Advancing Your Yoga Practice

Often we come to yoga wanting to master a particular pose (asana). Usually it’s an arm balance or inversion. While the challenge of eventually achieving these asanas can be liberating, it’s often not from the point of mastery. Often a glimpse at holding Crow/Crane Pose (Bakasana) for a couple of seconds causes a humbling feeling of knowing that there is more to these advanced asanas than first thought.

To understand what’s happening in the body, let’s break down Crow Pose.

Advanced asanas aren’t achieved through a single action. Rather, it’s a combination of simultaneous activation of different muscles and engagement of energy locks. This comes from practice, and training the body and mind to activate and engage simultaneously.

Crow Pose requires balance; open hips; wrist, elbow and shoulder strength; engaged bandhas; core activation; and leg and ankle activation. When all these elements come together, we form a stable base and gain lightness to lift.

While you might not be ready to lift off into Crow Pose just yet, here are some elements that you can work on individually.


Strengthen your core

The core consists of four pairs of abdominal muscles. Three of these encircle the abdomen (external and internal obliques, plus transversus abdominus). The fourth pair (rectus abdominus) runs vertically on either side of the midline between the pubic bone and the sternum. [1]

Often we activate the larger core muscles (external obliques and rectus abdominus) causing weakness in the deeper layers of muscle (transversus abdominus / lower abdominals). Once you learn to switch on the lower abdominals you’ll create pelvic stability, support for your lower back and a stronger core.

Core strength can be practiced in Plank Pose (Phalakasana), Boat Pose (Navasana) and Scales Pose (Tolasana) to name a few. Supine Leg Lifts can also train lower abdominal activation.

Core strength can also come from using props. Rather than wobbling in a balance pose, find support from a wall or set of blocks, and focus your attention on engaging your core.


Activate your legs

Aside from using leg strength to physically hold our body in standing poses we don’t tend to give much attention to this area of the body.

Yet the souls of our feet create the foundation to support our body in standing poses and balance poses. Pay attention to grounding all four corners of the feet, lifting the inner arches and grounding the outside edge (blade) of the foot. This activates the legs and also ensures alignment (particularly knees) in poses.

Correct alignment prevents injury and opens meridian lines (energy channels) in the body, creating a clear pathway to draw energy up through the feet and into the upper body.

Imagine you are drawing energy up from the Earth and returning it back down through the feet, into the Earth. This visualisation helps to create a strong foundation and body awareness.

Dorsiflexing the toes in a standing leg lift can also increase leg activation and give you more leg elevation.


Engage the bandhas

Bandhas are locks that send energy upwards from the base chakra to the crown chakra.

The two main bandhas activated in Crow Pose are Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. Both create lightness and fluidity of movement.

Mula Bandha (also known as the Root Lock) helps to hold energy within the body and can be engaged by contracting your anus, engaging your pelvic floor muscles and drawing your belly button towards your spine.

Uddiyana Bandha (also known as flying upward energy lock) moves energy upwards from the earth, water and fire centres, into the the air region of the heart. Uddiyana Bandha is created when a vacuum is formed as the lower abdomen is sucked in. [2]

Begin by practicing these bandhas in isolation. Then practice in poses and notice the subtle lift in the body that occurs when the bandhas are engaged. Uddiyana Bandha is essential for gaining lift in Crow Pose.


Find lightness in body and mind

With all the muscle activation going on and the mind busy trying to remember what to activate, it’s easy to feel heavy in your poses. So now that you have all these elements working for you, it’s time to introduce lightness.

A lift in the bandhas can help to create this. Beyond that, when you practice enough, your body knows what it needs to activate in each pose. Trust that your body (when it is ready) will know what to do. Find the balance between effort and ease. “Walk the middle line” is a common term used in yoga. Even within a fire (yang) practice we can find a water (yin) element – softness.

Practice sun salutations with your eyes closed and feel into your body. Focus on the space between your inhalation and exhalation of breath. And in meditation, focus on the space between your thoughts. This is where lightness can be found.

And never forget the breath. A long four count inhale and four count exhale will help to relax the body, ease tension in the muscles and mind, and remove the need to strive.


Find joy in your practice

We are all at different levels in our practice and if the thought of launching into Crow Pose seems daunting, then focus on each element one at a time. Whether it’s strengthening your core, activating your legs, engaging your bandhas or finding lightness in body and mind. The more you practice, the more you are working towards creating building blocks to advance your practice.

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