In the beginning of our yoga journey, arm balances seem to be a distant goal. They are tough to master and take continuous dedication, patience and perseverance. Looking at them from afar they seem to require a lot of upper body strength, but when we take a closer look we discover that it's a lot more core strength, ribcage and hip flexibility, alignment, breath control and concentration. Try the series below to open up the hips and stretch out the spine with the intention of working towards Flying Pigeon and Hummingbird poses.
Begin with a few Sun Salutations and continue to the hip openers below. For the first pose, start out in an upright Pigeon position so you can find a good angle for the shin. Sit with your hips straight and the back leg extended straight behind you. Tucking the back foot and lifting the thigh helps to do this. When you're ready, fold forward as is show in the second picture and take at least eight breaths there. Move on to Double Pigeon by swinging the back leg forward and working towards stacking the knee joints with the ankle joints so the shins stack on top of one another. Sit up as tall as you can and lengthen the spine, keeping the back as straight as possible as you lean forward and fold to the best of your ability.
Now that you have opened your hips a bit, try making your way into Flying Pigeon! From chair pose, cross your ankle over the opposite knee and crouch down as low as you can until you can place your palms flat on the ground. If you can't reach the ground try putting your hands on blocks. This is a great way to achieve a solid foundation even if the flexibility isn't there yet. Once your palms are firmly rooted, stack your knee just above one elbow and wrap the foot around the opposite tricep. It's really important to lock the foot in place by flexing the foot especially at the pinky toe side. Bend your elbows like you're doing a Chaturanga (low pushup), send your chest forward as far as you can, engage your core by drawing your belly in towards the spine and shift the weight into your fingertips. Play with lifting your foot off the ground and balancing on your hands for a few seconds. If you find stability, very slowly begin to straighten the back leg by engaging the quadricep and flexing the foot strongly. The slower you go the better. This will give you time and control to catch the balance as the center of gravity shifts.
This last pose called Hummingbird pose requires a lot of hip and ribcage flexibility because it requires that you twist enough to get the foot to "step on" the tricep. Start the same as the pose above (chair pose with one foot over the knee) and take a prayer twist. Pause there for five breaths so you can work the twist deeper and deeper trying the get the foot to rest above the elbow. Keep the twist and straighten your arms by taking one hand towards the floor and one hand towards the sky and pause for a few more breaths. Squat down again and try to plant your palms down on the side that you're twisting towards (you can use blocks here again). If your foot can stay on the tricep without slipping off, begin lifting the bottom foot off the floor as you lean into your hands and bend your elbows like a Chaturanga. The same principle applies here. Shoot your chest forward and extend the bottom leg to the side by engaging the quadricep and either flexing the foot or pointing the foot and spreading the toes open. Be patient. This is a tough pose and you have to keep practicing over and over until one day it just happens! And remember to breathe. Holding the breath doesn't help.
Arm balances are humbling but extremely rewarding and exhilarating. The secret to achieving them is constant practice. One of the most amazing things about yoga is that if you are dedicated enough you will be able to do things you never thought you could do and that starts to translate to other areas of our lives. We become a little more courageous and less fearful. Having discipline is essential for achieving any goal you set out to do so be patient, believe in yourself and keep trying!