Yoga is an attractive practice for many reasons, not the least of which is the beauty of asana, the physical postures. After spending many years in the postures of a basic sequence, I wanted badly to learn the more complicated forms but couldn’t find a teacher, in a class setting, to show me the ropes.
I’d look at photos of beautiful bodies taking on impossible-seeming shapes and wonder, how did they get there?
In that light, this next post is about Dragonfly, Maksikanagasana. Dragonfly is one of my favorite postures for its aesthetic beauty, the feeling of lightness and strength when I hit my balance point, and the benefits I feel in my rhomboids, glutes and erector spinae.
The truth is, that many well-disciplined yogis are ready and able to take this posture, or if not ready, then close. They are flexible enough in the hips and spine and strong enough in the arms and back, but don’t know the proper method for safely and securely landing.
And now the fine print: this post is merely informative, and please be advised that if you do attempt this pose, or any other, you are responsible for the outcome of your efforts. Be informed. Be responsible. Be safe.
In order to float into Dragonfly successfully, the glutes and spine must be warm and open. I suggest starting with a few Sun Salutations, a light jog, or an extended abdominal workout to warm the muscles of the body before beginning.
When you’ve got a nice sheen on, begin with the opening stretches:
Pigeon Pose Prep (Eka Pada Kapotasana Prep):
While often referred to as Pigeon in a classroom setting, this posture is actually prep-work for a deeper posture known as King Pigeon Posture. On its own, it is a great, and safe hip opener.
Alignment cues: Work towards square hips. This typically means rolling the hip of the front leg out, open, back and down and pulling the hip of the back leg forward, so that the hip bones point forward evenly. Stay active in the front foot by pointing or flexing, paying special attention to the knee. While the front shin does not need to be parallel with the front of the mat, you will find that working toward that parallel line will deepen the stretch.
Contraindications: If there is any discomfort in the knee-joint, prop it up on a block or blanket, or perhaps take the stretch on your back!
Squat/Garland Pose (Malasana)
This posture is great for opening up the hips and stretching and lengthening the groin muscles.
Alignment cues: Use the elbows to press outward into the knees. Sit low in the hips, distributing weight evenly through the balls of the feet and the heels. Lengthen up straight through the spine and look directly forward, encouraging a “flat-back” position.
Contraindications: Oh the knees! Oh the back! This position may not be right for all bodies. If you are feeling some troubling twinges, take Happy Baby instead!
Deepening: After 10 or so breaths in your squat, fold the upper body forward, resting the forehead on the floor or a block. Release the heels from the floor, wrap the arms in front of the knees and around the feet to grab onto the heels for Garland Pose.
Seated Half Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
This one is a great spinal twist and has the added bonus of being a superb glute releaser as well!
Alignment cues: Be sure that both sit bones are firmly planted on the ground. If not, use a blanket or a rolled-up mat to support the elevated hip and consciously work toward lowering it. Crossing opposite elbow over knee, use the press between the two to lengthen and twist the spine. On each inhale grow taller, lifting the crown of the head. On each exhale, press the elbow to the knee to twist deeper. Make sure to sit up straight. No slouching! Keep both hips pointing squarely toward the front of the mat.
Contraindications: The nice thing about this posture is that you can literally dial the position to your level of comfort. Twist as far as your body will go to feel a deep stretch in the muscles of the spine and back. Inhale deeply to increase the stretch feeling expansion in the rib cage. If the bottom knee is feeling tweaky, simply extend it straight underneath you so that the heel of the foot reaches toward the front of the mat.
Seated Figure Four Twist
This pose is a fun sort of hybrid between a figure-four and a seated spinal twist and is, quite simply, the best passive stretch preparation for dragonfly as it most closely resembles the final position.
Alignment cues: Sit up straight! Keep both sit bones firmly planted on the earth and use the press of the elbow into the sole of the foot to increase the stretch. Breathe deeply!
Contraindications: Know your body. This pose may not be for you today. If your joints are tweaking and twinging, keep working on the other poses first. This one will come in good time.
Now, on to the strength exercises!
Crane or Crow Pose (Bakasana/Kakasana)
A Vinyasa flow standard, Crow is a fantastic posture for working arm and chest strength, balance and Uddiyana Bandha. Proper stacking of the joints allows for a sense of ease and flight!
Alignment cues: Crow: Elbows should be stacked directly over the wrists. Shoulders move forward over the finger tips. Use the inside of the knees to squeeze in towards center while the elbows push out against the knees to create stability through opposition. Belly hollows and pulls up and in to create lift in the abdomen (Uddiyana Bandha).
Crane: Knees sit into the armpits, armpits press back into the knees to create stability. Chest moves forward as arms straighten. Big toes touch. Gaze moves forward. All four corners of the palms press firmly into the ground. Fingertips clutch the mat (see if you can make them turn white).
Contraindications: Fear can be a real barrier for these two poses but is not, in fact, a good reason to steer away from them. Use a block under your forehead if you’re nervous about falling on your face. As in all postures, listen to your body. If the body says no, you say, let’s try again tomorrow.
Chair Twist (Parivrtta Utkatasana)
An excellent leg strengthener and spinal twist, this posture is a standard!
Alignment cues: Sit back deeply in the hips, keeping the knees stacked over the ankles (if you look down, you should be able to see your toes!). Keep the knees in line with one another and the hips even and square to the front of the mat. Use the lower elbow to press into the outside of the knee to encourage length and twist in the spine. Keep both shoulders even and square to the side, and prayer hands (anjali mudra) directly in front of, but not touching, the sternum.
Side Crow (Parsva Bakasana)
This pose is an excellent twist and great arm strengthener!
Getting in/Alignment cues: From your Chair Twist, bend the knees deeply so that the heels come off the ground. Feel the opposition between elbow (in this case right elbow) and knee (left knee) and glue the connection together by pressing knee and elbow together firmly. Plant the right hand down on the floor, fingers spread, purposefully clutching the ground, pointing directly forward toward the top of the mat. Lift your hips high and stretch the left hand out long to create a wide base for your posture. Plant the left hand down firmly, bending the elbows to 90 degrees of flexion and stacking the elbows over the wrists. When your feet begin to feel light, you know you are on the right track! Keep shifting weight into your hands, keeping the hips high and dropping the shoulders evenly toward the ground until the feet float off of the ground. Use the clutch of your fingertips pressing into the mat to create stability in your hands.
At last, we come to the main event!
If you’re feeling good and strong and supported on all the above poses, then you are ready for your dragonfly!
Begin in a Standing Figure Four Pose.
Bend the standing knee and keeping the hips square, sit them back deeply and fold the upper body forward to hug the shin. Maintain a flat-black for a Figure Four Chair Fold.
Variation: use blocks under the hands to support your balance in the Figure Four Chair Fold, or bring your hands to the floor, keeping a deep bend in the standing leg.
With hands in prayer position (or using a block for support under the bottom hand) begin to twist. If the right leg is bent into a figure four, then the upper body twists to the left. Twist the right elbow past the raised foot, then press the upper arm into the sole of the foot, the foot into the upper arm. Use this opposition to create stability and to increase the stretch. Twisted Figure Four Chair.
Using the principles learned in side crow, reach the left arm out wide. The wider the distance between the hands, the greater the base of the structure, and the more stable the position. Hooray, physics! Plant the left hand and bend both elbows to 90 degrees of flexion, keeping a strong press between the right foot sole and the right upper arm. Be sure to descend both shoulders evenly towards the ground, elongate your spine (thinking “flat-back”) and shift your gaze forward.
Welcome to Dragonfly!