My Journey (& Tips!) to Pincha Mayurasana
I apologise if I am boring you with all my pincha posts over on Instagram, but pincha is literally my favourite pose to practice at the moment. It was a pose that seemed impossible for me for the longest time... damaged shoulders plus fear of inversions (see here and here!) were going to be insurmountable challenges, surely.
But over the past week or two, I have flexed out repeated straight pinchas, without multiple kick ups, without any falls, all on my concrete kitchen floor (of previous broken collarbone fame).
I am so goddamn proud of myself for achieving this. The physical side of course, but really of the commitment it took to get over my deep deep fears around badly hurting myself again.
All of this comes after 2.5 years of practice, but I have only been focusing on pincha itself for the past month or so. I realised in my yoga teacher training that I had the strength and the flexibility to do it, I just needed to build the muscle memory and the confidence. So along with my secret pincha friend (hi Emily!), I pledged to practice it every day. I haven't quite managed it 7 days a week, but pretty close.
Here are some thoughts on how to get there if this is a pose you are working on too...
There is no getting around this, but you need a decent wallop of strength to hold yourself upside down while balancing on your forearms. Forearm or normal plank holds, chaturanga holds, chaturanga reps: these drills are your friend. If you aren't a fan of drills then step one is ensuring every single one of your chaturanga's is actually a chaturanga. What do I mean by that? So many people I see love to swoop through a vinyasa to upward facing dog as quickly as possible, like the chaturanga is a transition. It's not. It is its own wonderful, and difficult, pose. So hold it. For 1 second. For 3. For 10. Watch your strength build.
The key to this pose is stacking hips over shoulders over elbows. If you find it challenging to hold your arms up beside your ears, this pose is going to be really hard. So get stuck into those shoulder openers. Again, there are loads of specific poses that can help here, but my favourite is the oft overlooked downward dog. There are a million ways to do a down dog - so it focuses on opening the hamstrings, or strengthening the core or the arms. And it is also fantastic for opening the shoulders. Push your chest through (while always wrapping your triceps away from your ears to externally rotate the shoulder joint) towards the floor and you will feel it. And how many times do you do down dog in a practice?! Get it to work for you...
Ugh, I struggled, and still struggle, with this part! The closer you can walk your feet in towards your elbows, and the more you can split your legs, the less you have to kick. So if you are flexibility challenged, like me, this is the hard part. You are going to need a chunk more umpf (the technical term) than you think, but my advice is to think about bringing the back leg (the leg you pressing into the floor) up as quickly as possible rather than focusing on what the top leg is doing. It's the weight of this second leg that is stopping you getting up, so the higher you get it, the less likely that is to happen. If you are afraid of toppling over, bend it and bring the knee into your chest. You can then extend the leg once you have your balance. Which brings me neatly to...
The scary part right? But the necessary part. If you don't know how to fall safely, then you don't know how to do the pose safely. I am practicing 3 exits from pincha currently...
- Back-down-the-way-I-came: obviously the preferable choice;
- Side Exit: this is the way good teachers will teach it. When you feel yourself going, you slightly lift the elbow of the side you want to fall to and move it an inch or two. This will bring your body over to that side and you can land your feet on the floor next to your arm. Full disclosure: I find this exit does NOT come naturally to me.
- The Tuck'n'Roll: due to concrete floor fears, I was only practicing my pincha outside on my (fake) grass until last week. Which makes for a nice soft landing pad to forward roll your way out of the pose, trust me. When I feel I am going over, I move my gaze from forwards towards my thumbs, to backwards/through my arms, tuck my legs in towards my chest, and you'll just roll right out of the pose in a nice controlled manner. But note, this is great when you are in your garden, not so much in a yoga class when there are people in front of you...
Oh banana back. Why are you so easy to find in pincha and so hard to find in backbends?! A straight line in pincha can feel elusive. I quite literally repeat in my head "ribs in, ribs in, ribs in" when I am going for it, and even then it's not easy. The extent to which you can get a straight line will be a function if your shoulder flexibility and your core strength, so revisit points #1 and #2 if you are struggling here.
I would also add that I am a huge fan of getting the legs into a "V" shape, correcting any banana back there, and moving the legs to straight. This gets you to the best core engagement while you have some extra stability because of the leg position. Correcting banana back when your legs are together takes A LOT of core and shoulder strength and the slightest wobble will make you feel like you are falling.
6. Hand position
So much controversy here! Speak to any Iyengar teacher and they will be militant about keeping the hands parallel with the elbows, otherwise you risk impinging the shoulder muscles/nerves. Most vinyasa teachers (including my teacher, Dylan), will tell you this isn't so important and you can start with the fingers almost touching as long as the elbows are shoulder width apart. I started this way, and am working my way towards the Iyengar alignment. I feel that if I waited until I could do a pose with perfect alignment before I started practicing it, I wouldn't have been able to practice at all.
But the direction of travel is important, and I see how over the long term practicing pincha with your shoulders turning in could damage them. The other place that you will get differing views is hands flat on the floor vs. hands pressed or clasped together. Again, a lot of vinyasa teachers will teach the latter (though not Dylan!) vs. Ashtanga/Iyengar teachers the former. Having the hands together helps if you struggle with the upper body strength of the pose, as you create your own brace structure.
However, it makes it much harder to actively manage your balance, as with your palms on the floor you can use them shift your weight in every direction to counteract any wobbles. Palms on the floor is also excellent practice for handstand, where you don't have the option. I started with hands in prayer, and am now on to palms on the floor. Direction of travel right?
No breath no pose. Never is this more important than inversions. I guarantee that if you cannot hold an inversion, one of the primary reasons is that you are not breathing in it. Reminding yourself (repeatedly) will help, but as will exhaling on your kick up. Not only will that make the kick up more likely to stick (as you are engaging your core by default), but as its much harder to hold the breath on empty lungs (aka bahya kumbhaka - breath rentention on the exhale) you will be forced into breathing properly in the pose right at the start. And hopefully you can continue from there.
Hope that all helps. Let me know in the comments whether there are any elements I've missed...