by Eric Stewart
For many beginning and intermediate students, plank poses and arm balances are among the most difficult asanas to learn. Maintaining strength in the arms and activation of the abdomen can appear to be the key to learning such poses.
Yet when people ask me about these asanas I generally steer away from focusing too much on the triceps and the abdominal muscles, because in my experience there is something more fundamental, something that is a foundation for all the strength, coordination and presence necessary to do any sort of plank, arm balance or handstand.
The Fundamental Thing
This fundamental thing is easy to miss: it’s the support of the floor, or to be more specific, your experience of that support.
In a post two weeks ago, I described how Simple Yoga is about clarifying perception. I related how attending to simple things within asana practice is an essential way to hone perception.
The support of the floor is one such simple thing.
Giving attention to the support of the floor means being present to the sensations of the body in contact with the floor, and being present to sensations of weight and gravity. Sometimes in attempting to do this, both beginning and advanced students alike fall into a habit of abstracting or analyzing these things, which is not so helpful.
Instead, this part of the practice is about being with sensation as fully as possible. In doing so, the body and mind shift into a favorable state to build strength, increase flexibility, or develop any other capacity that the moment requires.
This is a different way of looking at strength, a different way of understanding how to expand an asana. With asanas that need a lot of strength, people often end up straining, believing that the effort will lead to progress.
And effort can create progress, but it has limits. In large part this is because effort can end up obscuring the connection with the ground and other supports, which is where the strength begins.
What the Ground Does
If you’d like to see what the ground can do for you, it’s important to assess what your capacity is and work with a practice that is just challenging but not overwhelming. For you this may be a straight-arm plank, full chatturanga dandasana (bent arms), an arm balance such as bakasana (crow) or lolasana (the scales), or handstand.
If you choose a pose where your body is in a long axis such as plank or handstand, make sure that you don’t collapse in your low back . If you’re not sure, you might want to have someone assess this for you.
Whatever you choose, make sure that the pose is not so challenging that your awareness of weight, gravity and tactile sensation gets overwhelmed.
If any of the above poses are too much, you can explore a plank pose with your knees on the ground (starting on a diagonal line that runs from knees thru hips, shoulders and head, and then slowly lowering to the floor). Or you can stand arms-length from a wall with palms on the wall and slowly bend the arms to bring your forehead to the wall.
Working Less to Feel More
Play with working a bit below your maximum effort and use the energy that you conserve to gain more awareness of your body’s experience and your relationship with the support underneath you.
Any asana can be a pathway to more challenging possibilities if you give yourself the time and the space to feel and be aware.
One of the things I love about floor support in asana practice is that it reveals that the practitioner is not alone, which is reassuring because an unsupported arm balance or a chatturanga that has nose-dived into a puddle on the floor might sometimes feel alone and perhaps a little hopeless.
Framing the practice in terms of support provides connection to resources and information outside oneself, yet connected to oneself. The great news is that you’re not alone!
The floor and the ground are always present, and they have so much to offer. The stories they tell sometimes!
They are noble teachers.