Confession: I love arm balances. To me they bring a wonderfully fun and playful quality to our yoga practice. They also invite us to undertake a curious exploration of our perceived boundaries, patterns and possibilities - fear, striving, exhilaration and frustration may all arise, and can be held with friendly awareness. In fact they're a significant reason as to why I fell in love with the practice in the first place - my first teacher was a big believer in including arm balances in every class and I loved the challenge that they presented, even though I was rarely able to hold the poses for long (if at all).
Over the years of practicing yoga I have increasingly come to appreciate that arm balances are not simply (or even primarily) a question of strength. Of course a degree of strength is involved (as it is with any asana) - but the practice of arm balances is really more a question of refined technique.
So...to help you take your arm balance practice to the next level, I have outlined below 5 key principles for safely exploring these wonderful poses.
1. Use your hands as feet
Most 'arm balances' (with some notable exceptions such as Pincha Mayurasana) are in fact 'hand balances'. So, it's critical that we build the foundations through our hands correctly by activating our 'hasta bandha' (hand lock or seal). It's exactly the same principle we take when creating a stable foundation in standing poses - but using our hands instead of our feet.
To do this spread your fingers wide with your index fingers pointing forward and focus on rooting the index fingers, thumbs and little finger sides of the hands into the mat. Gently grip the floor with your fingertips and notice how this creates a slight 'cupping' action of the palms (maybe imagine you have a little ant under your hand that you want to avoid squishing). You might also notice that this helps to provide a much greater sense of stability and foundation through your hands and avoids weight collapsing into your wrists.
2. Stabilise the shoulders
Our shoulders are built primarily for mobility rather than for stability - in fact they are the most mobile joints in our bodies. So in order to safely engage our shoulders during arm balance practice we have create as much stability as we can through these joints.
We do this by ensuring that the head of the upper arm bone (the humerus) is properly 'plugged into' the shoulder socket by externally rotating the upper arm (think about rolling your inner bicep forward so that the 'eye' of your elbow is in line with your thumb).
Additionally, broaden and flatten your shoulder blades across the back so that they don't wing upwards and away from the body - this can strain the muscles of the rotator cuff surrounding the shoulder joint (causing further instability).
3. Hug your elbows to your centre line
Think 'Chaturanga arms'. Hug your elbows in towards your centre line so that they're in line with your shoulders and over your wrists (rather than bending out sideways either side of the body) - and so that your forearms are parallel to one another. This creates a strong and stable skeletal structure for arm balances upon which we can 'stack' the rest of body - reducing the amount of muscular effort we need to invest.
4. Use your whole body
Jason Crandell likens the practice of arm balances to solving a Rubik's cube. He says you won't get far by simply squeezing it harder - instead you have to understand the relationship between each part of the cube in order to solve the puzzle (not that I've ever actually managed to solve a Rubik's cube).
Arm balances are very similar - we need to understand that it's not really about brute arm strength but about how the body works as an integrated whole. Think about a simple plank pose (a foundational pose for all hand balances) - in order to hold your plank you need to activate muscles throughout the body to avoid collapsing towards the floor. We can apply similar principles to other arm balances. For example in Bakasana we need to activate the hip flexors to draw the knees in towards the body and the adductors to hug the knees against the upper outer arms - this helps to activate our 'core' musculature, making it possible to enter and maintain the pose.
5. Have fun with it
As I mentioned at the start of this post I love arm balances for the playful quality they can bring to yoga practice. Embrace this playfulness and use the above tips to safely approach your exploration of these wonderful poses - it might take a little while to get the hang of some of them but with persistence, they'll come . Enjoy the journey!