We all know Yoga is not about how your poses look, but it is also hard to deny that some poses are quite awe-inspiring and strength-building and therefore a goal many practitioners are working towards. I would like to help you improve your own arm-balancing technique as well as to help you safely teach your students how to attempt arm balances without fear and without hurting themselves.
1. Move slow
In slowness lies strength. We tend to have less control over our movements when we move fast, so consciously slow things down. This will make you stronger and decrease the risk for injury – even if you fall, you’ll tilt over in slow motion and land without much impact. Teach your students that they are in control of their body to give them the confidence to attempt arm balances.
2. Wrists, Wrists, Wrists
It is very important to distribute the weight correctly in arm balances, if not you’ll end up dumping all the weight onto your wrists, and they’re quite vulnerable and difficult to strengthen. Activate your core and arms every time you come into an arm balance to hold yourself up, and warm your wrists up (wrist circles, gently turning them in different directions when you’re on all fours etc.). Also, know when to stop: When I was first able to do arm balances I was so excited that I couldn’t stop doing them until my wrists started complaining. It might be tempting to do them again and again, but practice them in moderation if you want to do keep on practicing them when you’re older.
Plank Pose is excellent to strengthen your core and your arms, as well as Dolphin Pose. You can also take Plank variations like Side Plank or Forearm Plank. Boat Pose will also help you strengthen your core.
3. How to minimize the risk of falling
The main reason why people fall out of arm balances and inversions is that they move with momentum: They kick up too far and fall over. Learn how to kick first: place your mat in front of a wall, your hands should be approximately 40-50cm away from the wall. Then start kicking up until you get to a point where you can hold your legs up without touching the wall. Once you know how strong your kick needs to be, you can kick up without a wall. Kick one leg up and keep the other leg further down so that your legs make a V-shape: Once you’ve found your balance, you can pull the second leg up. It is even safer to learn how to press up, but we should keep it realistic – nobody’s first arm balance was a press-up handstand.
When we control our breath, we are aware of what is happening. Often, when we come into arm balances, we are so scared that we forget to breathe. Deep breaths can help you relax and regain control. An easy way to get familiar with poses without holding your breath is to lean into the poses first without actually lifting your feet off the ground. Once you’re familiar with the movement and are confident you can go further, lift up while focusing on your breath.
5. Use props
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There is nothing embarrassing about using props, and they are not just for beginners. They can make your practice a lot safer and more rewarding: Many people would be surprised how much deeper they could go in a pose and how their alignment would improve if only they used blocks and straps. Set an example as a teacher by demonstrating variations of poses with blocks: It is easier to get your knees high up your arms in Crow Pose if you step on a block, or place a block in front of you and just lean forwards on the block to get a feeling for what it is like to lift your feet off the ground and to press your knees into your upper arms.
Place a block in between your hands in Forearm Stand to keep your arms from collapsing in, use a strap in Visvamistrasana to straighten your leg, support your shoulders in Chinstand with blocks to avoid pressing your neck,…the list goes on and on. Inform yourself about how to modify poses with props to help your student have their first taste of success with arm balances. It also takes away the fear if you put a few pillows down in case the student falls over. (see also 8.Take away the fear)
6. Focus on one point
Protect your neck and help your body balance by looking forward and at one point. Whenever you’re balancing on your hands, you want to forward to slightly lean your body forwards. It might feel scary at first, but think of Crow Pose: You need to balance your legs and bottom – that’s quite a lot of weight. To keep on lifting, transfer more weight forward by looking in front. Our fear is often holding us back, so go a bit further than your guts tell you to.
7. It doesn’t always have to be Crow Pose
Most teachers introduce their students to arm balances by teaching Crow Pose. While it might be the easiest arm balance for most, I remember getting very frustrated with it for the first two years. My first arm balance was – surprisingly enough – Eka Pada Koundinyasana II (Flying Splits). I am not saying that Eka Pada II is easier, but that everybody is different, so try and offer your students different options for arm balances like Side Crow, Headstand or Astavakrasana (8-Angle-Pose).
8. Take away the fear
I was always horrified of falling over until one teacher gave every student two pillows and told us to place them in front of us. “I don’t want you to come up into Crow Pose, even if you can. You must slowly transfer your weight forward until your headlands on the pillows.” We all practiced falling over a few times until she said: “See? That’s the worst thing that could happen.
Even if you fall out of your Crow Pose, it really isn’t the end of the world and you won’t hurt yourself.” I remember how scared I was of falling over, and how irrational it was: I was so close to the ground that actually hurting myself would have been a real achievement, but because I knew I’d fall head first I didn’t want to practice any arm balances. I always put a few pillows down in the first few weeks of my arm balance attempts, and the psychological shift that happened was huge: I became a lot more daring and was soon able to lift into arm balances because my blockage was mental, not physical.
9. Make the arm balance the peak pose of your class
Make sure you prepare your students properly for the arm balance you’d like to teach: Make it the peak pose and integrate many poses building up to it to maximize the chance of them actually lifting up. Ask yourself which parts of the body need a lot of opening to come into the pose: If you want to teach Side Crow, include a lot of twists, or a lot of hip opening poses for Grasshopper.
10. Break it down
Take a moment to explain the pose before you include it in your flow: Let your students come down into Child’s Pose or to a seated position and explain the pose step by step, ideally with poses they’re already familiar with like “Chaturanga arms” or metaphors that might make it easier for them. Then show them the different options and remind them that they don’t have to go all the way, and offer props and help.
11. Give everyone credit
Even when your students don’t make it into the arm balance, give them credit for trying. They need the encouragement a lot more than the student that just lifted up into his/her third arm balance of the day.
12. It’s all fun and games
Remind them not to beat themselves up over it if they don’t make it into an arm balance: That’s not what Yoga is about, and by practicing, they take care of their mind and body. Some students get unnecessarily competitive and serious when it comes to challenging poses. Remind them that they’ll see results if they just keep on practicing, and that Yoga is not about pushing their bodies over the edge or to the fanciest pose.