Crow Posture is a common arm balance, holding the body perched on the arms with the legs tucked underneath. It is usually the first arm balance taught in yoga classes, because it's relatively easy to get into and it allows a simple, step-by-step approach to balancing on the hands.
HOW TO DO IT
Start by standing, then bend forward and put your hands on the floor a little bit in front of your feet (see the picture "Setup 1" above on the left). Bend your knees and squat down a little; it will also help to bend your elbows. Put your knees on your arms above the elbows. Keep them there. It helps to squeeze the knees together, like you are pressing them onto the arms. This will prevent them from slipping down.
Now shift your weight forward into your hands (picture "Setup 2) above middle). More and more weight will come into your hands and arms. At first you may not be strong enough to hold your whole body's weight on your arms. This is ok, just keep practicing and getting stronger. It may take weeks or months to build the strength. If your wrists hurt from the pressure, do short little sets, just a few seconds at a time.
Once most of your weight is in the arms, lift one foot at a time (pictured "Setup 3" above right). This will build more strength in the arms while also moving you closer to balance. If it is easy to lift one foot at a time, lift both feet off the floor and balance just on your arms.
This week marks three years since the publication of 3 books: Buddha Bose's lost manuscript of 84 Yoga Asanas, the Beginning Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual and the Intermediate Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual.
For anyone who doesn't already know, the manuscript for this book was created in 1938, containing more than 90 beautiful pictures of a young Buddha Bose. Bose was Bishnu Ghosh's first great yoga student in the 1930s. The manuscript contained instructions for 84 asanas and 10 mudras, but was never published for unknown reasons. Over many decades, it made its way to England and then the US, where Jerome Armstrong found it in a collection in Connecticut. We received permission to publish it and got funding support from hundreds of yogis on Kickstarter. The first edition is now sold out, and we are working on putting together a second edition that is smaller and easier to handle.
BEGINNING PRACTICE MANUAL
After teaching for a few years, it became clear that older people and beginners could use some simple instruction in accessible and beneficial postures. This book is a significant down-level from Bikram's class, intended for ages 60 and up, injured or true beginners. It includes some great therapeutic postures that build health and strength; ones taught by Bishnu Ghosh and Buddha Bose but overlooked in the past few decades. We are proud of this book, since it opens the practices to an underserved community.
INTERMEDIATE PRACTICE MANUAL
All of our book writing can trace itself back to this volume, the Intermediate Practice Manual. It is inspired by and draws heavily from our study with Tony Sanchez. It is meant for capable and comfortable yoga practitioners who are ready for some more complexity and depth in their practice. It has more than 50 postures, taking the yogi from a proficient beginner to the precipice of higher yogic practice.
We never imagined ourselves as authors or historians, but the path of life is strewn with unexpected obstacles and opportunities. In celebration of their anniversary, we are offering 20% off purchases of these three books (or their digital downloads) with the coupon code "3years".
Most of us have tight hips, especially in the front where the thigh connects to the pelvis. We sit for so many hours each day and this area gets used to being bent, which is another way of saying that the muscles and tissues get tight.
At the same time, our butt muscles (gluteus maximus) get sat upon and become very weak. The combination of these two elements--tight hip flexors (on the front) and weak glutes (on the back)--create all kinds of problems in our body, usually beginning with back pain.
These two sets of muscles are opposite each other across the hip, so they work as a team. When one side engages, the other relaxes to allow the hip to move. And vice versa. So, the easiest way to "stretch" the front of the hips is to engage and strengthen the glutes/butt.
The best posture to do this in is a lunging position, pictured above. To stretch the front of the left hip, step the left leg back. Then bend the right knee a little. You may already feel the stretch in the left hip. Straighten your left leg and squeeze your left butt/glute. The sensation in your left hip will intensify.
If you're not used to doing this, it is normal for the butt to engage for a second before relaxing again. When this happens, just squeeze your butt again. Engage it 5 or 10 times and then switch sides. You will strengthen an important muscle, the glutes, while releasing a tight area, the front of the hip.
It is Practice Week this week, and we are in Pennsylvania. The days are intense and draining: 5 hours of practice and another 3 hours of discussion. It is an all-out extravaganza for the body and mind. Needless to say, the end of the day finds us exhausted, and it only compounds over the course of the week.
But I have always been a morning person, and no matter how tired I am, I usually wake up early. I say this with no sense of pride; I would often choose to sleep later if I could. But once my internal clock decides it’s time to wake up, there is no way of returning to rest. So I get up.
My favorite thing to do in the morning, aside from doing breathing practices, is organize information. It is so quiet and peaceful, and my mind is full of new connections that were generated while I slept. I love to write down little bits of information that I’ve learned and questions I have. I read and research to find answers to my questions. Sometimes I gain a new sense of understanding.
This morning, I sat in the yoga room here in Pennsylvania before anyone else was up. I gathered pictures and bits of info and placed them into a slide presentation. I rearranged their order until a coherent story appeared. I looked up, saw myself in the mirror and realized that this is a pattern with me: rise early and organize information.
Here are three of the simplest and most useful postures you can do. Do them in the morning right after you get out of bed, do them in the middle of the day for a boost of energy or to reduce your stress. You can do them late in the day, too, but then you should do the Wind Removing Posture twice instead of once. It will prevent your nervous system from getting too energized before bed.
PLANK (pictured above left)
This posture will strengthen your arms, shoulders, chest and abs. It can help improve your posture and reduce back pain.
Hold the body as straight as possible, including the spine, hips and legs. It will be difficult to breathe, but that is because you are using your muscles. Take small breaths, keep your neck and face relaxed, and hold the posture for a minute if you can. Then rest and breathe normally for a minute.
COBRA (pictured above center)
This posture will strengthen your back and release tension in your chest and throat. It compresses the kidneys and adrenal glands in your mid-back, helping to reduce stress by reducing cortisol. It will help to stabilize your spine, reduce back and neck pain.
Lie on your belly with your hands under your shoulders. Lift your head and shoulders using the muscles of your back. You may need your arm strength a little bit, but use it as little as possible. You will feel the muscles on your back near your spine light up. Breathe up high in your chest, near your collarbones. Hold it for a minute if you can. Then relax and breathe normally for a minute.
WIND REMOVING, SEATED (pictured above right)
This posture calms your central nervous system and stimulates your digestion and immune system. It is so simple to do, yet incredibly effective.
Sit and pull your knees close to your chest. Wrap your arms around your legs. Now breathe deep into your belly. This is important. As you inhale, you will feel your abdomen expand and press into your legs. This type of breathing affects your nervous system, digestion and immune system. Do this for a minute and then lie down on your back and relax for at least one minute.
As we mentioned in the last entry, we are in Tokyo this week with the family of Karuna and Jibananda Ghosh. Today, their son Bubai wrote individual charts for us and led us through the regimen.
Yoga practice in this tradition--passed down from Bishnu Charan Ghosh and his students--is individual. It is hard to stress that enough. Each student gets one-on-one attention from the teacher, who assesses the student's strengths, weaknesses, illness, history and goals. The teacher then devises a routine of exercises unique to the student. The concept of a "yoga class" where many students perform the same routine is practically unheard of in this tradition, just as the idea of a yoga prescription is unheard of in the West.
In making our charts, Bubai draws from a system of about 40 asanas, most of which Western yogis would be familiar with. The important element is not necessarily knowing more postures, but knowing which ones to use and when. In addition to the asanas, there are about a dozen "Exercises" that are done in movement, like calisthenics. These are generally done at the beginning of the session to warm the body and prepare it for the asanas.
After many questions about our health, family history, goals, taking our blood pressure and pulse, and doing a small battery of tests to check brain function (luckily we both passed!), the prescriptions are drawn up. Both Ida and I are prescribed 2-3 exercises to warm up, followed by about 8 asanas and kapalbhati (blowing) breathing. Each element is done two or three times, punctuated by a few deep breaths and a rest in shavasana (which, like all Bengalis, he calls savasana).
Bubai hovers over us as we do the postures, making corrections and explaining why things are done in a certain way. We end with a brief meditation, a focused set of thoughts that he gives us. Then a rest and we are done. It has taken about 45 minutes. It is not strenuous or sweaty or exhausting. We are calm and focused and ready to continue with the day.
The ultimate goal of yoga practice is understanding the true nature of who we are. This can seem abstract--how could we possibly be anything other that who we are?--but it has to do with the ego and the mind's creation of an identity. To realize our true self we strip away the mental constructions and are left only with our deepest "self."
The first step in this process is the body, since we identity our "self" with the body and its actions. So we teach ourselves that our body and its actions are malleable and impermanent. Since they are being controlled by a deeper power, they cannot possibly be the truest form of the self.
We do this by controlling the body with yoga postures and alternating with stillness. This alternation between effort and rest, action and non-action, the posture and not the posture, gradually teaches us that even when we are not doing anything we are still ourselves.
Again, this may seem obvious or abstract, but you may be surprised how hard it is to do nothing. Our minds and bodies are constantly drawn toward action, as if their very existence relied upon it. When we force the body to be completely still we can face something of an existential crisis, fearing that we will cease to exist of we cease to act. This is why alternating action and inaction--the posture and not the posture--is so profound.
Breathing is central to yogic practice. Controlling the breath is far more powerful than controlling the body. It has physical, nervous and mental impacts. Here are three reasons to do breathing practices.
1. IMPROVE POSTURE AND DIGESTION
By strengthening the two systems of breathing--the chest and abdomen--many muscles are strengthened. The muscles of the ribs and spine help hold the torso upright, improving posture. The muscles of the abdomen support the lower spine and massage the intestines with each breath.
2. CALM DOWN OR FOCUS
The two parts of breath impact the nervous system, which controls how calm or focused we are. Breathing into the abdomen stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering our heart rate and settling the body and mind. Breathing into the chest stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, heightening our awareness and attention.
3. MIND CONTROL
Controlling the breath requires communication between two distinct parts of the brain, one which is very old and one which is newer. When we breathe consciously, the coordination between these two parts creates intense focus in the mind. It is a relatively simple way to control our own minds!
Each of us is capable of remarkable progress in yoga. But that progress requires commitment and the recognition that there is more than one element to a well-rounded practice. There are four parts of a yoga practice, and when they are all incorporated, our progress is swift.
1. STUDIO PRACTICE
This is the most common element of yoga practice, especially in the modern West. We go to our local yoga studio to do class, led by a teacher. These classes have the benefit of being scheduled, so we carve out time from our day to attend. Regular attendance leads to familiarity and hopefully expertise.
The main drawback of studio classes is that they are geared toward the group and not the individual. The practices are generally "good for everybody," which often means they are not optimized for the progress of each unique student. There is great benefit to be wrung from Studio Practice, but it is important to complement it with Home Practice.
2. HOME PRACTICE
The benefits and drawbacks of Home Practice are exactly opposite of Studio Practice. The main benefit is that it fits our skill level and trajectory perfectly. We can include practices that are challenging enough to enable progress; we can take time and repetition to build new skills. A Home Practice is vital for the progressing yogi. It will always be changing, because we are always changing.
The main challenge of Home Practice is that it requires tremendous internal motivation from us, as opposed to a Studio Practice in which the teacher assumes responsibility for the student in motivation, choice and length of practices. At home, we have to carve out our own time; we have to ignore the dinging phone; we have to stay focused and alert all by ourselves. Great aids to this end are videos, books and pre-determining what our practice for the day will entail.
This, along with Home Practice, is where exceptional yogis are made. We go beyond the ordinary physical- and fitness-based approach and begin to explore its larger and deeper meaning. Study includes a vast array of subjects---and we can start with what interests us---from anatomy and psychology to history, philosophy and spirituality. The good news is that we really can study what compels us, as it will lead us to greater knowledge, understanding and curiosity. The challenge is simply finding time, plagued as we are by busy schedules and abundant sources of distraction.
4. INTENSIVE STUDY/PRACTICE WITH MASTERS
In all walks of life, our habits blind us and we can lose track of the forest for the trees. In order to see ourselves clearly and keep from developing detrimental patterns, it is important to step outside of our daily routines once in a while. In yoga, this means finding yogis who have committed their lives to its practice and teaching. They have generally gone far and deep into the practices, and we benefit greatly from being in their presence and receiving their instruction. Their expertise is compounded by their fresh perspective---since they don't watch us practice everyday---and they will often see our weaknesses and potential immediately.
The main drawback of studying with masters is that it takes great commitment of time and usually money. We may have to travel to another city and dedicate an entire weekend, week or month to their program. In our experience, it is usually worthwhile, but it doesn't make the decision any easier!
We begin at the beginning. That much is obvious.
As we practice, we gain proficiency; we get good at whatever we are drilling. Soon enough, it becomes time to move on and up to the next level. Almost all disciplines take this process for granted. If you study music, you start with the Level 1 book and move through Level 2 up as high as you can, through maybe 6 to 10 levels. And that is all before you even arrive at the University level that plays the standard "repertoire" that makes up most concerts.
Even school subjects progress through levels, building on one another to create complex and deep understanding. Arithmetic is layered with geometry, algebra and calculus to give the student a high level of competency in maths.
Sadly, this structure rarely exists in yoga, especially in the West. The studio culture that has built up---where we attend a group yoga class in the morning or after work---contains almost exclusively "all-levels" classes, which means that they aren't particularly suited for beginners or experienced practitioners.
Since we all begin at the beginning, we should do the simplest introductory practices. We are in Yoga First Grade, learning the yogic equivalent of counting and the alphabet. This includes things like touching our toes, awareness of the breath and perhaps even linking our breath with movement. Before too long we graduate to Yoga Second Grade, where we build upon the skills we have learned. This continues indefinitely as the practices become more and more complex.
This may seem obvious, but it is quite common in the yoga world for beginners and experienced practitioners to do the same practices, the equivalent of having everyone in the room practice algebra even though some don't know how to add while others are astrophysicists. Who is being served?
Practice must begin simply and it must evolve. It must grow and increase in complexity. As teachers, we must embrace and enable these qualities and capabilities in our students.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- The Yogi Becomes Invisible
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth
- The Art and Skill of Teaching