Eka Pada Koundinyasana. It’s one of those poses that you see on the cover of yoga journal, performed by someone smiling peacefully (and seemingly in no state of stress or panic) that makes you go, “Huh? Riiiiiiiiiight.” As my boyfriend said with alarm upon seeing this picture to the left, “Jesus! That is not good!” (Photo courtesy of Yoga Journal.) But despite it’s daunting appearance, there are accessible roads into this seemingly impossible position.
Eka Pada Koundinyasana #1 (there are two versions of this pose) is not only an arm balance, it’s also a deep twist. To warm up the body effectively, we must first imprint our body (especially our upper body) with the alignment necessary to support the pose.
In a word: hunching. Coming into this arm balance from a deep twist, we tend to slouch our shoulders forward and collapse in our chests. In fact, we tend to do this even in more accessible twists. For example, bring to mind parivrtta parvakonasana (revolved side angle). (See right, thanks again, yoga journal!) Usually in order to get our arm to the outside of our leg, we make a big ‘ol C curve in the spine – anything to get that (in this case, left) elbow over there. Our head and pelvis are no longer lined up, and we shorten the upper side of our torso. This causes the left shoulder to droop forward, which means that we can’t get that left shoulder blade down and INTO our back to facilitate the twist. We get stuck.
To protect the shoulder joints and create maximum length in the body, we instead need set up for this pose by maintaining even alignment in both sides of the spine. As we lengthen the spine, the keep the shoulder blades ON the back, so that they act like little shovels and lift our thoracic spine up and INTO our body. We maintain a virtual backbend in our upper back. Our chests lift and our collarbones stay wide.
Then we need to keep this openness through the upper body AS we move into a twist and balance on our hands. No biggie, right?
Upper back/Thoracic: As discussed, this is essential for the pose and for the happiness of the shoulder joint.
Shoulderblade Position: On your back. This goes with upper back. Upper arms gather in.
Core: Yep, you gotta find a some core stability here – even while you keep the chest open. That means we need to engage the deep core muscles like the transverse abdominis rather than the rectus abdominis (those six-pack, or “crunching” muscles).
Legs: Work those legs. If you want to get airborne, stretch through the legs and feet with great enthusiasm.
And actually, that’s kind of it. No hamstrings, no great flexibility needed here. Just a brave, open heart and some core engagement.
This week, I’m sequencing this pose with an intent to work on maintaining the lift and openness of the spine during the twist.
To get everyone imprinted with the right body in the action, I start everyone at the wall with a block. Standing in tadasana a little aways from the wall, place the block on your shoulderblades so that the block is giving encouragement for the thoracic to draw in and up. You may have to play with your distance. You want to be far enough away that you don’t have to lean forward, but close enough in that you are upright and getting the feeling of the block lifting your spine up and in.
Then do the same thing, this time with the block in the middle of your buttocks (so the tailbone is lengthening down to your heels). Imagine the block moving up and into your chest.
Tadasana into Urdhva Hastasana with a block between your hands. Imagine the other two blocks now: one into your upper back, the other pressing your tailbone down to the floor. Straighten your arms, stretch your legs, and reach, baby, reach!
Then, use the recall of the two block positions all through class to encourage chest open, long lower back. Here are some highlighted poses I’ll hit:
Dandasana (seated on block – length and evenness of spine)
Maricyasana III, both sides. No bind – remember, we want to avoid the rounding of the spine and sliding off of the shoulder blades. Focus on keeping skull atop pelvis, even length through both sides of waist, and lift in the thoracic.
Sun salutations – again, weaving the focus of the upper back lift throughout.
Low lunge (back knee up)
Low lunge with twist)
Trikonasana (triangle) to focus on even length of both sides of waist
Twisting chair (no C-curve)
Parivrtta Parsvakonsasna – less is more. Have them keep length in both sides of waist rather than end gaining and getting elbow across at all costs.
Getting into it:
To actually get into the pose, I like YJ’s description below, with a couple of modification possiblities.
As a modification of the pose, Ardha Mastyendrasa with the bottom leg extended. Work on keeping the lift and openness in spine – all the same actions we’ve been doing all class.
As a variation, put the sitbone of the crossed over leg on top of a block (not everyone can sit on their heels). Work the twist from there, but don’t bring your hands to the floor. Instead stay upright. Explore the constraint of the legs as you lift, open, and twist.
Here’s the YJ exerpt with my notes in blue:
Step by Step
Come into it from a standing position. First bend your knees as if to squat, then take your left knee to the floor. Turn your left foot so it points to the right and sit on the heel. Cross your right foot over your left thigh and place it, sole down, beside your left knee. Your right knee should point toward the ceiling. (Okay, here’s where I say, place a block underneath your right butt if you can’t sit back on your left heel. Work the lift and twist from there and be happy.)
To twist, bring your left waist, side ribs, and shoulder around to the right. Place your left upper arm across your right thigh and slide your left outer armpit down the outside of the thigh. Use movements similar to those you used in Parsva Bakasana to maximize your twist and make good contact between your left upper arm and right outer thigh. (Okay, you may need to do a little rounding here, but as soon as you find the connect, work the same actions you have been. Get your shoulderblades back on your back, lengthen your chest forward.) Maintaining this contact high on the arm and far to the outside of the thigh is the secret to the pose.
To place your hands on the floor, first straighten your left elbow and put your left palm down (you may need to lean to the right to bring your hand all the way down). To place your right hand, carefully lift both hips without losing the left-arm-to-right-thigh placement, lean even more to the right, and put your right hand on the floor. Your hands should be shoulder width apart, with your middle fingers parallel to each other. Most of your weight will still be on your knees and feet.
Without losing contact between your left arm and your right outer thigh, lift your hips so you can flip your left foot and stand on the ball of the foot, heel up. Next, lift your left knee off the floor so most of your weight is on your feet. Lift your hips a little higher and start shifting your weight to bring your whole torso above and between your hands with its midline parallel to your middle fingers. Leaning your weight slightly forward, bend your left elbow a little, then tilt your head and shoulders a bit toward the floor. This should leverage your right foot up in the air. When your right foot is up, lean your weight farther forward until your left foot becomes light, then lifts up with an exhale. (Keep your shoulderblades ON your back, reach your sternum forward. No droopy shoulders!)
To finish the pose, straighten both knees simultaneously with an inhale. Lift the left leg until it’s parallel to the floor. Bending your left elbow more, lift your right foot higher, and reach out through the balls of both feet. Adjust the height of your right shoulder so it’s the same as the left. Lift your chest to bring your torso parallel to the floor. Breathing smoothly, hold the pose for 20 seconds or longer (Um, whatever? Be happy with whatever you do, even if you just get an inkling of taking the weight off your feet), then release both feet to the floor with an exhale. Repeat on the other side for the same length of time.
Have fun, see you in class!