Anatomical Breakdown Of Forearm Balance

April 23, 2024
Anatomical Breakdown Of Forearm Balance

Arm balances are one of the most popular categories of postures for student questions when I’m teaching a workshop. It just looks like fun to balance upside down! So in this article, we’ll take a look at one specific arm balance, the forearm balance. If you’re not familiar with the forearm balance pose, it’s much like its name suggests. You’re balancing upside down on your forearms. In Sanskrit, this pose is called pincha mayurasana, which means peacock feather. With a little imagination, you can see how that shape somewhat resembles a peacock feather. Read on for a dive into the anatomy and techniques of learning this pose.

Why learn forearm balance?

The most common reason I hear from students for wanting to learn forearm balance is that it looks fun. Being upside down can be fun, and it’s also challenging. For some students, it’s the opportunity to challenge themselves that keeps them interested in this pose. Anatomically, pincha mayurasana is great stabilization work for your shoulder girdle. It can help you learn to control your center of gravity upside down. All of those are good reasons to work on forearm balance.

Signup for our newsletter!

Get the latest articles in your inbox each month.

"*" indicates required fields

Anatomy of forearm balance

Anatomically, forearm balance is similar to headstand and handstand. We switch our orientation and weight-bearing from our lower body to our upper body. The particular challenge to doing that is that our shoulder girdle is not designed to be a weight-bearing structure in the way our pelvis is. Our shoulders excel at being very mobile. In fact the shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body. So stabilizing our shoulder girdle is the key to making this pose work.

The base

Like headstand and handstand, that stabilization comes from what I like to call the “psoas of the upper body,” which is a combined effort of serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi. (For more on the idea of the “psoas of the upper body,” check out that section in my book, Functional Anatomy of Yoga). As you know from my many other articles on serratus anterior, its action is to protract the scapula. When we turn that action upside down, that looks more like preventing our torso from falling through our shoulders. Latissimus dorsi, in its actions of extension and adduction at the shoulder, helps keep our shoulders stabilized as well by preventing too much flexion. In the base of forearm balance, our shoulders are flexed, so deltoids are engaged as well.

Serratus anterior

Lifting up

As we come up into pincha mayurasana, we engage our abdominals to stabilize our spine. We also do a small anterior pelvic tilt. This happens when we engage our erector spinae, which, because we’re upside down, brings the sacrum in the direction of our head. Finally, we have to engage our legs to keep them together and reaching up. Our adductors are working to bring our legs together, and we are connecting to the whole inner core of our body to keep the intention of reaching up.

Anatomy and issues with arm balancing generally

Forearm balance is tricky. The anatomical challenges with this pose are often with both engaging muscles AND with short, tight muscles resisting your intention to place yourself in a stable position in gravity. If you’ve done other arm-balancing postures, you might have noticed that this is a theme in arm balancing. Not enough strength in the right places means you can’t maintain your position and balance. Too much tightness in the wrong places makes it harder to align the heavy parts of your body in gravity. And that makes it harder to get into and stay in the pose. Latissimus dorsi in forearm balancing is a perfect example of this. Not enough strength and it’s hard to stabilize the shoulders. A very short, tight latissimus can also work against getting the shoulders into the right place.

Latissimus Dorsi Muscle

Techniques for forearm balance

Building your base

As I mentioned already, the base of pincha mayurasana is our shoulders and arms. So step one is really taking the time to build strength and stability in the shoulder girdle. This work happens long before you start trying to actually come up into a forearm balance. For most students, this is a process that takes time. The good part is that we have lots of opportunities to work on those building blocks in other poses and transitions. Any posture or transition where we use serratus anterior and practice leaning our weight into our hands and arms sets the stage for arm balancing. That includes moments like leaning into the hands in sun salutations as I described in Sun Salutations – Part 4.

In addition to generally building strength in the right places, there are a couple of common struggles that students have. Those are elbows sliding too far apart, hands migrating too close together, and a feeling that their chest is falling through their shoulders. Another way to say that last issue is that students sometimes feel like they’re collapsing in their shoulder girdle.

Hands and elbows moving

There are a couple of reasons you might find that your hands move in and your elbows move out depending on body type and practice experience. One reason that the hands and elbows move, as I said earlier, is that you simply need to press more firmly into the ground. That will help activate serratus and keep your arms in place. Another reason you might experience those hands and elbows moving is one I also touched on earlier. That is you haven’t gotten your pelvis far enough over your shoulders. It simply takes exploration and practice to find that perfect spot where everything is balanced. Finally, it’s also possible that you’ve acquired strength in other places in the upper body and have a habit of relying on those muscles. In that case, it may take some willingness to explore new patterns, to find that connection to serratus.

Collapsing through the shoulders

When you feel like you’re falling or collapsing through your shoulders, it also indicates not enough serratus engagement. So the remedy for all of these situations is to put more intention into really pressing the forearms and elbows firmly into the floor. That will increase the engagement from serratus and latissimus, which will help maintain stability in your base.

Coming up

Once you’re ready to start coming up, set up your base and pay attention to the distance between your hands and between your elbows. Make sure your hands haven’t slid too close together and your elbows haven’t slid too far apart. Then walk your feet toward your base as close as you can. This takes your pelvis as close as possible to your shoulder girdle. The closer your pelvis starts to where you want it to end up, the less momentum you need to get it there.

With your base set up, next, lift one leg straight into the air. With the toes that are still on the floor, give the littlest push that you can to create the momentum necessary to move your pelvis and reach up (NOT back) with the foot of the leg that’s in the air. Bring the second leg up to meet the first and squeeze them together without losing that feeling of reaching up. Then find the right amount of pelvic tilt (it’s a slight anterior tilt) to balance your pelvis over your shoulders.

Finding connection to the floor

If your hands feel light on the floor and start moving toward one another, it means they don’t have enough weight in them. When your hands move just a little bit, then you probably need a bit more emphasis on pressing the hands into the floor. If your hands feel very light, it means your pelvis has either not tilted enough, or it’s not moving toward your hands enough. This is a common problem because, as the weight of your pelvis moves towards the line of your hands, you will also likely feel like you are about to fall.

Realistically, finding that series of actions in your body to get up into forearm balance takes lots of practice. Most students need the help of a teacher to spot them in this pose to reduce the fear of falling over enough that they’re willing to use sufficient momentum to get up. And that brings us to what is often the big conundrum when learning pincha mayurasana. If you don’t have a teacher to work with you regularly to help you learn this pose, do you learn to fall or use the wall?

When falling is an option

Falling, either by rolling out or by tipping over into a back bend, is an option for learning this pose. It goes along with all the caveats of falling generally. Yes, you can get hurt. Ideally, you would work with a teacher to help you learn to fall in a straight, balanced way to minimize the chances of injury. That’s simply not something that can be taught from an article on the internet. And, there are many situations where falling out of the pose is contraindicated. If you have past shoulder injuries, or other issues anywhere down that arm-shoulder connection, then adding momentum and an uncertain landing to that situation is not a good idea.

But, if you’re already confident of your ability to fall well, then that is an option for practicing this pose. The intention of course is not to fall, but the reality is that it will probably take some experimentation and practice to find just the right amount of momentum to get up and establish the proprioceptive connections to move your body in a way that stops that momentum and holds the pose.

Using the wall

If you don’t have a teacher to spot you and if falling for any reason is not a good idea for you, then the other option is using the wall. In that case, understanding why the wall is not an ideal tool for this and how to use the wall well are both important. Keep reading to understand how to use the wall well to train the aspects of this pose.

Shoulder girdle counterbalances the pelvis

If you primarily use the wall to learn any arm balance, there are a couple of things that tend to happen. One is a tendency to avoid doing the necessary exploration to find the place where you need to put your shoulder girdle in order to make a stable base. And, if you don’t place your shoulders in the right place, you also don’t develop the strength to hold them in that position.

There is often a good amount of fear when learning to balance upside down. That’s one reason students have a tendency when first learning forearm balance (and handstand) to avoid allowing the head and shoulder girdle to go far enough forward to counterbalance the pelvis. I explain this in more detail in relation to headstand and handstand in previous articles. What often happens in forearm balance is, that when a student lifts up, they don’t get quite all the way up before the fear kicks in. At that moment they pull the head and shoulders back instead of allowing them to go just a little more forward.

Techniques on the wall

To use the wall to explore this idea of counterbalance, set up as close to the wall as possible. Once you have your feet on the wall, instead of just pulling them off the wall, very slowly start to lean your shoulders forward by reaching your head toward the wall. As you do this, see if you can feel some of the weight coming out of your feet supporting you on the wall.

You can also play with one foot off the wall at a time if that helps. Although it feels like the shoulders are going further forward than they should be, this is the most common starting point for people. The shoulders actually need to go further forward than most students realize. Over time, you may be able to have your elbows at a ninety-degree angle, but it rarely starts in the ideal version. Also, it’s okay to have what feels like an arch through your back when you start working on this pose. Over time, it will get straighter.

Learning to control the pelvis

Another thing that happens when students use the wall for this pose is a tendency to keep the focus of their attention on their feet and kick their feet to the wall. But that means the focus isn’t on the pelvis. And, as with other arm balancing postures like headstand and handstand, the heavy part of your body when you’re balancing upside down is your pelvis. If you put all your attention on your feet, you don’t practice the critical skill of learning to control your pelvic position when upside down and you don’t gain the proprioception of what that feels like.

To use the wall in a way that doesn’t focus on your feet, first, set yourself up as close to the wall as possible. Second, don’t think about this as kicking up to the wall. Pretend the wall is not there. What does your body need to do in order to get up and hold the pose? Look for that. Use the wall only as your backup, in case you use more momentum getting up than you can control yet. If you go too far over, then the wall is there to prevent you from falling.

Minimize momentum

Finally, the last thing that tends to happen with the wall, is students acquire a habit of coming up with more momentum than necessary. Pincha mayurasana or forearm balance is different than headstand in that it generally requires a little bit of momentum to get up. Your base is shorter to the ground so your legs can’t get quite close enough to position your pelvis over your shoulder girdle even if your hamstrings are super open. So you do need a little momentum to get up there.

But if you primarily use the wall, the tendency is to use far more momentum than is necessary. That makes the pose harder when you try to move away from the wall. That’s because now you have to figure out how to stop yourself when you’ve initiated getting up into the pose with all that extra momentum. To use the wall well, set up close to the wall, pretend the wall is not there, and explore how little momentum you actually need to get your pelvis up over your shoulders.

Check out our online courses and workshops

Cautions in forearm balance

The most obvious area to be cautious about in pincha mayurasana is falling. There is always the possibility of falling badly and hurting yourself. Work with a teacher to get confident about falling with the least amount of momentum possible and in a balanced way. It’s often when something goes awry on the way down, and a student goes sideways, rather than straight over, that they tweak something during the fall.

The other piece to be cautious about with this pose is over-doing it. The shoulders work well for mobility, but less so for stability, as I’ve already said. It’s easy to over-work the shoulders, especially the small rotator cuff muscles, if you haven’t done enough work training the bigger muscles (serratus and latissimus) to support this pose. Take your time and build strength slowly when working with this pose.

Conclusion

Forearm balance can be a fun challenge. However, it takes most students a lot of time and practice to learn. Work with other postures first to develop a base of strength and stability in the shoulder girdle. Then, ideally, work with a teacher to learn how to build a stable forearm balance over that base.