Arm balances can be some of the most difficult postures to master in a yoga asana practice. Very few families of poses require the same combination of strength and flexibility. Many arm balances also include a fear component meaning that being afraid of falling can inhibit your ability to access the pose.
Arm balances also require a level of sensitivity and balance that aren’t easy to develop. Don’t lean forward enough and you won’t lift off the ground. Lean too far forward and you’ll fall onto your face.
Incorporating Animal Flow movements can go a long way to building all these traits. In the Animal Flow community, we like to say that AF can enhance the performance of many different athletes. This includes being able to help a highly mobile yogi to become stronger and find better balance.
Added to this, modern yoga and Animal Flow actually overlap in that they both borrow inspiration from gymnastics. Animal Flow system creator Mike Fitch cites gymnastic-style hand balancing as one of the sources of inspiration for AF’s Tuck Balance and Float movements.
Similarly, most yoga arm balances weren’t a regular part of the practice until the mid-20th century. This was when Krishnamacharya–as a teacher to the Maharaja of Mysore–began to be exposed to Russian dancers, contortionists and gymnasts. It was at this point that he started adding gymnastic poses like Lolasana (or Pendant Pose) to the yoga asana practice.
So, with this in mind let’s examine some principles and tools for using Animal Flow movements to prepare a yogi for better arm balances.
While each arm balance has some unique alignment and flexibility requirements, there are some common principles. Specifically, you need a substantial amount of wrist extension and the ability to protract your shoulders. These two elements create an artificially longer lever so your legs can lift. The ability to brace your core muscles will also be key for stabilizing yourself and pulling your knees into position.
A key AF exercise for cultivating these skills is the Loaded Beast Unload. This position specifically trains you to cultivate the protracted scapulae position and deep wrist extension. The tension that is built at the peak of the move also requires a lot of abdominal engagement. Performing Loaded Beast Unloads as 60-second holds will go a long way to laying a good foundation for many yoga arm balances. From this foundation, you can start to tailor your supplementary practice based on the pose you want to achieve.
Mayurasana is a pose where your body is held horizontal and parallel to the ground, supported on your elbows. Practicing the Loaded Beast Unload will help create the space to fit your arms under your torso. Mayurasana is a good beginning arm balance because the hands can point sideways or back. So if you don’t have a lot of access to, or control in, wrist extension yet, it won’t be a hindrance. The key here is moving your head and shoulders as far forward as you can––this is referred to as a ‘forward shoulder load’ in AF. Most people who struggle with Mayurasana do so because they don’t lean forward enough due to fear of falling face first. Loaded Beast Unloads will help you get used to the sensation of forward shoulder load and understand where that balance point actually is.
In the video below, Master Instructor Alisha Smith demonstrates two repetitions of Loaded Beast Unload. Then, certified instructor and yoga teacher trainer, Anna Martin, demonstrates a Loaded Beast Unload-style entry into Mayurasana.
These two poses have some slight technical differences but finish in very similar shapes. In Crow, your arms are bent and your knees brace outside of your arms. In Crane, your arms are straight and your knees tuck into your armpits. Both require the familiar depressed and protracted shoulders and extended wrists. They also require supple hips that are capable of flexing in order to tuck your knees. We can build up this ability by using Forward Traveling Frog. In Frog we start in a deep squat, explode out, and land softly in another deep squat. Practice landing softly and it will help you cultivate a deep, well-engaged squat.
In the video below, Alisha demonstrates two repetitions of Forward Traveling Frog. Anna then shows how you can use Frog to prepare for Crow or Crane poses.
Pendant pose differs from Crow and Crane in that the knees are close together and between the arms. This requires abdominal engagement and hip flexion to keep the body packed into a tight ball. This position also happens to resemble the “Float to” call out seen in advanced practices of Animal Flow.
With its similar knee position, Forward Traveling Ape is an ideal conditioning tool for Pendant pose. This is particularly evident in the deceleration aspect of the movement when your hands meet the floor and your feet land gently. The action of decelerating forces you to engage your abdominal muscles fully so work on slowing down that landing and even holding the floating position for a moment before setting down your feet.
In the video below, Alisha demonstrates two repetitions of Forward Traveling Ape (FTA). Anna then shows how you can incorporate a the forward trajectory of FTA with the deceleration required for floating yoga poses.
Unlike the poses we’ve already discussed, Koundinyasana is not a symmetrical pose. One leg is posted on your elbow while your other leg is pointed behind you. Many yogis like to use Lizard pose as a preparatory pose for the arm balance. For movers where flexibility isn’t the problem, Animal Flow’s Beast Reach and Front Step may be better options.
The Front Step helps you practice staying engaged with a long spine when you actively pull back your bent elbow and push your chest forward.
In the video below, Alisha demonstrates two repetitions of Front Step. Anna then shows how you can enter Koundinyasana from a Front Step in order to find the required alignment.
In conjunction with this, the shape of your torso in the Beast Reach highly resembles the shape of Koundinyasana. The Beast Reach also lets you practice that big depressed and protracted position while engaging your obliques. If your hips are more flexible, then you can also enter the arm balance directly from Beast Reach.
In the video below, Alisha demonstrates two repetitions of Beast Reach. Anna then shows how you can access Koundinyasana from a Beast Reach-style entry.
The examples contained here are but a small sample of the possibilities for incorporating Animal Flow into a yoga practice. In all these examples we still haven’t touched another arm balance, Adho Mukha Vrksasana–the handstand. Animal Flow has its own comprehensive tuck handstand (or ‘Tuck Balance’) practice which can be accessed through the Animal Flow On Demand mobile app. You’ll find the AF practice enhances a yoga handstand practice. It will even offer the yogi some novel ways for entering and exiting the pose.
So, if you’re a yogi, I hope this has been the encouragement you need to branch out from your standard asana practice. Let this be your opportunity to see that straying outside of the classical poses doesn’t detract from your practice. Instead, it enhances your practice, opening up ways to look at postures differently and further connect with your body.
Join yoga teachers from all over the world who have discovered the benefits of quadrupedal movement training for their yoga practice. If you’re a registered yoga teacher, you’re eligible to take the Animal Flow Level 1 workshop and become a certified instructor. Bring a fresh approach to your classes and private sessions! Find out more or register for a workshop by visiting animalflow.com/workshops