The process of learning bakasana B
Maria wrote in with this question:
“I’ve been trying for years to jump into bakasana B. After two years [of] trying Sharath let me move on, but every time I get there I try and try and try and I’ve never been able to land on my arms. My feet touch the floor every single time. I’ve been filming myself and I’ve realized I don’t bend my elbows to land there. I have no idea what to work to be able to do that. I obviously don’t have the core strength to jump and float into the pose. Any suggestions? Thank you so much. Maria”
Maria asks a good question about a challenging posture in the intermediate sequence of Ashtanga. Her underlying question is what is missing from what I’m doing now and what do I work on to evolve this posture. Let’s explore some answers to Maria’s questions.
What is bakasana B?
Bakasana B in the intermediate Ashtanga sequence builds on bakasana A, which is crow pose, a common balancing posture in many styles of yoga practice. What makes bakasana B different, and more challenging, is the idea that you are going to jump into crow pose from downward dog. Not only do you need to be able to hold a steady bakasana A, but now you need to figure out how to control your momentum and stop yourself in space to land in bakasana. So what might be getting in Maria’s way as she tries to sort out this posture?
What’s getting in the way of bakasana B?
There are a couple of things coming up for me as I read Maria’s question. First, bakasana B is one of those postures that often evolves very differently in different bodies. You could even say that there are really two different ways to do this pose: 1) flat and low and 2) high and floaty. It might be that Maria has been trying to do one version, possibly high and floaty, rather than the flat and low version which might be what it needs to be, at least in the short term, to learn it in her body.
Secondly, bakasana B doesn’t live in isolation. Bakasana B is a posture that is primarily done within the Ashtanga practice, so we’ll assume that if you’re working on bakasana B, you are doing an Ashtanga practice including the primary series plus the intermediate series up to bakasana B. How you are doing bakasana B is in relationship to how you are doing all of those other postures that come before it in your practice. Pieces of the anatomy and technique that support bakasana B can be found in other postures.
So let’s dig into both of these ideas a little deeper.
Do your own pose
Let’s start with the idea of doing your own pose. Bakasana B can be like drop-backs or other dynamic poses, in that it is easy to see someone else do the pose in their body and expect that that’s how it should go in yours. If you were someone who came to this posture with lots of upper body strength, maybe from other activities, then maybe you could just go straight to doing the high floaty version with straight arms, but that isn’t everyone or even most practitioners when they first learn to jump into bakasana B. We need to start by finding this posture in the body that we have.
Anatomy of bakasana B
Now let’s review some anatomy so we understand what makes up the posture. Primarily bakasana is an arm balancing posture, so we need sufficient strength to hold the arm balance. In bakasana B we also need sufficient control over our center of gravity so that we can stop and control our momentum when we land.
What does that strength and control over our center of gravity look like? Well, this is what I mean when I say this posture often evolves differently for different people. You could arrive at the posture with a lot of strength in pectoralis major, triceps. You’re then likely to be tighter throughout the whole of the shoulder complex. By shoulder complex I mean the shoulder joint itself plus all the other muscles and joints that directly influence its position.
The pattern of excess tension
If this is you then you might have the strength to hold bakasana but it may also feel like you have to “muscle in” to the posture. In this situation I sometimes see students over-doing the contraction in the upper trapezius and neck in order to hold the posture. There might be sufficient strength to “force” the posture. But, the student might use more effort than necessary because there isn’t yet strength in the “right” places.
The pattern of excess flexibility
On the other hand, you might arrive at this posture more on the bendy side. You might have the experience when you lean into the hands in bakasana A or jump into the pose in bakasana B that it feels unstable or like you can’t quite trust your upper body to hold you in space. A lot of students have a fear of falling forward onto their face. If this is the case, then it’s critical to create the positive patterns that create the stability and security that you seek. For those who are more flexible and lacking in strength, it’s critical to build that strength in a static way before taking on the most advanced way of getting into bakasana B.
Create a relationship with serratus anterior
In either of these cases, I’m going to suggest one of the most common missing pieces that I see in students working this posture. That missing piece is a strong relationship with serratus anterior. If serratus is strong then it can do a number of important jobs in this posture. If the serratus is activated it will stabilize the scapula. It will also help lift the torso, and therefore the pelvis, up and away from the floor.
There is often a misunderstanding about the key muscle activation for holding bakasana. Maria even alluded to it in her question. That misunderstanding is an idea that we need a lot of “core strength” to do bakasana. We do need the abdominals to activate to stabilize the torso when we land the pose. But, what is at least, if not more important, is that we create a relationship with serratus anterior to stabilize the shoulder girdle. This is because our hands, arms, and shoulders are our base in this pose.
What does serratus do?
Serratus is the key muscle that stabilizes the scapula. We often see more clearly when the serratus is not active. In that case, we might see the scapula wing out. We might also see the scapula get pushed or pulled by other muscles that should not be so strongly activated. When we activate the serratus, in addition to the deltoids and triceps, the scapula will be more stable. That will help create a more secure feeling as you lean your weight forward.
The serratus is also a protractor of the scapula. This means that the shoulder blades move forward around the front of the torso. In this posture, because your hands are on the floor, when you activate this muscle it actually lifts your chest and torso away from the hands. Since the hands can’t go forward into the floor, they are stabilized, and the stabilization on that end means something else has to move, in this case, the torso.
In addition, serratus is an upward rotator of the scapula. Typically this means you see the arms go up when we talk about a movement like this, but once again because the hands are on the floor, when we activate serratus, upward rotation actually helps to move the torso in a rotational manner at the shoulder joint. In other words, it’s basically the opposite of what we typically see this muscle do because we have locked the hands in place. All of these intentions together create a strength, stability, and subtle movement that helps keep the feeling of “up energy” needed to reduce the weight on the back of the arms.
Putting the anatomy together
This also leaves the rotator muscles free to do more fine movements and adjust the position of the shoulder joint in space. If serratus is working actively in bakasana to stabilize the scapula, then it prevents levator scapulae and the upper trapezius from over-working, pulling the scapulae up towards our ears, and functionally shortening the back of the neck. This balance of strength in the “right” places may not be accessible right away, but in the long term it allows for more ease in the posture and more space for a relaxed, steady breath.
Technique: working bakasana B and related postures
For many practitioners, the flat and low version of bakasana B is where it starts. That means starting with small jumps, bent elbows, and a compact bakasana. Start with just a little hop from a few inches away. Bend your elbows before you get ready to jump. Keep them bent! With bent elbows, you have a responsive landing platform that helps absorb your momentum as you find the action of jumping and controlling a landing in your particular body. This will help with simply finding the action of the pose.
When you do land, even from a jump just a few inches away, keep the pose compact so it is easier to stabilize. That means keep your thighs drawn into your chest and keep the hamstrings on to squeeze the legs up. Feel into your body for what needs to happen to control and maintain the shape once you’re there. Then, when your bakasana B is stable and consistent you can level it up to jumping from farther away and working towards straighter arms.
Another part to take advantage of when working on bakasana B is that the pose is happening in relationship to other postures. Any time a pose seems like it’s not evolving, my method is to look backward through all of the other postures and transitions that come before it. Find all of the opportunities that you have to strengthen the muscles necessary for the posture AND to practice the mental piece of believing that landing bakasana B is possible.
You can work on strengthening serratus anterior in every other posture that you’re working on that could contribute to activating it. Every time you press your hands to the floor or together you have an opportunity to activate this muscle. And, before bakasana B comes of course, bakasana A. Practice lifting up and out while in bakasana A. Connect to serratus anterior and press up and out before you jump back. Take your time in bakasana A and get mentally comfortable with how far forward your head and shoulders are. This is how far forward you need to jump to land in bakasana B. If you’re more comfortable there, you’re more likely to jump far enough to land the pose rather than pull back at the last minute out of a fear of going too far.
Explore the pattern in sun salutations
One of the best places to practice both the connection to serratus and the action of leaning forward into the hands is when you look up in a sun salutation after the fold forward and before you jump back. Every time you place your hands on the floor and prepare to jump back in a sun salutation you can focus that intention to lean forward into your hands, keep your shoulders forward, and try to jump up and hold for just a second before you jump the feet back.
Get comfortable with your shoulders sufficiently forward. Mentally you have to get comfortable with having your shoulders forward enough to hold the bakasana position, which is often farther forward than folks want that to be. This is the same action that you are doing in bakasana A. It’s just that in bakasana A you are retaining that shape and holding it in the air rather than transferring the lift into momentum to jump back as you would in a sun salutation. In bakasana B you’re doing the same action of leaning into the hands and then stabilizing that shape to retain it. It’s just all happening much faster because you’re jumping into it.
The process of evolving bakasana B
So, to break it down into steps for you, I would start by being really intentional about cultivating a relationship with serratus anterior in every opportunity during your practice — especially during the sun salutations. As you practice leaning farther and farther forward in each sun salutation you should also be feeling mentally more comfortable with having your head and chest out in front of your hands, which is necessary for bakasana. In fact, while you’re in bakasana, try to lift yourself off of your arms, even if you don’t move. Intend this movement from the hands pressing into the floor from your armpit (serratus).
Then, start with small jumps into bakasana B, maybe just a couple of inches at first. Bend the elbows before you jump to allow the backs of your upper arms to be your landing platform while you’re learning the pose. Yes, the fullest expression is landing the pose with straight arms, but for many practitioners that is something to work up to, not a way to initially learn the pose. If trying to keep the arms straight is just getting in the way of making any progress in learning the pose, then let that go and start where you are. When you get comfortable and confident landing the pose with bent elbows then you can challenge yourself to work with the arms a little bit straighter.