
2. Speaking of downward dog and plank: Both are excellent arm (particularly wrist) strengtheners. Practice them regularly.
3. Abdominal strength plays a big role in arm balances! Super strong arms are not a prerequisite to build the foundation of a pose like crow. Your arms will, however, get stronger as you grow increasingly confident in your arm balances.
4. Look ahead, not down! When learning, look forward! Looking down in a pose like crow, for example, is a perfect set-up for a somersault. Later, one might look down to transition to a headstand.
5. Keep the heart lifted. Even though the upper back is rounded in most arm balances, find a sense of heart opening in the front body.
6. Breathe! Relax and try to breathe deeply as you work.
7. Smile. Even laugh when it doesn’t “happen” right away. Try not to take these undertaking too seriously! By being detached from immediate results, you’ll probably tackle these poses more readily. Remember that you’re asking your body to do something quite new. This takes time, patience, and optimism!
Sophie Herbert is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student), a singer-songwriter, and a visual artist. She has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India; teaches yoga in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and recently released her first full-length album, "Take a Clear Look." Please visit her website at SophieHerbert.com.