An anatomical breakdown of bhujapidasana
In bhujapidasana, things really get interesting, pose-wise. Although marichyasana D can feel very challenging, we could at least dissect it into recognizable parts. With bhujapidasana, it can seem like we’ve entered a whole new category of poses. And, in a way, we have. If I had to put this pose in just one category, I’d probably call it an arm balance. But, if you look closely, you’ll also find elements of the simpler poses that come before it in the Ashtanga primary series.
Let’s start by taking a look at bhujapidasana with an anatomical lens.
Bhujapidasana is a deep forward bend. We have to have sufficient flexibility to flex the hip joints to bring the torso through the thighs. We are externally rotating at the hips to bring the feet toward each other. A strong intention of adduction with the thighs is necessary to maintain the connection between the thighs and arms in this posture. That intention of actively pressing the inner leg (adduction) into contact with the arm gives the posture its name: “arm-pressure posture”, or sometimes also translated as “shoulder-pressure posture”. If we fold forward and touch our chin to do the full expression of this pose, we are doing extension of the neck to place our chin on the mat.
As with any posture, there are many intentions that you could work with in this pose. I’m going to take a look at three more specifically, and point out where we have the opportunity earlier in the primary series to develop the same intention before we arrive at this pose. In order to create the shape of the pose, we need to take our torso in line or slightly beyond our upper legs. We also need to be able to use our legs to squeeze our upper arms and torso. We then add an arm-balancing intention to that shape. In the final version of the posture, we explore the intention of extension through the head and neck to place either our forehead or chin on the floor. We’ll explore each of these intentions in detail below.
Working the torso-leg-shoulder connection
This posture centers around being able to bring your torso through your legs. What restricts this? Hamstrings. All of the forward bends that come before this pose have built up to this moment and the next couple of postures. The difference here is that we can bend the knees, which reduces hamstring tension and allows us to get our torso deeper. Without this part, you will have a hard time getting the shoulders through and getting the hands flat on the floor.
More specifically, there are a couple of key places that have created the beginning of this part of the posture. You could look at the prasarita padottanasana postures as a wider-legged forward fold that has us intending to work our forward bend deeply and even bring our torso through our legs slightly.
The other place we do this is less obvious, but probably more directly connected, because it utilizes the relationship between our legs, torso, and shoulders. That posture is marichyasana a and even b. As we bind ourselves into marichyasana a, we reach forward and draw our torso in front of our upper leg. We then (hopefully) squeeze our leg in (adduction) and bind that leg by placing our shoulder or upper arm in front of our leg. The focus in marichyasana a is not the bind, it’s the hip. It utilizes the binding to add to that. The action of squeezing the upper leg into the side body is beneficial in marichyasana a, as it is similar to the action needed when first entering bhujapidasana.
An obvious intention of this pose is arm-balancing. This is the first pose we come to in the Ashtanga practice where we are balancing entirely on our hands. While the full expression of this posture does have us tipping forward to place our forehead or chin on the ground, we are not intending to put weight either on the forehead or the chin. The weight stays in our hands.
So, if this is our first arm balance, how do we learn to do it? Well, while this might be the first true arm balance, it’s not the first place where we can practice the action of moving our weight into our hands. That actually comes all the way back in sun salutations. If you remember from my post, ‘Sun Salutations – Part 4 – The Look Up‘, I encourage students to work to train a pattern of leaning into the hands, with support from the serratus anterior, right from the beginning. Each time you fold forward and then look up in sun salutations you have the opportunity to practice leaning your weight forward and into the hands before stepping or jumping back. This action is the foundation of your arm balance.
Extension of the head and neck
There is one more intention that I would like to point out in bhujapidasana, and that is working with extending the head and neck. In order to do the full expression of this posture, which has us placing our chin on the floor, we need to deeply extend the neck. This action requires that we have both sufficient strength along the back of the neck and sufficient flexibility of the muscles along the front of the neck. Although this can feel like a bit of an extreme position, we have opportunities to work on this action in gentler ways throughout the primary series. If we go all the way back to sun salutations, we have the “look up” position. Every time we actively look up in this way, we are working with the action of extending the head and neck. If our hamstrings and spine are mobile enough to allow us to gaze at the toes in some or all of our forward bends, then these too are opportunities to practice this action.
I consider the first stage of learning this posture to include working the legs around the shoulders. Another way of saying this is that your torso has to sufficiently move through your legs. The harder that is, the harder it will be to have the legs around the shoulders and get the hands flat on the floor.
The second stage, after getting your torso through as much as possible, is to squeeze the inner thighs into the torso and shoulders, bend the knees, and get the hands to the floor. If your hands don’t reach, you most likely have more work to do on your hamstrings. You could set up a couple of blocks to lift the floor to your hands.
The third stage is to maintain the squeeze and press into the hands to lift your feet off the floor. Don’t try to cross your feet while they still have weight in them. Lift the feet off the floor first by pressing into the floor to lift the entire body away from the floor. At this point, wrist issues can start to show up if you do too much of this part too quickly.
The fourth stage, after lifting everything off the floor, is to try to cross your feet and then focus on balancing there for a while. When you are able to balance on your hands and cross the ankles, you are doing the posture. Pattabhi Jois says in Yoga Mala that this position is the first “state of the asana”.
Only after you can comfortably balance with your feet off the floor should you attempt the next stage. The fifth stage is where you begin to tilt forward. However, we don’t want to just go tumbling onto our head or chin. The most common mistake I see is that people take the weight from their hands and pour it into the top of their head. This is not setting up the long-term pattern that you want or need.
In order to maintain the weight in the hands and not just transfer it to the head, you have to fight the urge to just head straight to the floor. What most people forget is that you have to balance out the forward and backward energy of lowering down. If you over-emphasize the forward, the weight leaves your hands and goes into your head when it hits the floor. In order to balance it out, you have to send your butt backward in an amount that is equal to how far you reach forward with your chest and chin. This maintains the weight on the hands, and if you do it correctly, keeps you in balance. Instead of thinking about hinging forward at the elbow, you need to bend the elbows and let them move back. This has the added benefit of reducing the angle at the wrist and avoiding over-compression at that joint.
In this stage, I also change what and how the legs are squeezing. As you tilt forward, instead of continuing to squeeze the thighs into the shoulders and torso, let the knees move wide and squeeze the arms with the back of the calf muscles. Essentially, this is flexing the knee and abducting the legs. This part varies depending on proportions, such as how long your legs are and how deep your shoulders are, relative to the legs.
When you’re working on this part I recommend dipping forward only as far as you can go while still keeping the weight in the hands, maintaining your balance, and coming back up with control. If you are just learning this action and you’re nervous, try placing a tall block or a stack of blankets on the floor in front of you. You will then have a shorter distance to fold forward while you get the feeling of resisting gravity as you shift your weight forward.
What about the wrists?
It’s not uncommon for practitioners to feel some pressure or even pain in the wrists in bhujapidasana. This posture has the wrists bent at at least a 90° angle and then we are weight-bearing on top of that. It can be a lot on the wrists. If it hurts the wrists, then stop. Your wrists may not be flexible and/or strong enough to work in this way yet. If flexibility of the muscles which move the wrists is the issue, you can try doing this posture on a wedge-shaped block, which will reduce the angle of the wrists. Either way, take your time and go slowly with this one.
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David explains why the key to lowering into chaturanga is doing two things at once: maintaining an active serratus anterior and relaxing the triceps and deltoids.