These powerful arm poses will stretch you in new ways.
By Todd Jones
"No one will ever have the last word about yoga," says Ukrainian teacher Andrey Lappa, who calls his own approach Universal Yoga. "Yoga is like mathematics or physics; there will always be more to discover. And as lifestyles change, the methods of yoga must change, too." Though deeply respectful of traditional yoga teachings, Lappa has never been afraid of extending those approaches with new techniques. Much as he loves the hatha yoga tradition, he thinks there are gaps and imbalances within it.
"No yoga school developed poses equally for the legs and arms," he says, "and most poses that train the arms focus on strength." Of the few poses that focus on arm flexibility, most are active stretches, like Viparita Namaskar, Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Garudasana (Eagle Pose), which use the strength of one set of muscles to stretch others. To create different and much deeper stretches for the arms and shoulders, Lappa developed the series of passive stretches presented here.
An Unlikely Start
The son of a computer expert who worked for the Soviet aerospace satellite program, Lappa came to yoga by an unusual route. At age 12, he moved to Mongolia when his father was sent there to help the government set up its computer systems. Missing the music lessons, sports teams, and clubs he'd enjoyed in Ukraine, Lappa searched for new activities.
Through one of his father's colleagues, he forged a connection with a Russian-speaking Buddhist monk in a nearby monastery, who began teaching him Mongolian and explaining the imagery of the temple paintings. Eventually, the monk invited Lappa to participate in pujas (rituals), instructing him in the significance of the complex mandalas (sacred symbolic diagrams) involved in the ceremonies.
"When I returned to the Soviet Union," Lappa recalls, "where the only idea of growth was better technology, I missed Buddhist spirituality." Unable to satisfy his curiosity about Tibetan culture and religion, the young Lappa threw himself into studying yoga and Chinese martial arts. At age 16, Lappa gave up martial arts, preferring yoga's peaceful path to the way of the warrior.
Over the next decade, he taught himself all the poses in B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga. After finishing his undergraduate studies, Lappa took a job in a submarine science lab while also working toward a doctoral degree. But shortly after he completed his dissertation, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, funding for naval research evaporated, and Lappa was shifted to less interesting projects. Already teaching yoga classes almost every evening, Lappa decided his soul was in the studio, not the lab. He quit his day job and became a full-time yoga instructor. Since then, he's spent several years in Asia, visiting more than 70 ashrams and studying with many Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, and Tibetan yoga and Buddhist masters.
Tradition plus Innovation
Lappa's approach to yoga draws deeply on those studies. He sees all spiritual striving as an attempt to overcome the experience of duality, the habit of seeing ourselves as separate and in opposition to other people and other parts of creation. His own approach to returning to unity relies heavily on the traditional Indian concept of koshas (sheaths)—the idea that we consist of a series of ever-more-subtle bodies, ranging from the grossest (the annamaya kosha, or physical body) to the most ethereal (the atmamaya kosha, our karmic essence). All the techniques Lappa employs—asana, pranayama, meditation, ritual, and more—seek to create balance within each kosha, between the different koshas, and between the individual and the universe.
But Lappa's approach to yoga also incorporates the analytic skills of a scientist. Seeking an overarching framework for understanding traditional yoga methods, he has also searched for gaps in past techniques. "For example," he says, "in the annamaya kosha, the physical body sheath, we can train ourselves in seven ways: stretching, static strengthening, dynamic strengthening, static endurance, dynamic endurance, coordination, and reaction." In Lappa's eyes, traditional asanas effectively train the first five qualities, but not the last two. So he developed the Dance of Shiva, a movement practice that draws on ancient Indian, Chinese, and Thai forms of dance and martial arts.
In his analysis of traditional asanas, Lappa divides poses into three categories: those that primarily work passively, taking advantage of gravity to stretch muscles; those that primarily work actively, stretching one set of muscles by engaging others; and those that draw equally on passive and active techniques. He also incorporates the theoretical possibility of eight directions of mobility at each major joint: forward bending, backward bending, side bending in both directions, and twisting extension (creating space between the bones) and compression (bringing the bones closer together). Practically speaking, he says, compression is only desirable therapeutically; extension is the normal aim in all asanas. And while the other six directions of mobility are not equally available—or safe—at every joint, Lappa believes that engaging all the directions of mobility is crucial for creating proper physical and energetic balance.
Yet, according to Lappa, no traditional form of hatha yoga has systematically addressed all the movements of the major joints; instead, they've placed uneven emphasis on various actions and movements. He believes such yoga methods can create imbalances not just on the physical level, but also in the deeper sheaths of our being, including the level of consciousness.
Lappa sees asana practice as stimulating various marma points (much like acupuncture points), which are both key information receptors and activation zones for the nervous system, for consciousness, and for what Lappa calls "our biofield." In his view, asana practice is meant not just to train the physical body, but also to balance the brain, consciousness, and biofield, creating an energetic mandala within us so we're balanced when we come to meditation. The asanas described here are a few of the innovative movements he's developed to balance and complement traditional asanas.
1. Eka Bhuja Swastikasana I
In One-Armed Swastika Pose I, your body looks like one of the crosspieces of the ancient Asian symbol of good luck.
To come into the pose, lie face-down with your arms stretched out perpendicular to your sides, palms down. Make sure your hands are level with your forehead rather than stretched straight out from your shoulders. On an exhalation, without moving your right arm, roll onto your right side and reach your left hand straight back toward your right one. Bend your left knee and bring the sole of your foot to the floor. Draw your spine long, extending down through your tailbone toward your feet and up through the crown of your skull, and turn your head to the left so you look up toward the ceiling. (If this neck position isn't comfortable, experiment until you find one that is.)
If you already experience a strong stretch where your inner upper right arm meets your chest, pause here, breathing smoothly and evenly and allowing the stretched muscles to relax. If you're comfortable stretching further, bend your right knee and place the sole of your right foot on the ground next to your left; then lift your right fingers up and reach your left hand back to grasp them. (It's normal to fumble and feel disoriented at first as you reach for your right fingers.) Either reach your left fingers straight down along your right ones and draw your right hand back toward your body, or for more of a stretch to your left shoulder, grasp your right palm from the thumb side to draw it back, and bend your left elbow down toward or even onto the floor.
Once you find an edge in your stretch, pause and breathe smoothly and evenly for 15 to 45 seconds, then gently release your hands, roll back onto your belly and chest, and straighten your legs. Pause to notice and absorb the changes in your body before performing the pose on the other side.
2. Eka Bhuja Swastikasana II
To come into One-Armed Swastika Pose II, lie face-down with your arms reaching straight up overhead and your palms on the ground, shoulder-width apart. To keep your body integrated and engaged as you enter the arm stretch, place the inner edges of your big toes together and extend energy down through your tailbone and legs and up through the crown of your head. On an inhalation, draw your elbows in toward your torso until they're almost underneath your shoulders, and rise up into a mild Sphinx Pose.
As you exhale, reach your right hand across your body to the left, crossing behind your left elbow, and bring your right palm to the floor straight out to the side from your left shoulder. Gently lower your shoulders until your whole right arm is touching the ground and your chin comes to the floor in front of your upper arm, then swing your left arm down along your side and rest the back of the hand on the floor. Press your weight into your right arm to stretch the outer upper arm and shoulder. Press your left shoulder toward the floor to accentuate the stretch.
This position may be enough of a stretch. For a deeper one, bend your right arm at the elbow until your palm comes to the back of your neck. Then bend your left elbow to reach your left hand up your back, as in Gomukhasana, and catch your right fingertips with your left ones. Pull with your fingertips and work the clasp deeper to create more stretch on your right upper arm and shoulder.
It's fine to stay in this position, but if you want to complete the swastika shape, externally rotate your right leg and draw it out to the side until it is perpendicular to your torso. Work the outer right hip away from your torso to keep the side waist long, just as you would in standing poses like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). Flex your foot to 90 degrees, and press out firmly through your right heel while continuing to extend out through your left toes. Try to keep your pelvis squared toward the floor.
When you reach your final position, remain there for 15 to 45 seconds. Imagine each inhalation bringing fresh energy throughout your body, especially to your right upper arm and shoulder, and each exhalation releasing you more deeply into the pose. Then come out of the pose and repeat it on the other side.
3. Eka Bhuja Padmasana
To come into One-Armed Lotus Pose, begin with the most basic version of the previous pose, Eka Bhuja Swastikasana: right arm crossed under the left and the left arm stretched back along your left side, palm up. Then lift your head off the floor, curl your right fingers around your thumb to form a fist, and bend your right elbow so you can swing your right wrist directly underneath your chin; the whole inner edge (thumb side) of your right forearm, wrist, and hand will come to the floor.
Next, use the point of your chin to press down on your wrist bones and magnify the stretch. Make sure you're not pressing your throat into your arm, or pressing on the hand rather than the wrist. Check to see that your right upper arm is still perpendicular to your torso; there's a tendency to draw the elbow down as you're folding the forearm into the final position. Also, make sure you're releasing and pressing your left shoulder toward the floor. It's easy to unconsciously hold the left shoulder up and thus avoid some of the right arm stretch.
In this pose, as in Eka Pada Swastika-sana II, you can either keep your toes together, extending energy down through your legs and out through the crown of your head, or draw your right leg out to the side. Whichever position you choose, remain in it for 15 to 45 seconds, allowing each breath to create more freedom in your right arm and shoulder. Then come out of the pose and practice it on the other side.
4. Eka Bhuja Virasana
To come into One-Armed Hero Pose, lie on your back with your legs together, arms at your sides, and palms down. Next, bend your right knee, put the sole of your foot on the floor, and roll just a little to your left. Bending your right elbow, bring your right hand and wrist under the back of your right rib cage as close to your right shoulder blade as possible. Then slowly roll back to the right, letting the full weight of your torso rest on your right hand. Make sure your hand is far enough under your body so you immobilize your wrist rather than just rest on your fingers. Then straighten your right leg again.
This position may already provide a very strong stretch. To go deeper, begin to roll to your right. At first, you may just barely be able to lift your left shoulder off the floor. With time and practice, you may be able to rotate your torso until the left shoulder is directly above the right, or even further so it moves toward the floor near your right elbow. In any case, turn your head to look down.
At first, you may find it easiest and most stable to lead this action by reaching your left leg across your body; the knee can either be bent or straight. Over time, as you can move more deeply into the pose, you can again bring the left leg straight down along the right.
When you reach your deepest expression of this pose, remain in it for 15 to 45 seconds, breathing smoothly and evenly. Then roll onto your back again, draw your right hand out from under your back ribs, and repeat the pose on the other side.
5. The Rack
Don't let the name scare you. Doing this pose shouldn't be a painful experience; Lappa swears he simply gave it that label because its shape reminds him of the medieval instrument of torture.
To come into The Rack, sit upright in Dandasana (Staff Pose), spine tall and feet together and straight out in front of you. Then, leaning back, place your palms shoulder-width apart on the ground about 18 inches behind you. Keeping your arms straight by extending energy from your shoulder out through your fingertips, walk your hands back. As you do this, let your upper back round and drop toward the floor, your shoulder blades move up, and your chin sink onto your upper chest. Throughout the pose, keep your body alert and integrated by extending energy out through your arms, keeping your thigh muscles engaged, and pushing gently but firmly out through the heels and balls of your feet. When you reach an edge in your stretch—you may feel this most at your inner upper arm, outer upper chest, and at the crease of your elbow—breathe smoothly and evenly for 15 to 45 seconds; if possible, allow your exhalations to move you slightly deeper into the pose. Then draw yourself back up until you're sitting erect with your spine and chest lifted.
Karma and Freedom
You may be wondering where to fit these unfamiliar asanas into your existing practice. In his approach to yoga, Lappa has developed complex sequencing patterns designed to work symmetrically around the body and thus balance the student's consciousness. But Lappa thinks that rather than simply reproducing set sequences you've learned from teachers, you're better off investigating different sequences experientially and closely observing the results. "If you have no freedom to make decisions, you repeat someone else's karmic goals, rather than your own," Lappa says. "You don't develop. You don't evolve."
So feel free to explore. Try stretching your legs first, then move the focus of your asanas up your body until you arrive at these arm-stretching poses. Or work in the opposite direction, from the top of the body down. For yet another approach, practice arm balances first and follow them with these arm stretches; another day, reverse that order and see what's different in the ease and pleasure of your poses—and in your consciousness during and after your session. While all of us are subject to the same laws of cause and effect, we all come to practice with different histories. Like Lappa himself, we have to innovate and experiment to find the yoga that best balances our lives.
Todd Jones has edited Master Class (formerly Asana) for eight years. He thanks Andrey Lappa for his invaluable help with this article. See www.universal-yoga.com.