Asana of the Week: Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana
Wait to try this pose until you can remain comfortable in Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow, or Wheel Pose) for at least ten steady breaths. Openness balanced with stability across the shoulders, and flexibility in the front body and thoracic spine are important here. Begin from Urdhva Dhanurasana by simply lifting one foot a few inches from the floor. If that feels okay, your shoulderblades remain strong on the back and the breath is steady, try drawing the knee up the centerline of the body toward the chest. If you're still feeling strong, push through the ball of the foot and point that foot to the sky. Bring the extended leg as vertical as possible, driving the grounded foot firmly down into the earth, being mindful of the shoulderblades drawing together and down the back as if to lift and support the rib cage. Keep the heads of the arm bones tightly sucked into the shoulder sockets and try to distribute the bend evenly along the length of the spine, being especially aware of sensation in the lower back as you press the hips to the sky.
I like to warm up to any version of Urdhva Dhanurasana with some shoulder openers. Gomukhasana (face-of-light or cow face pose) is an especially good preparatory stretch for the shoulders before attempting any big backbends. It's a good idea to prepare for eka pada urdhva dhanurasana with at least five breaths in Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) and one regular ol' Urdhva Dhanurasana before attempting any asymmetrical versions, then take another plain old UD after playing with the one-legged version. And always be sure to practice the asymmetrical versions on both sides.
The next step is lifting one hand to the thigh in a one-armed Urdhva Dhanurasana, then both the right leg AND the right hand, for example, to balance on the left foot and left hand. Sounds hard? Well, it looks hard, but I can't say for sure because I've never tried it. BKS Iyengar in his classic Light on Yoga rates the full pose a "12" on a scale of difficulty from 1 to 60.
Respectfully, I must cast a skeptical eye toward this scale of his. Bodies are wildly different from person to person. For example, Iyengar rates Hanumanasana a "32," a pose which is considerably more accessible to me, perhaps because of my gender. There are countless factors that influence the accessibility of the asanas for every individual, and I'm wary of any set scale of difficulty because of these inherent differences. I'm not going anywhere with this, really. I just wonder what his intention was in rating the poses this way, seems almost inhibiting. Iyengar people: any thoughts on this?