Good intentions are great, but sometimes more physical action is required. I’m occasionally reminded of a family of instructions that are based solely on intention. I think these instructions grow out of visualizations, which can be really helpful, coupled with the trend of “setting intentions” and intentions as a catch phrase.
While visualizations and correct intentions are an integral part of transitioning from pose to pose or in successfully expressing a pose, they are unfortunately not usually enough: we need real-life physical actions in order to express poses well, and to safely and effectively move in and out of those poses.
This particular post was inspired by a question I got about the intention of “floating up” from Pasvottonasana to Virabhadrasana III, which can be a pretty challenging transition. It requires a forward shift of weight from two legs to one, and being a linear transition, there is not a lot of room for lateral compensation. Lateral compensation being the ability to respond to and correct imbalances by shifting the torso or raised limb sideways, and giving us more stability, which Virabhadrasana III doesn’t give a lot of freedom to do. Given these challenges, merely setting the intention to “float up” into Virabhadrasana III is probably not going to be the most useful part of this transition, even if that’s the desired feeling of completing the transition successfully.
Within the question was also a reference to coming up with a “flat back” — an instruction with great intent, but its application is potentially confusing at the least, unhealthy at the worst. The “flat back” instruction is used often, and is probably a carry-over from dance and fitness. Although we think people understand that we mean a *long* spine, it is easily taken literally by novices and those more familiar with practice alike as meaning an elimination of the spine’s natural curves. The instruction’s intent, of course, is an attempt to prevent collapse in the chest and to lengthen the spine. Needless to say, eliminating the spine’s natural curves will not aid balance nor sustain a lifelong practice, but lengthening the spine will not only prevent collapse, but will activate the spine in a way that is useful — especially with difficult transitions such as this one.
Here we go!
From Parsvottonasana, inhale and lengthen the spine forward, bringing the chest and pelvis level. Then, instead of floating up with good intentions, stabilize your standing big toe mound. Firm, clear contact through the big toe mounds into the floor (and into space in a raised or floating leg) helps the body orient itself when balance is challenged due to the dense concentration of proprioceptive nerves located in the ball of the big toe that are directly connected to the inner ear.
It will also help if you spread and lengthen the toes, and widen the sole of the feet (especially the foot you will be standing on!) to ensure you have the largest and most stable base of support on which to stand. Fear will often cause the toes to recoil and the feet to narrow, but this makes an already small base even smaller, and also reduces proprioceptive feedback through the entire foot, especially that magical big toe mound.
With the front big toe mound stabilized, exhale and neutralize the rotation in the back leg, lifting the back heel as you do so. This enables the sides of the pelvis to be more level.
From here, bend the front leg slightly on the next exhalation. Lengthening through the back leg to lift it, inhale and push with the standing big toe mound to propel the torso forward as the back leg lifts straight up.
Firm both legs, and extend in at least 3 directions: forward, backward, and downward (forward in the torso, backward in the raised leg, and downward through the standing leg). Commit to that extension — it is the tension created within extension that holds you in the pose: think of it like a suspension bridge, if necessary. It’s not that you ARE tense, but the tension (or tone, if you prefer softer language) will hold you up.
Then inner balance is found as a real, practical result of commitment, action, and clarity — not just intent. While intention is the root and must be clear for the pose to be successful, intention alone will not hold you in the pose… but your legs working intelligently will
If practicing with the arms in (Paschima) Anjali Mudra, be careful that the shoulders don’t round forward (which often happens once the hands connect) — add a 4th direction of width across both chest and back. Sometimes this pose is first done with the arms outstretched laterally (“Airplane Pose”) and this gives you more of that lateral compensation I mentioned earlier. The arms act like the pole that tightrope walkers will use to give clear feedback about lateral deviations, and in turn can give you the opportunity to correct those deviations through the outstretched arms.
If you take the arms forward overhead, try to maintain this feeling of width across your chest and back while also reaching the fingertips and the raised leg’s heel deeply away from each other. Again, it’s that tension created between forward and backward extension that creates the balance. shortening the limbs timidly will not only physically make the pose more difficult to balance in, but will also reinforce any lack of confidence about the balance.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to fall. Be sure you’re practicing in an environment where you won’t harm yourself if you do — clearing extra blocks, chairs, etc out of the way; or practice outside on grass if the weather is still good where you are! When you do fall, try to catch yourself sooner each time. If you wait until you topple all the way over and then berate yourself for it, you are just reinforcing the belief that you can’t balance. Use falling to determine where action is lacking: if you fall toward the standing leg side (most common), increase big toe mound pressure; if you fall toward the raised leg, keep the big toe mound still, but increase outer heel pressure in that standing leg; falling forward, push off the back leg less; falling back, push off the back leg more to come “on top” of your standing leg and foot. If it’s just wobbly, remember the advice above and *commit* to the pose, extending fully, even if you fall — the fall will teach you much more than trying to sneak up on “balance”.
Once you’ve held the pose a few breaths, there are a number of ways to come out. The simplest is to keep the length you’ve already established from the back heel through the torso and simply lower that raised leg while simultaneously lifting the torso to Tadasana. I like to think of those dunking birds that “drink” water. This particular glass one is a nice refinement on the plastic novelty ones.
Alternatively, you could lower the raised leg and the torso into Uttanasana, which is also relatively simple and can be a nice relief for the hamstrings and hip stabilizers considering how they work in Virabhadrasana III.
A third option is to extend back through the raised leg, bent the standing leg, and return to Parsvottanasana. Of the three, this is the most challenging, but is also excellent training for proprioceptivity along the linear plane.
Once this linear plane is more familiar, you can even increase the challenge further by entering and exiting Virabhadrasana III from either Lunge or Virabhadrasana I. This requires a much greater push from the back leg in entering, and a deeper reach in that back leg when returning from Virabhadrasana III. In both going in and coming out, this transition is a bit of a leap of faith, and even with solid action through the legs, you may need a healthy dose of good intentions, too!
Once your legs are working well, the spine is lengthening, and you’re equalizing the reach in opposing directions, you will be able to float up into Virabhadrasana III, and it won’t just be an intention, it’ll be the resultant reality of efficient work and balanced forces.