As I’ve said before – balancing is brilliant for bringing us into the present moment. It’s surprising how many millions of thoughts we can have running through our mind, and how none of them are actually related to what’s happening right now. When we balance, our focus is pulled deeper into ourselves physically and energetically, and as we still the mind, the body finds stillness too. When the mind starts moving and chattering again though, that’s often when the posture becomes almost impossible to maintain….
If balancing postures aren’t your favourite part of class, treat them like a meditation and see just how focussed you can be, rather than wishing the teacher would just hurry up and get you out of there!
Garuda is the Sanskrit word for a mythical bird who the god Vishnu rides upon. The bird is also thought of as one who has the ability to fly without ever tiring or landing, riding the wind effortlessly. (Does this sound like you when you’re practicing Garudasana….?) We can bring this aspect of Garuda into our practice though, by learning how to ride the wind – or rather: ride whatever energy comes up as we practice. Whether our balance is feeling good or not-so-good, whether we’re stable or wobbly, and whether we stand or fall, the sense of ‘just going with it’ makes the practice a lot more fun and sustainable. This is after all, a practice of experimenting and getting to know ourselves, not about getting it right….
It may be helpful to remember the image of Garuda when practicing this asana, embodying the elegance of the eagle (no matter how clumsy we might feel as we try to hold the posture for just one more breath!).
I like to think of the arms and legs of garudasana in two spirals – so the legs have this downward moving spiral, and the arms spiral upwards, helping us root down through our foundations and extend upwards at the same time. The binding of the arms and legs can leave us literally feeling a little tied up and compressed, but if we focus on this lengthening and expanding through the downward and upward spirals of the arms and legs, we create space for the breath to move through the body.
Remember to spread the toes! (If you’ve ever been in a class with me, you’ve probably heard me say this a million times….) Cultivating pada bandha (the foot lock) here is important in order to create a simultaneous grounding and lifting sensation through the foot, which in turn helps us connect to our deep core line of fascia, and releases the gripping of the toes.[[LINK]]
Practice pada bandha in Tadasana, with one foot slightly lifted to get the feeling through the feet before bringing it into a balancing posture:
As you lift one foot, press down through the heel, little toe joint and big toe joint of the other, focussing on rooting down these parts of the feet to the earth. Spread the toes and place them down firmly but without gripping.
Think about lifting the inner arch of the foot, so there’s a sense of drawing energy up the inner leg.
When we wobble – especially in a posture like Garudasana in which the arms and legs are bound – the toes tend to grip the earth, our ankles become tense, our shoulders and neck tense up and our breath becomes shallow…. So why does this happen? Of course there’s a natural instinctive fear of falling, but the bigger problem is usually worrying about what others will think of us if we fall…. Wobbling and worrying go hand in hand; when we wobble we worry, and this worry sends a ripple effect out through the body, causing muscles to tighten, our heart rate to increase, and our ability to take full breaths decrease. (Not to mention, a whole lot more wobbling happens). If you haven’t already noticed, there’s a pretty big emphasis on breathing in a yoga practice, so make this your priority – if the breath becomes strained, this is a sign to back off just a little.
To prepare the body for garudasana:
Begin this practice by lying on the floor and focussing on relaxing the hips. Garudasana may not seem like much of a hip-opener, but it requires the outer hip muscles and the ilio-tibial band (the IT band) to be a little lengthened.
Bend your knees and take them hip-width apart, with the soles of the feet on the floor.
Pick your right foot up and begin to circle the knee, to bring some movement in to the ball and socket joint of the hip – these joints are very dependent upon movement to keep them supple, and it’s very much a use it or lose it type of situation regarding maintaining flexibility in this area.
After a few circles, cross the right ankle over the left knee and pick the left foot up off the floor.
Interlace the hands around the back of the left thigh and draw the legs gently in towards you. You may feel a sensation along the outer edge of the right thigh (but if you don’t, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it ‘wrong’!), this is your IT band, and when it’s ‘tight’ it tends to cause knee pain and a lower back pain, so it’s worth looking after this part of the body. Runners, cyclists, and those who do a lot of high intensity sports are likely to suffer with tightness in the IT band.
After you’ve practiced this on both sides of the body, slowly make your way to standing.
As always, begin from here with surya namaskar A and B, but this time change your virabhadrasana 1 (warrior 1) for ashta chandrasana (crescent moon, or high lunge) to open the hips a little more.
When you next reach the top of your mat, take a wide step back to prasarita padottanasana C to bring an opening in to the hips, hamstrings and shoulders.
Come back to the top of the mat and practice a posture that I once discovered translates as ‘difficult pose’…..: standing at the top of the mat, bend one knee and – similarly to the way you did at the beginning – cross the other ankle over the thigh. Sink down through the hips, again maybe feeling a sensation through the IT band. It’s important to keep the foot flexed here in order to engage the ligaments around the kneecap and keep it protected.
When you’ve practiced this to each side, you’re ready for Garudasana!
- From Tadasana, ground through the right foot and cultivate pada bandha.
- Bring a slight bend into the right knee and begin to wrap the left leg around the right, maybe hooking the toes around the calf or ankle if they’re able to.
- Creating the downward spiral of the legs, continue to sink through the hips and hug the thighs together.
- Next, bring the right arm out in front of the face, bent at a 90 degree angle.
- Begin to wrap the left arm underneath the right, creating the upward spiral of the arms. Aim to bring the palms to meet, but if they don’t, then bring the backs of the hands together. (It can be a little more difficult for men to bring the palms together because of generally strong yet often ’tight’ shoulders).
- Keep pressing the palms together and upwards, so the legs are rooting and spiralling down, and the arms are spiralling up. This allows the body to stay relatively open, so there’s still space for the breath to move freely.
- The foot, ankle, shoulders and especially the jaw are places that seem to cling and clench as soon as we enter into Garudasana…. No matter how uncomfortable this may feel (and do discriminate between uncomfortable and painful!) see if you can relax these parts of the body, and bring your focus towards breathing fully and deeply, which also helps to calm the nervous system and sends a message to the body letting it know it’s safe here.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or however many feels right to you.
- To transition out of Garudasana – unravel the arms and legs, and come back to Tadasana before practicing on the other side of the body.
- To counterpose Garudasana, come to sit in Vajrasana – translated as ‘thunderbolt pose’, and is a widely used meditation position. This asana is also sometimes known as ‘rock pose’ as it is said you’ll have the ability to digest even a rock here (I wouldn’t recommend trying that though….). The feet and legs are eased here, and the ligaments at the front of the ankles – the ones you may have been clenching in Garudasana – are also allowed to relax and lengthen.
The next time you practice Garudasana, use the posture as a meditation – can you maintain focus, strength, and ease of breath, even when the mind wants to quit?