Each month we dig into a different asana by looking at common valves in major joints (spine, etc) and asking why do these valves or energy leaks occur? To answer that, we go under the hood and explore the asana’s kinesiology—what the muscles and bones are doing! This information lets us build valve “fixes,” practical teaching ideas you can try in your classes and privates. Each week builds on the next, giving you a month-long outline for how to help your students uncover their variation of the asana.
This April we take flight with Garudasana aka Eagle Pose.
This shape was aptly named for the god Garuda. In Hindu mythology, Garuda overcame great obstacles to save his beloved mother. He soared through three conflicts by adapting to suit the needs of each one. Often the inability to be flexible in a situation is indeed what keeps us stuck.
Garudasana asks us to find true balance and to do that we must allow the shape to sway and to change. The key is finding the variation that’s right for you and your students right now!
This week, we look at the upper body and the double bind of eagle arms. Often, asking our students to dive in with this bind as a starting point for the arms pose leaves them predisposed to lack of stability and ease. Let’s look at why that might be!
First, though, a little background will be helpful. In our lineage, Structural Yoga Therapy, we look at asana from the point of view of joint range of motion.
Every joint has a “normal” (expected average) range of motion. This is the range in which you can take an action without pain and with strength at all points across the range.
Many asana ask for more than this average normal range of motion in many joints. When we see this excess range in a shape, we acknowledge that not all bodies should work towards achieving it. Instead, we allow students to practice toward the safest version of the shape for their body.
With this in mind, let’s look at what’s going on in the double bind of Eagle arms.
The first joint action we need to look at is horizontal adduction at the shoulder.
Normal range here is the ability to take the elbows to touch in front of the chest with the upper arm bones parallel to the earth:
A quick look at Eagle and we see the the elbows need to go past that to make the bind. Ok, so now what?
This little bit of information can help you make sense of the shape for students who struggle with the arm bind.
Compare what the shape requires with what your student can currently do, and from there you have a roadmap to guiding them in a safe and challenging way!
Often a big clue that your students don’t yet have the required range for a pose is the presence of valves or misalignments.
What valves can you see in these pictures of Eagle arms?
Here’s what we see:
- scapula elevation (hunched shoulders)
- wrist extension (bent wrists)
- a general look of misery on the students face (they are seeking a shape they are just not ready for!)
Versions of these three valves are common in Eagle Arms.
What might be causing these valves?
To answer that, we need to first understand a key principle of how muscles work.
Muscles work in pairs.
Every joint action in the body has a “do-er” and an “un-doer.”
The DO-er is the muscle or group of muscles that create the action. The UNDO-er is the muscle of group that releases or undoes the action. (There are helpers too but we can save that for another time).
A lack of range of motion indicates an imbalance in the muscle pair. Maybe the do-ers aren’t strong enough. Maybe the undo-ers can’t release completely to let the do-er go its full distance.
In a group asana class, teachers don’t have the luxury of figuring out what exactly is going on in each student. A simple fix is to design a class plan that does both: lengthen what needs to be lengthened and strengthen what needs to be strengthened. (This is how we structure our classes at Yoga 216.)
Now that we’re all caught up on muscle basics, let’s get back to Eagle arms.
If your student is struggling with Eagle arms, first check out their range of motion in shoulder horizontal adduction:
Can your student take the elbows to touch in front of them?
If the answer is no, then their range of motion in this action is limited and either or both of the following might be true:
1) shoulder horizontal adductors and scapula protractors might be weak or
shoulder horizontal adductor muscles are pectoralis major and anterior deltoid
scapula protractor muscle is anterior serratus
2) shoulder horizontal abductors and scapula retractors might be tight
shoulder horizontal abductor muscles include posterior deltoid
scapula retractor muscles are rhomboids and middle trapezius
Let’s look at some ideas to address both of these situations and work towards the range of motion needed for Eagle arms:
Strengthen shoulder horizontal adductors
- Sweep the arms out to the sides, turn the palms to face up and then take the fingertips to touch the shoulders. Take the elbows as close to touch as possible.
- Inhale, open the elbows out
- Exhale, draw the elbows towards one another again
- Repeat 20-30 times depending on student level
Strengthen the scapula protractors
- Often called a serratus push up. Come onto all fours and maintain straight arms throughout.
- Inhale, press the rib cage up into the shoulder blades letting the scapula move away from each other
- Exhale, release the ribcage towards the floor and let the shoulder blades move together
- Repeat 20-30 times depending on student level
Lengthen the shoulder horizonatal abductors and scapula retractors
- Start seated on the heels or standing on the shins
- Lift the right arm out in front of you then take it across the body. Press with the left hand against the right upper arm to increase the lengthening. Try to envision the muscles  lengthening as you breathe.
- Hold for about 30 seconds and breathe.
- Repeat other side.
The above are just some examples. How might you strengthen or lengthen the same muscles? Leave comments below and let’s share ideas!
Having addressed the muscles that get us into the pose, your student may still need a modification while working toward the “full” shape.
Here are two modifications that we like:
- The bear hug! (good for lengthening the un-doers)
- Cross one arm under the other to give yourself a BIG hug. You might be able to also walk your fingertips toward your shoulder blades to give yourself a lil’ self assist, further lengthening the shoulder blades away from each other while you hug the elbows as close together as you can today.
- Switch arm sides when you switch leg sides.
- The super prayer (good for strengthening the do-ers)
- Bring the palms, forearms, and elbows as close to touching as possible. Lift the elbows up to shoulder height (or towards it). Continue to hug the elbows as close as they will come today; one day, the whole forearm may seal together.
What modifications do you find helpful?
It is important to note that sometimes restrictions outside of muscle length or strength prevent a student from making a certain shape. In Eagle arms, adipose tissue or significant muscle bulk may prevent the elbows from crossing comfortably. In those cases, giving the students a modification that allows them to find effort and ease is still the best bet and either of the above could work!
We believe that asana practice is about exploring what a shape asks of the whole person, not about achieving an ideal shape.
Join us throughout the month, as we continue to discuss ideas for helping our students feel empowered in their Eagles, week by week!