If you follow the hashtag #yoga on Instagram you’re likely to see photos and videos of yogis performing advanced asanas that may seem unattainable to a new practitioner, but it’s important to remember that even these practitioners were once a beginner too, and they didn’t acquire advanced yoga postures overnight.
Acquiring the prerequisites in mobility, strength, and flexibility to perform advanced and challenging yoga postures comes with consistent practice, awareness, and patience. The breath serves as your guide on a journey of self discovery as you move into new and challenging postures and out of your comfort zone.
Developing a Passion for Practice
Tapas is a Sanskrit word that means to create heat or burn in order to purify. Through self discipline and steady effort we are able to reach our goals, grow, and evolve, but in order to acquire this fiery passion for practice it is essential to come back to our intention again and again.
Yoga teacher and advanced yoga and movement practitioner Dylan Werner put it quite eloquently, when he said, “A goal is like the destination- where you want to go. An intention is why you want to get there. Every goal is just a destination, but the practice is about the journey – it’s about moving our way there. Once you understand your intentions better you can move towards your goals in a safer way.”
Developing Movement Prerequisites for Advanced Postures
“The word advanced doesn’t mean anything-what does that advanced posture do? Usually it requires more strength, flexibility, or more skill. What does more skill do? More skill means more practice, more patience, more proficiency, more balance and harmony in the body,” says Dylan.
What is advanced to one individual may not be advanced to someone else. Therefore, the aim is to personally assess, build upon your weaknesses, and improve general range of motion so you have a secure foundation to move into more challenging postures.
Enjoy the journey towards these 5 challenging postures
- Titthibhasana (FireFly Pose)
Tittibhasana is a pose that demands the strength of an arm balance and the flexibility of a deep wide legged forward fold. “The hamstrings have to be so open for this pose,” says Joan Hyman, a globe trotting yoga teacher who pulls inspiration for her teachings from her own daily high level practice and in depth studies of the Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar traditions.
Joan recommends prepping for Titthibhasana with the following poses to help you fly and shine.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose):
Who doesn’t love when your teacher counts extra slow in chair pose?
This pose ensures you feel the burn in the legs. “Utkatasana warms up the quads and hamstrings which are big components here!” says Hyman.
How to do it: Begin in Tadasana (mountain pose). Bend the knees and lower the hips bringing the thighs parallel to the floor if possible. Simultaneously stretch your arms overhead and externally rotate the upper arms. Depress your scapula so your shoulders move away from your ears. Lengthen your tailbone towards the floor and breathe deeply as you feel the deep sensation through your legs as you build strength and stability.
Utthita Hasta Padangustasana A (Extended-Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose):
Joan recommends this pose to get the legs ready for this strong arm balance. Utthita Hasta Padangustasana challenges balance, improves proprioception, opens the hamstrings, and builds strength in the quads and hip flexors.
How to do it: From Tadasana draw your right knee in towards the chest. Bring your right arm along the inside of your bent right leg and hook the big toe with peace sign fingers. Either extend the leg fully out in front of you and activate the quadriceps and flex your foot or keep a bend in the knee if necessary. Option to place a strap around the sole of the right foot to experience the full expression of the pose if needed.
Bakasana (Crow Pose)
“Crow pose is another arm balance that is done with the arms straight and teaches you to round the pelvis recruiting the deep core muscles and bandhas,” says Joan.
How to Do it:
Begin in a low squat. Place your hands on the ground shoulder-width apart with fingers spread wide. Have your feet wider than your shoulders. Come up to your tiptoes. If this isn’t comfortable, try to put your feet on a blanket or on a block. Snuggle your knees in toward your rib cage. Shift forward, bringing your shoulders over the creases of the wrist. Squeeze your knees into the upper triceps. Draw one foot away from the floor squeeze heel to glute. Try lifting the other foot off the floor and bring the big toes together. Keep your neck neutral and breathe calmly and deeply. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths and return your feet to the floor.
Now it’s time to fly and shine!
How to Do It: Separate your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart and perform a forward bend (keep knees bent if needed) placing your hands down on the inside shoulder distance apart. Begin to bend your knees and lower your hips down. Maintain flexion through your spine and squeeze your knees to your triceps. Push into your hands and lean forward keeping your arms straight as you extend the legs parallel to the floor and point the toes.
2. Adho Mukha Vrkasana (Handstand)
For a beginner, handstand may seem like one of the most challenging and most coveted yoga postures out there, but yoga teacher and advanced movement and hand balance practitioner Dylan Werner introduces handstands to his students early on. “It’s easier to get injured falling out of inversions such as headstand and forearm stand,” says Werner.
According to Dylan, the key to holding a handstand is having open shoulders, but if you’re still working on improving your shoulder flexion and aren’t able to make a straight vertical line in the handstand like a gymnast or cirque du soleil performer don’t fret.
“It’s okay if it doesn’t look great. It’s okay if you have a banana back in handstand,” says Werner.
“The major difference between gymnastics and yoga is that it’s not about what the shape looks like, but the intention behind it. When I do a posture in yoga my intention is about sensation- moving towards feeling things in the postures. When I do something in gymnastics or circus (performance based arts) the intention is aesthetics; the goal is the shape. That’s the big difference.”
Try adding these poses and variations to your yoga flow to feel the elating effects of Adho Mukha Vrkasana (handstand pose):
- Downward Facing Dog Variation: To use downward facing dog with the intention of handstand, focus more on opening the shoulders than stretching the hamstrings by placing a slight bend in the knees and pressing the chest back through the arms. Spread your fingers and press down with your hands.Straighten the arms and elevate your shoulders up to your ears. Press your chest between your arms and perform a gentle bouncing motion to move the shoulder heads back and increase your range of motion. Do this a few times with breath then work on holding downward facing dog for an extended period of time such as 20-30 breaths.
- Chest to Wall Handstand: Stand about a legs distance away from the wall. Turn away from the wall and place your hands down. Walk your feet up the wall until you’re vertical. Keep the body activated. Shift your weight into your fingertips to develop balance. Aim to hold steady and breathe for as long as you can to build strength in this posture.
- Partner support: Come into downward facing dog. Lift one leg into the air behind you for three-legged downdog and kick up into handstand. Have your partner support you as you find balance.
Are you ready for the freestanding handstand? Let’s get upside down!
How to do it: Start in three-legged downdog. Keep the back leg active as you bend your supporting leg and jump your hips over your shoulders. To counterbalance bring your knee into your chest or into an L-shape as you reach your other leg towards the sky. When you catch your balance, straighten your other leg towards the sky as well. Breathe and hold for as long as possible aiming for 20-30 seconds.
- When holding a handstand Dylan recommends that you move the body as little as possible. “It doesn’t matter what the shape is. The more you move that shape the harder it is to balance. Even if your shape is bad, maintain it by relying on the hands.”
- Be mindful to not have your hands too wide apart. When in handstand you want to be able to stack the joints and bring your shoulders over your wrists.
- Maintain activation through your legs.
- Elevate your shoulders and think of pushing into the ground.
3. Sirsasana (Headstand)
Yogis have coined Sirsasana as the “king of asanas.” This inversion may have the ability to flip your perspective, help you overcome fear, and may lead to reduced stress, increased focus, improved digestion, and aid in reducing fluid retention and improving blood flow.
“This is an advanced pose because it’s a posture that is supposed to be held for several minutes creating a profound shift in the nervous system,” says Los Angeles based yoga teacher Joan Hyman.
While headstand does not require the same level of shoulder mobility as handstand this inversion may be more risky and injurious if you fall out of it as you roll over the neck, therefore your setup and preparation is very important.
Yoga teacher Joan Hyman recommends the following poses to nail your first headstand.
- Dolphin Pose
“This is a great prep pose, because it opens the thoracic spine and hamstrings,” says Joan.
“As a teacher, I see that the students head is lifted off the floor and the upper back has mobility and can coil in towards the chest.”
How to do it: Begin in a forearm plank. Press your forearms into the ground firmly. Walk your feet in as if you’re in downward facing dog pose with your hips lifted into an inverted “V” position. Lift the heels and bend the knees if necessary.
- Forearm Plank
This posture builds awareness around the shoulder girdle and increases core strength. Joan looks to see that students have awareness of lifting out of their joints and the core is strong enough that they can keep their hips in the same level with their shoulders.
How to do it: Begin in sphinx pose on your forearms. Ensure your elbows are directly under your shoulders. Press down into your forearms. Tuck your toes under and lift your hips off the floor creating a line from the crown of your head to your heels.
- Wall Supported Headstand
“Many students can kick up and get up into headstand, because the base of support is larger than handstand, but if they don’t the strength in the shoulder girdle, they will feel strain in their neck and not be able to hold the pose for very long,” says Hyman.
Therefore, Joan recommends teaching this posture at the wall and placing blocks behind the thoracic spine to help students understand how to coil the thoracic spine in especially as they take the legs up.
How to do it: Facing a wall, come to a forearm plank. Hold and activate your core for a few breaths. Roll to the outer edge of your forearms and interlace your fingers. Walk your feet in. Place the crown of your head down in front of your interlaced hands. Push your forearms into the ground as you bring your hips over your shoulders and make and maintain contact with the block behind your thoracic spine as you engage the bandhas and utilize your core to lift the legs up overhead.
Okay, now let’s get steady in Sirsana
How to do it: Start in a kneeling position with your toes tucked under and your forearms on the floor. Interlace your fingers and place the crown of your head down in front of your hands. Press the outer edges of your forearms into the floor and keep your shoulders lifted as you extend your legs and lift your hips. Maintaining the position of the shoulder girdle, walk your feet in closer and either bend the knees in towards the chest and lift your hips over your shoulders and extend the legs or keep the legs straight as you pike up into the posture. Squeeze the legs together, steady your gaze, deepen your breath and intention. Aim to hold for 20 breaths.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
When you’re approaching big expansive poses such as wheel pose, Los Angeles based and traveling yoga teacher and movement specialist Sean Phelps recommends breaking it down into pieces. “Find the hip flexor opening, find the shoulder opening, find the heart opening,” he says.
Phelps recommends these poses to open your heart.
- Low Lunge with Quad Stretch: From straight arm plank position, lunge your right foot forward on the outside of your right hand. Lower your left knee to the floor and bend the knee bringing your heel towards your buttocks. Shift your weight into your left arm as you reach back with your right hand and grab your left foot on the outer edge. Draw the left foot closer to your body. (Option to place your left shin against a wall and come upright extending the hips for a deeper hip flexor and quadriceps stretch.
- Puppy Dog Pose with Shoulder Flexion: Position yoga blocks on their highest height in front of you shoulder distance apart. Come to puppy dog pose kneeling with your hips stacked over your knees. Place your hands on your blocks. Extend your spine bringing your torso parallel to the mat. Explore cat cow position to segment the spine and press your chest down towards the ground to open the chest and shoulders.
- Elevated Backbends: Lying on your back with your knees bent place your feet on blocks set hip distance apart or a low bench. Bring your hands alongside your ears with your fingers slightly pointed outward to avoid pinching at the wrist. Press into your feet and your hands to lift up, extend the hips, and explore movement in this position as you open the heart.
Opening up into Urdhva Dhanurasana
How to do it: Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet hip distance apart, bring your hands alongside your ears with your fingers slightly pointed outward to avoid pinching at the wrist. Press into your feet and come to the crown of your head. Push into your hands and your feet simultaneously as you extend the arms and come into wheel pose opening the front side of the body.
- Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
Padmasana is a meditative posture, but if you enter this pose with more force than patience and awareness it may feel anything but calm, cool, and meditative.
To get your OM on in Lotus Pose add these three postures to your flow for more open hips.
- Warrior 2 Pose
Warrior 2 is a strong standing posture that emphasizes external rotation of the hips and builds strength through the legs.
How to do it: Starting in Tadasana (mountain pose) step your feet apart into star pose. Turn your right foot to point straight ahead and turn your back foot to a 45 degree angle. Align the heel of your right foot with the arch of your left foot. Lower your hips down as you place a 90 degree angle bend in your right knee while keeping the back leg straight and grounding down through the outer edge of the foot. Emphasize externally rotating your right femur, activating your outer hip and thigh muscles, and bringing your right thigh parallel to the floor
- 90/90 External Hip Rotation
The 90/90 stretch targets the gluteus minimus and stretches into the hips.
How to do it: Sit upright and bring both legs into 90 degree angles on the floor. Facing the lead leg, extend your spine and lean forward. Hover your navel over your knee and keep the chest lifted to feel a deep stretch in the hip. Hold this stretch passively for two minutes. Then actively press your leg into the floor for 30 seconds. Keeping your spine extended, sink deeper into the stretch if possible. Try to actively pull your knee in toward your chest for 30 seconds. Repeat this cycle two to three times.
- Fire Log Pose
“This is a great posture to open the hips especially the deep rotators like the piriformis which is felt in the upper buttocks and is a key external rotator,” says Hyman.
How to do it: From Dandasana (staff pose) bend both knees in and stack ankle over knee to resemble stacked fire logs. Keep your feet flexed. Option to sit upright or hinge forward from the hips for a deeper stretch. Perform on both sides.
Putting it all together: Padmasana
How to do it: Start in dandasana (staff pose). Bend your right knee and hook your hands under your shin to cradle the leg and open the hip. Draw your right heel in towards your left groin. Repeat the same action with the left leg placing it overtop. Keep the feet active. Press the knees down towards the ground and ground your sits bones as you sit up tall.
As Simon Sinek says in his infamous TedX Talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action, “it’s not what you do, but how you do it.”
Will merely doing a handstand or lotus pose make you enlightened?
The level of fulfillment one feels and the wisdom gained is not in the action itself, but the journey to get there and what one feels and learns along the way. Enjoy the journey!
Looking to advance your practice? Let’s move together!