Once all major joints of the body have been warmed up by practicing Pranayama breathing and the first few postures, you are ready for Eagle pose, garudasana! This pose opens up the joints of the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and wrists.
By twisting your limbs "like ropes" Eagle pose creates compression of blood and lymph flow headed to spots like your legs, kidneys and the lymph nodes in your armpits. Hold the posture very still while breathing calmly, so that when you release it your elevated heart rate will send a boost of high-speed circulation to those areas. Notice a white mark on your thigh after you come out of Eagle? That's a good indicator that you’ve been maintaining a strong compression.
What's that you say? Your arms won't twist like ropes? Here's a quick video on what to do for this (very common) "issue"...
Now that we've cleared up what to do with those pesky arms, here are a couple key aspects of Eagle pose and more tips to help you get the most out of your efforts:
Using leverage to promote good alignment and open joints.
When you move your knees to the right and upper body to the left to get your feet, knees, elbows and hands in one line, you are using the leverage of one limb against to create the compression effect I mentioned above and open up your major joints. The key to not falling over while you make these adjustment is keeping your (especially lower) abdominal muscles tight and your upper body lifted away from your thighs.
It's a backbending pose!
Many beginners tend to lean or even hunch their bodies forward while they're setting up their Eagle, in an effort to pull their elbows down. Don't let this happen to you! Keep your upper body (when you hear the cue "upper body" in class, think mainly lower ribs upward) leaning back throughout the posture, which means (although you'll end up looking straight ahead) your spine is actually in a backward bending position. This position strengthens back and core muscles, releases tension in your lumbar spine, and compresses the kidneys.
In the Bikram yoga system, we do the Awkward Pose in three parts. Here's a quick rundown of what to do in each one, how to do it, and why you should even care...
Even on its own, the first part of Awkward pose is an excellent all-around exercise, reminiscent of a squat you might have done at the gym (though Utkatasana has been keeping leg and butt muscles buff muuuuuch longer than the gym!)
How to do Part 1:
Step your right foot to the right about 6 inches, keeping your feet exactly parallel to one another so your heels stay invisible behind your toes. Keep in mind that in Bikram yoga "6 inches" varies from person to person! Basically, your heels should be directly underneath your hip joints. This alignment is important to make sure that when you sit down into the pose, pressure is distributed evenly in the hip, knee and ankle joints.
Bring your arms up parallel to the floor with palms facing down and all 5 fingers together. Stretch your arms forward toward the mirror, exhale and suck your stomach in, then hold it in while you sit your hips back like you're sitting into a chair that's a bit too far behind you. Keep your spine straight to begin with and maximum body weight on your heels.
It's normal if your upper body has to come forward a bit so you can sit your hips back. Once you're in the chair, lift your chest up and bend your total spine backward to bring your upper body back. (Tip: if you *can't* lift your chest up, you're probably sitting down too low- come up a little bit and try again.) Suck your stomach in and lean back into the heels even more, keep your chest up, lean back even more until you almost fall down backwards!
Get psyched for Part 2:
The second part of Awkward Pose is super challenging for a lot of people- so if your ankles are wobbling or your thighs are shaking, you are definitely not alone. The best tip for you is: don't skip it, and don't hold back from fear of falling or not being able to hold it the whole time. You have to start somewhere, and no one will laugh if you fall (most of us have been there!) Part 2 is great for increasing leg and foot strength as well as stretching out the feet, so give it all you've got and it will give you some nice-looking gams and great-feeling dogs in return!
How to do Part 2:
First stand up on your tippy toes and stretch your whole upper body up to the ceiling. Suck your stomach in and sit down as though you are sitting into a chair that's right underneath you. Be sure to sit down until your hips are in the chair, keeping your spine in a straight position. If you can only hold it that low for 2 seconds at first- be proud of your achievement! Little by little, you will build endurance- but only if you try the right way and you don't give up.
How to do Part 3:
By the 3rd part of Awkward pose, your legs are already well warmed up. Come up a little bit on your toes and bring your knees together, being sure to keep your heels behind your toes. Exhale breathing and sit down as slow as possible, keeping your knees together and your spine in a straight position. Sit down all the way onto your heels, then stretch your spine up towards the ceiling to make a half-inch gap between your hips and heels. Keep your knees together and forward, thighs parallel to the floor, arms parallel to the legs, spine straight so from the side you look like a 3-sided box.
Here's the hard part: inhale breathing and slowly come up while keeping your spine straight. This requires you to really concentrate and connect with your lower abdominal muscles (to keep your hips from going back and upper body tipping forward) as well as tremendous thigh strength (and determination!) to keep your knees together.
"But my knees!!"
If you are suffering from knee pain, have a recent knee injury or have limited range of motion in your knees, here are a couple special tips for you in Awkward:
Why to get Awkward:
All three parts of Utkatasana are excellent for improving blood circulation in the ankles, knees and hips. This pose strengthens the thighs, calves and hips muscles while improving flexibility of the hip, knee and ankle joints. Awkward helps relieve symptoms of rheumatism, arthritis and gout. It's also great for toning lower abdominal muscles, pelvic floor and the triceps muscles of the arms. Not to mention, it sure gets your heart rate up and is often the point in class where you'll really start sweating, making sure your limbs are nice and slippery for the next posture...
As the first posture in the Bikram yoga class, the job of Half Moon pose (ardha chandrasana) is to get your spine feeling out its range of motion in a bunch of directions, right off the bat.
By stretching up out of your waist, then slowly bending your upper body to the right while pushing your hips to the left beyond your perceived flexibility, you will create an incredible stretch down the side of your body. This side-bending action either stretches or tones every muscle in the torso, increases the lateral flexibility of the spine, opens up the hips and trims the waistline. Oh, what a feeling- and then you get to do it to the left!
TIP: Half moon is the very first posture in the class, so there's no need to push it super hard, especially in the first set! Your body is not quite warmed up yet, so "take it easy, honey." Remember that the first set of every pose is diagnostic- it helps you figure out where your body is in the present moment. Second set is therapeutic- based on what you discovered in the first set, you decide whether to push a bit further, or back off a little more. Your breathing is an excellent indicator of which way to adjust- if you really can't keep your breathing normal (like you're watching TV) then you've done too much! Back off.)
Once we have stretched to both sides, the third part of Half Moon is backward-bending. Your instructor will warn you, "Your back is going to hurt, don't be scared!"
PSA: That doesn't mean that if a part of your body screams in sharp pain, that we think you should push through it! Not at all. This statement is simply a "heads up" that it's normal for the backbend to be uncomfortable- or even "hurt," in the sense of "ouch, I don't usually use those muscles!"
Backbending can be a pretty uncomfortable position at first. It requires you to simultaneously use a lot of strength in your legs, hips and back while also relaxing the neck and stretching the arms and shoulders back as far as you can. The challenge (and any "hurt") is worth it though, because this first backbend is unbeatable at warming up the back muscles and de-stiffening (that's a technical term!) your spine for class, while opening the heart and chest. Be sure to keep your eyes open, so you don't get dizzy.
At this point you have moved your spine straight up, side to side, and backward. Next comes Hands to Feet pose (padha hastasana.) This forward-folding posture continues to stretch the spine while beginning to work on stretching the sciatic nerve, muscles, tendons and ligaments of the legs.
TIP: If you can't grab your heels from behind, bend your knees and try wrapping your elbows behind your calves. Then hold the backs of your ankles and start to straighten out the legs, keeping your grip by keeping pressure with the palms against the ankles. Eventually, you may be able to grab underneath your heels- for now just get as close as you can!
Besides the tremendous stretching, Padha hastasana also helps improve overall circulation to the legs, sends a nice rush of blood to the head, and strengthens biceps, lattisumus dorsi, quadriceps, hands and fingers. Always remember to keep your breath moving calmly, in and out of your nose- a smiling happy face can help. :)
I often think of this dude I knew who always waited until Pranayama was over before he would go in to class: he said it hurt his neck and shoulders. He'd find all kinds of ways to stall: go to the restroom, check his phone, fill his water (again) or change clothes verrrrry sloooooowly...
By skipping this breathing exercise, however, he was missing a bigtime opportunity to warm and prepare for the rest of class precisely (yup!) his neck and shoulders. His hurting was likely due to improper technique, but by avoiding Pranayama he was robbing himself of the chance to ever learn the right way.
Avoiding what challenges you is never the answer.
If Pranayama feels uncomfortable, achy or awkward, chances are you stand to benefit from it greatly! If you do it correctly.
Since none of us came out of the womb with our knuckles glued to our chins performing perfectly synchronized movements coordinated with 6-second inhales and 6-second exhales (ok, maybe Orlo did??) it takes practice and time to learn this technique. Offer yourself patience (which Pranayama will help with, too!) and never give up.
Benefits of Pranayama breathing include:
With 26 postures and one breathing exercise accomplished, the final breathing exercise begins to cool your body down so (after a 2-minute final savasana, of course!) you leave the hot room feeling like a brand new, yoga-lized you.
i"The principle of Ardha-Matsyendrasana and of other spine-twisting asanas is the use of the legs as fulcrums or levers so that the pull of the arms on the two upper corners of the rib box can bring the spinal twist to its maximum potential. The value of the twist is that it exercises, adjusts and rejuvenates the spine, and that it stimulates all the organs of the trunk to better health."
(from "Yoga Postures for Health", compiled from articles in the 1956-59 Self Realization Magazine)
Half Spine Twisting pose improves blood circulation around the spinal nerves, veins and tissues. It increases flexibility of the entire spine and range of motion at the hip joints, helps alleviate back pain caused by lumbago, kyphosis, scoliosis and arthritis. Twisting improves digestion, relieves flatulence and strengthens the abdominal and thigh muscles while providing a tremendous stretch for the illiotibilal (IT) band.
So how come we only do 1 set of this fabulous pose? Bikram might say he ran out of time- but we think it's just so great that only 1 set of it does the job. ;)
How to do:
Q: What if my forehead will never touch my toes?
A: Short answer: it doesn't matter. If you've been to my class (or if you've been reading this blog) you've probably heard me say/write something like "the goal is not the real goal." So while the "goal" of this posture as we say it in class is to touch your head to the feet- really the real goal is what happens along the way, the effect you create in your body simply by trying the right way. In this posture, the real goal is 360-degree-angle stretching, coccyx to toes, coccyx to head.
Q: Why do we grab the big toes only? I'd rather grab my feet!
A: Grabbing just the big toes ensures you create the 360-degree-angle stretching. Here's how it works: Because your only grip is on the toe, you are forced to use the fronts of your legs muscles (quadriceps and shins) to flex the feet and get the heels off the floor. Contracting the fronts of your legs means the backs of your legs can truly stretch from coccyx to the toes. When you pull the toes with your heels off the floor and stretch your body forward from the lower spine, you also stretch your spine from coccyx to the neck, creating 360-angle stretching. If you grabbed your feet from outside or the top (though it might seem more comfortable!) you wouldn't get that stretch to the lower back. As is so often the case (sigh) the uncomfortable way is the right way! So grab your big toes. ;)
The best way to learn any posture and experience for yourself the benefits it has to offer is to come to class on the regular (3-5 times a week is best) and make your body smile. Got other questions? Ask one of our certified instructors next time you are in for class- or drop us a line in the comments below!
This posture comes toward the very end of every Bikram yoga class, paired with Stretching Pose/ Paschimottanasana. Together the two postures provide a lovely final stretch for the hamstrings, shoulders and back while improving circulation to the internal abdominal organs.
How to do:
Among the many specific benefits of Head to Knee pose are:
Many students comment about the transition from Camel Pose to Rabbit Pose: it's very challenging, or it feels amazing- or both! Both poses deeply open the spine, helping ensure proper alignment as well as helping maintain the health of the intervertebral disks, whose spongy nature helps them absorb shock from daily movement.
Rabbit pose improves digestion, helps regulate metabolism and helps alleviate common cold and sinus symptoms as well as headaches. It benefits the central nervous system by creating maximum space between vertebrae along the back of the spine- which is not only great for stretching your back muscles, but also for the intervertebral disks and for the spinal cord which is protected by the bone joints of the spine.
The front-side compression helps strengthen and tone abdominal muscles. The "throat-choked" feeling of the chin tucked into the chest is where this pose nourishes the parathyroid and thyroid glands. Doing Rabbit pose also helps enhance mobility and flexibility of back muscles, spine, scapula and trapezius muscles. Come and try Rabbit in class today and make your body smile!
Camel is great for so many things! Among its benefits are:
This is a posture where it's very normal, especially as a beginner, to feel dizzy, nauseous or emotional. The best thing to do is? Breathe. Immediately after you exit the posture, lie down in savasana (try to skip the water, handtowel, or whatever else you automatically reach for in that moment.) No worries, those feelings will pass- or you may even learn to like them! Backward bending this way is most likely a new sensation, and opening your chest, hips and throat can feel vulnerable.
Here's a video Peter and I shot earlier this summer with our special guest teacher Audrey Holst from Bikram Yoga Natick. I asked Audrey if she had noticed any trends among our students in the way we are practicing, and together we agreed that Camel pose could use some attention to make sure you all are getting the goody mentioned above, without causing strain or pain. Enjoy, and please let us know if these tips are helpful for you!
Bikram Yoga St. Johns' studio owner, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay D.