4.14.2010

Asana of the Week: Astavakrasana


"Astavakra was a very learned sage whose mother attended Vedic chanting classes while pregnant. While he was in his mother's womb, he winced at eight of his father's mispronunciations of Vedic prayers, and was thus born with eight bends in his body (Kaminoff, Yoga Anatomy)." This is the familiar story behind this week's asana. The fetal sage cringes at his father's eight painfully poor pronunciations of the prayers, and gets stuck that way, just like your mother always warned you!

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar spins a less comical version of the story, in which the unborn child laughs disrespectfully in the womb at his father's mistakes. In response, his father "became enraged and cursed his son to be born as Astavakra. So it came to pass that he was born crooked in eight places. These crooks earned him the name Astavakra, or Eight-Crooks." So the fetus's father becomes so enraged by his unborn child's petulant laughter that he cursed him to be born with a badly deformed body. But the young sage, wise beyond his years, was forgiving: "The sage's father had been defeated in a philosophical debate by Vandi, the court scholar of Mithila. While yet a boy, the sage became a great scholar and avenged his father's defeat by worsting Vandi in an argument..." So the child sage not only forgave his father for willfully causing him to be born with multiple deformities, but actually restored his faulted father's honor. Happily, the story ends well: "Then his father blessed him, his deformity vanished and he became straight." Isn't that nice.

Astavakrasana, or Eight-Angle Pose, is what I'd call an accessible arm balance. It is deceptively not about upper-body strength. Rather, in my experience, the challenge in this pose is developing sufficient coordination in the body to sustain the right counterbalance with the extended legs. Core strength does come into play. This can be a very deep twist, but the leverage provided by the top leg against the upper arm affords a lot of control in respect to depth of the twist. The biggest challenges for me when learning this asana were developing symmetry of the two sides and squaring the shoulders to the floor. My left shoulder would drop, leaving me with an imminent face plant situation. Luckily, it's not a difficult arm balance to bail out on if things start to fall apart. You can just keep your legs as they are and drop your butt to the floor. It's not very far, so don't be afraid to try it if you haven't already (assuming you have no health constraints).

I did notice, while reading up on the asana today, that Iyengar specifies which ankle to cross over which. For the record, it's the opposite of the way I'm pictured demonstrating the pose. The ankle of the bottom leg should cross in front of the ankle of the top leg. I had never noticed this detail of instruction before. These Asana of the Week posts are turning out to be quite illuminating.


That's the other side for you. I'm laughing there.  I can laugh in this pose, which should suggest to you that there's plenty of room for good breathing. Leslie Kaminoff asks in Yoga Anatomy in reference to this asana, "as compared to Side Crane, in which the body weight is lifted and supported on the upper arms, Astavakrasana requires you to "hang" the weight of the lower body off the support of the upper arm.... Which pose requires more or less expenditure of energy, and which offers more freedom of movement for the diaphragm?"

Iyengar has us enter the pose from standing, with the feet "about 18 inches apart (Light on Yoga)," and bending forward to tuck the shoulder under the top leg. I had never entered Astavakrasana this way until today, when I was studying up for this post. I gave it a try on the living room floor. I did not like it. It required much shifting of the hands and rocking the body back and forth. I didn't feel as grounded as I do when entering the pose through a vinyasa. I can see why one might want to first learn the asana that way, but I always practice it thusly:
  1. Rock-the-baby
  2. Compass pose
  3. Eka pada buhjasana
  4. Astavakrasana
  5. exhale back to Eka Bada Buhjasana
  6. release and repeat on the other side.

If I'm feeling saucy, I'll tuck the extended leg under and extend it back for Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, then jump back and take a vinyasa before jumping through to begin again on the other side.

2 comments:

  1. I am very much enjoying the asana of the week posts. Beautiful!

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  2. yes! i am working on my saucy transition from atsavakrasana to koundinyasana. somedays it works...

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