I am very much an advocate of safe and accessible yoga, which some people might interpret as meaning not approaching more difficult poses, including balances. However, we should not think of some of the more difficult looking poses as just for show or a party trick. There are numerous benefits from trying some of the more challenging poses. In this article we will explore some of the benefits of challenging our balance in yoga, in particular by working towards the Crow pose, as demonstrated in the main photo.
Benefits of balances in yoga
Yoga is often associated with balance, whether it be as part of bringing ourselves into a state of emotional balance, or through helping improve our physical balance.
Yoga can help us find an emotional state of balance, as when we practice yoga asanas (positions) including those that require balance, we have to focus. We need to concentrate on our breath, on the parts of the body that are touching the floor, and on holding a steady and soft gaze, whilst at the same time not tensing up. If we try to balance, in say a tree pose, and start thinking about what we are having for dinner or our problems, it is unlikely that we will keep our balance. Therefore, practicing balance in yoga helps us to find emotional balance by being softy focused in the present moment.
You can read more about yoga and balance in our article: Yoga for Emotional Balance and Release.
Yoga also helps us to improve our physical balance through its focus on working the body in an even and balanced way. For example, yoga includes forward folds, back bends, side stretches and twists which helps to strengthen the core in a balanced manner. In most yoga classes the teacher will aim to work both sides of the body equally, which also helps to improve our balance and sense of where our body is in space. Some of the breathing techniques in yoga will aim to balance inhale with the exhale. These techniques often will be introduced in class before we start practicing actual balancing poses. This helps to prepare us and set a solid foundation for physical balances.
When we practice balances, we need to become very aware of our body’s centre of gravity, and its relationship with the pull of gravity from the earth. However, this physical equilibrium is not a static thing. When we are balancing, we constantly refresh our balance by centring and re-centring. This helps bring our body, mind, breath, thoughts and emotions into balance, which in turn helps us feel calm equanimity.
Why try the more challenging balances, such as crow pose?
Whether you are keen to try some of the more challenging balance poses, or a bit more reluctant, it is useful to understand some of the benefits of working towards these poses. This can help motivate us and help us move beyond our perceived limits.
Practicing balancing poses can be great for our confidence. Personally, I never was particularly athletic as a child and always felt I had bad coordination. However, through yoga I have learnt to balance on my head and hands. This has given me a huge confidence boost. When I see a guest in a yoga classes managing a balance for the first time, I notice the confidence radiating out of them. They feel a great sense of achievement, which is a joy to watch. Often, we have judgements about our bodies and what they can and cannot do. It is wonderful when we can overcome these limits and realise they are just in our heads. This can help us know we are capable of much more that we thought we were and can lead to increasing confidence off the yoga mat.
To practice balance in yoga, we need to be able to concentrate on exactly what is going on in that moment. We are forced to drop our thoughts about our worries and be very mindful. Leaning and practicing balances can therefore help improve our concentration on the yoga mat, which in turn can help with improved concentration in day to day life.
- Connection with body (proprioception)
Leaning some of the more intermediate and challenging balances can really help us connect with our bodies. To balance we need to know where our body is in space, what our hands or the parts of the body that are touching the floor are doing, and if we have activated our core. We need to engage our muscles but without tensing. All of this helps improve our proprioception, which is our sense of where our bodies are in space, movement and velocity of the body. This in turn can help with day to day life. When we are more co-ordinated we are less likely to have falls and accidents. We become more aware of our bodies and can be more aware of when things do not feel right in our bodies.
- Overall body strength
Practicing balance in yoga also helps us to improve our overall body strength, including our core strength. Arm balances improve our wrist, arm and shoulder strength and mobility. This can help with how we stand, walk and perform everyday activities. These benefits can help to improve and prolong our lives by potentially avoiding falls and injuries.
How to develop strength and prepare for Crow pose
Now we have explored the benefits of balance in yoga, you might feel ready to give Crow pose a try. However, before we jump into Crow there are plenty of preparatory poses to strengthen and stabilize the muscles needed to preform it. You may also want to read this article from Lisa on Seven tips to improve your balance in Yoga.
- Wrist and hand strength and stretches
When I approach balances, I like to think first about the foundations of the poses i.e. the parts of the body that are touching the floor. In Crow pose we need to have strong wrists and hands. It is helpful to spread the weight evenly across our hands and make sure we have a good contact of the hands with the floor.
We can strengthen the hands and wrists by preforming various wrist stretches. To do these, start from all fours with the fingers spread out wide. Bend and straighten the arms a few times. Focus on spreading out the hands and pushing down evenly into the floor with all parts of the hands. Feel the arms and forearms and hands working.
Next turn your fingers out to the sides so that they face the long edges of the yoga mat to the right and left. Again, bend your elbows until you feel a stretch on your forearms and hold for a few breaths. Shake out the hands in-between to release tension in the hands.
Next turn your fingers so they point towards your knees, with the palms still flat on the floor. Again, bend the elbows until your feel a stretch, stay like this for a few breaths before releasing your hands and shaking out your wrists. Finally rest in Child’s pose for a few breaths with the hands relaxed by your ankles.
- Arm strength and shoulder stability
In order to do Crow Pose we need to have good arm strength and also shoulder stability. There are a number of poses we can do to help with this. One of the best is to take a full plank or a mini plank (with the knees on the floor, as shown above) whilst focusing on maintaining our shoulder alignment. We can also take some mini press ups by bending and straightening the elbows which will help strengthening the arms.
- Plank and core exercises
There are loads of different exercises we can do to strengthen the core. For example, we can alternate downward facing dog with plank pose which will work core, legs and shoulders. Another nice strengthening pose is alternating a three-legged dog (shown above) with bringing the shoulders over the wrists and the right knee to the right shoulder (shown below). Then moving back into downward dog before switching sides. You could try to build up to doing between 4 or 8 of these on each side.
- Hip flexibility
To preform Crow pose successfully we need to be able to have our knees close to our armpits and shoulders. This requires quite good hip flexibility and openness. A good pose for developing this is Happy Baby pose (as shown in the above photo, using a strap to help support the feet).
The Pose Dedicated to the Sage (Marichyasana I), as shown above, is also a great preparation for Crow pose as it works both the hips and shoulders. To do this pose, sit with the legs in front of you then bend your right leg and bring your right foot toward your groin. You can sit on a block or a blanket. From here straighten the spine and then stretch your right hand and arm forward to the inside of the right leg. Next turn your right thumb down towards the floor and extend your arm out to your right. Try to hook your upper arm around your right knee and then see if you can reach back behind you with both arms and catch your left hand or wrist behind your back. If you cannot reach your wrist you can always use a belt to join your hands together. Lift your chest and then take your torso forward towards your left knee. Come out slowly step by step and when you are ready try the pose on the second side.
Tips when attempting Crow pose
Hopefully, now you have spent some time preparing for Crow pose by building the strength and flexibility needed. If you feel ready, we can now give the pose a try. It is useful to have some blocks and a blanket, or a bolster handy if you have them available.
To come into crow pose start off it the Garland Pose (as shown above). If you are completely new to Crow you might like to have a couple of blocks covered with a blanket or a bolster in front of you.
Place your hands down on the floor with the fingers spread wide and turned in slightly.
Next try to take your knees as high up close to your armpits and shoulders as possible. Then squeeze your shoulders with your knees as hard as you can. This will stop your legs slipping down the arms and keep the legs energised.
Next lean forward and rest your forehead onto the blocks and blanket, or a bolster. Then try to lift one foot and the other foot off the blocks. If you can, try to lift both feet off the floor, even if it is just for a millisecond (as shown in the photo above).
Once you have gained confidence with having the feet off the floor you can attempt the pose without the blocks. In order to do this version, again make sure you are squeezing the upper arms tightly with the knees. Look forward to a fixed point on the ground and gently bring your centre of balance forward so that the weight comes into the hands. You could then gently try lifting one foot and the other foot off the floor. Eventually work towards taking both feet off the floor.
Once you have both feet off the floor you can work on increasing the time spent in the balance and finding more stability. You should also congratulate yourself managing this challenging pose.
Where next if you have enjoyed crow?
If you have enjoyed practising crow and want to explore further arm balances some nice poses to investigate are Side Crow, Firefly and maybe a supported handstand using the wall.
La Crisalida Yoga Retreats
I hope you have enjoyed reading about the benefits of balance in yoga, and had fun practising crow pose, or some of the poses leading up to crow pose. Here at La Crisalida Retreats we have 12 yoga classes per week, including five intermediate level classes where we often work towards some of the more challenging poses. If you would like to have some time to dedicate to working on some of the more challenging poses, consider booking on to one of our Yoga Retreats here on the beautiful Costa Blanca.