Who doesn’t like sugarcane in the moonlight? De-lish.
But let’s face it, getting into this variation of Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana) can test your balance, flexibility, and coordination as you reach back and grab your lifted leg. Never fear, here are some tips that help make this elusive pose more accessible.
First, to approach the pose, we must understand its component parts. Let’s start with Ardha Chandrasana:
External Rotation of Standing Leg
The key to Half Moon is the strong external rotation of the bottom leg. (Think about it for a moment: the bottom leg. Often we get confused and think it’s the lifted leg in rotation, but actually the lifted leg is neutral.) The strong external rotation of the lower leg is counterbalanced by the drawing in of the lower shin and anchoring of the inner edge of the bottom foot. Together, these two actions create a diagonal spiral effect that keeps your standing leg stable. Against the external rotation of the standing thigh, the pelvis can open to the side plane. If you lose the anchor of external rotation, the standing knee will collapse in, the booty will swing with abandon to the back plane, the the containment of the pose will be lost.
Great poses to teach this external rotation in a non-balancing position: Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), Triangle (Trikonasana), Gate (Parighasana), Side Angle (Parsvakonasana).
The standing leg hamstring must be open, as well as some of the adductors. Imagine triangle pose on its side, so the back leg is now in the air, and you have Half Moon with a balance added. Good standing poses for opening the hamstrings: Uttanasana, Triangle (Trikonasana), Wide-legged forward fold (Prasarita Padottanasana), Hanumanasana and Ardha Hanumanasana (splits), Pyramid (Parsvottanasana), and Standing Hand to Foot Pose (Utthita Hasta Padangustasana).
In traditional Half Moon, the torso stays steady in all three plane so that it is like Tadasana, but with the arms wide. If the neck is comfortable, the gaze anchors to the top hand.
Getting into Ardha Chandrasana
To move into Ardha Chandrasana effectively, you must impress upon your students the imprint of the external rotation of the standing leg so that you can steady the knee appropriately. Without this rotation, the inner knee will collapse in and the foundation will usually become unsteady. The knee will torque and the lift that we need out of the standing leg will deflate. Rooting through the inner edge of the bottom foot while strongly externally rotating the standing leg thigh will create a powerful dual action to steady the lateral lines of the leg.
For this reason, coming to the pose from another externally rotated pose is ideal. Trikonasana is an obvious choice, but Parsvakonasana (Side Angle) is also effective. Once you have transferred your weight to the standing leg, pause, and bend the standing leg knee. With the knee bent, you can clearly discern the efficacy of your external rotation. Strongly wrap the standing leg buttock under you until the sitting bone actually feels like it’s sliding towards your lifted leg. When this action is effectively performed, your standing leg knee will again track over the center of your ankle.
Now, maintaining that rotation and lateral engagement, begin to straighten your leg by rooting strongly through the standing leg heel. Because you’ve entered the pose from Trikonasana or Parsvakonasana, the torso is likely already facing the side. Maintain the rotation of the bottom leg as you open the pelvis further. (Rather than turning your chest, first turn your pelvis.) Where the pelvis leads, the body follows.
In traditional Ardha Chandrasana, the body is essentially in Tadasana with the arms wide, except the bottom leg is strongly externally rotating.
When we elevate the pose to Ardha Chandrachapasana, we add two elements: the bending of the top leg and a backbend.
Adding a thigh stretch to the upper leg requires balance, coordination, and open hip flexors. Prepare for the action of this variations in non-balancing poses such as Anjaneyasana (low lunge), Crescent (high lunge), and variations with a thigh stretch. I recommend doing a low lunge with a thigh stretch where the student reaches back with the ipsilateral hand for the leg, in order to imprint of holding the foot with the same side hand in ACC. Awkward pigeon with a thigh stretch is also an interesting warm up, as the hip are mimicking some of the actions of ACC: the front leg is externally rotating while the back thigh’s hip flexors are stretching.
Backbending requires thoracic extension, which can be efficiently added to poses like lunges and thigh stretches, and warmed up separately in poses such as Bhujangasana (cobra), sphinx, and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Dog).
Putting it Together
To enter the pose from Ardha Chandrasana, the obvious transition is to simply bend the top knee and reach for the top of the foot. However, this is frequently inaccessible to many students. Another way in is to bend both knees and actually draw your top knee into your chest. For most, this makes it easier to find the top foot. From this contracted position, actively hug towards the core of the body until you are stable. Then, unfurl the pose by pressing your back knee towards the back of the mat. The back thigh stays parallel to the floor; watch the tendency to float the knee towards the ceiling, which diminishes the stretch of the front of the thigh.
Like Ardha Chandrasana, the external rotation of the bottom leg is essential. That rotation is the “brake” that allows the body to then uncurl into a backbend. Without the hip drawing under, there is little leverage for the body to move back. With the bottom leg still bent, reaffirm the external rotation of the leg by drawing the hip firmly under and lengthening your tailbone towards the lifted knee. Now keep that strong action as you begin to draw the shoulder heads and the throat back and open the chest. The foot and the hand form a reinforcing energetic loop; press the foot strongly into the top hand to further open the heart. When the body is steady, take the gaze to the ceiling.
Releasing the pose
Coming out of the pose is just important an opportunity as coming into the pose. Bring your gaze to the floor to create a visual anchor. Re-establish the steadiness of the bottom leg. Energetically maintain the bend of the top leg as you release it from your hand and bring the spine back to Tadasana. Re-connect to the external rotation of the bottom leg as you step back to Trikonasana or Parsvakonasana.
Experiment with this pose at the wall. Place your standing foot parallel to the wall and about 18 inches away (everyone’s distance will be a little different, you’ll adjust if you need to.) Come into Ardha Chandrasana. Then bend the top leg and place the top of the foot on the wall behind you. With this third point of contact, the body will have a chance to settle more so that you can work the actions without worrying so much about balance. Also, you can explore the actions here without actually holding on the foot.
If possible, reach back to hold onto the top foot. Otherwise, wrap your standing leg hip under, press the top foot into the wall, and begin to explore the opening of the backbend with the top arm simply lifted towards the sky. The connection of the foot to the wall will begin to imprint the actions of the pose into the body.