Fear is one of the biggest obstacles of yoga. As we advance our practice, we shift and strengthen our bodies in ways we never thought possible. We invert. We balance on our hands. We hold ourselves up without support.
As the poses get harder, we face a mental block. It’s hard to trust ourselves. Fight or flight patterns alert us that we’re doing something wrong and we frequently leave the pose before we have reached our utmost potential.
It takes time and effort to teach ourselves new patterns, but with these tips, it becomes easier to train the body how to properly align itself for an arm balance.
1. Find Your Center
And by center, I mean your core. Those deep, internal abdominal muscles that hold you up when you’re attempting to flip gravity and balance on your hands. Sometimes the only way to find your strength is by feeling it.
Take a Plank position and press energy through your heels. Tuck your tailbone, hips towards the shoulder blades, while pulling the lower belly towards the spine. Think about flexing your abdomen. Continue contracting the core while you press into your palms and activate your shoulder blades.
The muscles around the shoulder girdle are important for arm balances, as are the fingertips. Shift forwards into the fingertips and grip the ground underneath you. As you learn to properly engage each muscle, the simultaneous press and lift of the Plank will train the body to fight rather than flight away from the fear of balancing.
2. Use Props
There is nothing wrong with a little extra support. I frequently see my students growing frustrated and embarrassed when they have to use blocks, but it’s much more important to train the body properly. Give it what it needs rather than developing false habits.
Blocks are my favorite props for arm balances, mostly because they teach us the proper right-angles needed to hold the body above the ground. Straps go a long way, as well. When I’m learning a new arm balance, I always link a strap around my arms, right about the elbow, using it like a rubber band while I practice Chaturanga arms.
With the strap around the arms, place a block on its medium height underneath the chest. Bend the elbows until the chest touches the block and the upper ribcage rests on the strap. Pause and hold. Feel the elbows pulling together and the chest reaching forwards. Activate the biceps and the pectoral muscles.
Notice where the body – the hips, the core – is potentially sinking. Pay extra attention to these problem areas during your arm balances, as these may be the places that are preventing you from accessing the posture.
3. Lean Into It
Here’s the big one: it’s all mind over matter. Teachers say this all the time, but it doesn’t always click. Pause and think about it: your body is strong. It is capable. You balance on your feet, why not get on those hands?
Though it’s rare, I’ve seen beginner yogis fly straight into an arm balance in their first class, and it’s just because they didn’t realize the pose was difficult. They had the utmost faith in their ability to fly.
When the body is properly trained and the muscles are strengthened, nothing is standing on your way of that desirable arm balance. I say this with the disclaimer that I am still learning this, every day. After years of teaching, I still worry that I am unprepared. I fear falling on my face. And I have. But on the third try, something magical happens.
Whenever an arm balance is offered in class, do not just try it once! Once is never enough. This is not a tapas restaurant. This class is your full meal. Lean into it and taste the pose multiple times. Feel what it does to your body.
Leaning into it means that even if you do fall, you will be okay. Nothing will break. Nothing will crack. The body will just learn how to exist in a different plane of gravity. As you once learned to walk, you are now learning to fly.
Put your hands on the ground, find your center, use those props, and lean into the fear. You've got this.
Image credit: Gordon Ogden