Arm balances are probably the most intimidating and most exhilarating asanas. Unless you were a gymnast in a former life, arm balances expose a hidden fear in all adults–the fear of falling. Somewhere along the maturation process, you forgot that your ability to stand, walk, and fall began before you could talk.
As a baby, standing and walking were the first two balances you ever undertook (and succeeded at, I assume). Now you’ve been standing and walking for so long, it feels normal and natural.
Arm balances require a small to-do list of elements: hasta bandha, arm strength, shoulder engagement, core engagement, and ultimately knowing where to put your butt in relation to your shoulders.
Like the stones of the great pyramids, if any one of these elements is off even by a smidge, the whole thing can come crumbling down.
Hasta Bandha and Shoulder Engagement
I want to focus on two of the above elements: hasta bandha and shoulder engagement.
Hasta bandha is Sanskrit for hand lock and most practitioners’ first time experience with hasta bandha is in table pose and downward dog, not realizing those foundational poses are cleverly disguising the same basic requirements for arm balances. So if you or your students are struggling in downward dog, side plank, or crow, take them back to basics.
Back to Mountain Pose
Hasta bandha and its importance is better understood by first examining pada bandha, something you’re probably more familiar with. In a standing pose, such as mountain pose, the placement of your feet impacts the entire posture.
Pada bandha physically changes muscular engagement of the lower body. Full contact and proper placement allows your inner thighs to engage, building strength and protecting your knees, helps your pelvis move into a neutral position, thereby engaging your abdominal and back muscles, and acts upon the stabilizing mechanisms in your ankles to do their job. All of this alleviates stress at your joints and creates better balance.
When it comes to practicing arm balances, you’ll use hasta bandha much like you use pada bandha in standing postures. The elements of pada bandha easily translates into hasta bandha:
• Feet firmly planted and weight evenly distributed = hands firmly planted and weight evenly distributed
• Toes facing forward and feet parallel = middle finger of hands facing forward and arms parallel
• Joints stacked, ankles, knees & hips = shoulders stacked over wrists
• Inner thighs engaged and lifting toward pelvis = arms engaged, lifting toward shoulders
• Pelvis neutral = shoulder blades depressed (or pulled toward one another)
• Core lifted and engaged = core lifted and engaged
How do you hasta bandha?
No two hasta bandhas are the same. Huh? It’s just putting your palms flat on the floor, right? Yes. . .and no.
Arm balances, as well as poses like table, plank, updog and downdog, begin with your ability to create a firm connection between your palm and the ground. But an individual’s range of motion (ROM) impacts how she executes it.
Try it now.
With your forearms on the ground, hands facing each other pinkies on the floor, roll your thumbs toward each other. Are you able to get your palms and fingers flat on the floor? A great many students CANNOT roll their palms flat without adding some additional rotation from the elbow joint or shoulder.
Not usually a problem when practicing table pose, but complications arise when you have to do this while inverting your body at the same time. If you require extra rotation from the elbow or shoulders to get full contact in hasta bandha, this is going to change the stability of your shoulder girdle.
And stability in the shoulder girdle is one of the elements that helps you practice arms balances and other inversions.
This doesn’t mean that someone with a lesser degree of wrist ROM can’t do arm balances and inversions, it just means that as teachers we have to allow for minute adjustments to be made. We have to accept that rarely will two people look or set their foundation exactly the same way when practicing postures.