Is it just us or can you, too, hear a collective sigh each time a teacher cues Garudasana (Eagle Pose)? The intense balancing pose requires you to be strong yet flexible, tests your balance, endurance, and focus, and stretches your shoulders as it strengthens your legs and glutes. It’s one of those yoga poses that you either love or love to hate.
In Garudasana, you are asked to bend your knees, cross one thigh over the other, hook the top of your foot behind your calf, bring your hips in line with each other, stretch your shoulders, tuck one elbow into the crook of the other, bring your palms to touch, lift your elbows to chin height, and reach your forearms toward the front of the room and the tips of your fingers toward the ceiling. All while balancing on one leg after (probably) not enough sleep as you quietly (or perhaps not so quietly) curse your teacher for making you do this.
There is a common saying in yoga that goes “the poses you dread the most are the ones you need the most.” Ponder that. Then approach this pose again.
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Eagle Pose stretches places that tend to be in need of a stretch. That includes your tight back, shoulders, and hips. At the same time, it also strengthens your core, thighs, legs, glutes, and ankles.
After you find your groove in Garudasana, repeating this pose prepares you for more challenging balances including handstand and headstand variations that have crossed legs. Eagle Pose also stretches your body in ways that are a helpful precursor to certain arm balances such as Titibasana.
Finally, Garudasana teaches you patience. It challenges you to take one thing at a time and get steady there first before you progress at your own pace. It also challenges you to quiet your thoughts and find your steadiness, which is sorta useful in life as well.
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Eagle Pose can test your patience and resolve. It can take time—years, even—to understand how to find its expression in your body. Consider this your official permission slip to take it slow. Let your body guide how you move into the position and respect what it has to say.
Rather than overwhelm yourself trying to tackle every aspect of a difficult pose at once, start with one component of the posture. As you develop strength and flexibility, build to a fuller expression. Following are a few ways to make Garudasana more accessible and less loathsome.
Before you do anything else, ground yourself in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Feel steady not only in your feet but also take your gaze (drishti) straight ahead for several moments before attempting the pose. Set your sights on something that won’t move, such as a spot on the wall in front of you as opposed to the tattoo on the shoulder of the person in front of you. Focus your drishti to help calm your mind and find stability in this challenging pose. Steady gaze, steady balance.
Before you try to lift your foot off the mat, sink your hips back as if you were coming into Utkatasana (Chair Pose). Take everything from here slowly. Come onto the ball of the foot you’re about to lift. Take it off the mat and, as you cross your legs, bring your top leg as high on the other thigh as you can. Squeeze your legs tight against one another.
Instead of attempting to wrap your foot behind your calf right away, cross your foot over the other but keep your toes on the ground like a kickstand. Gradually bring your foot up to your ankle, eventually moving it higher, and finally, maybe, one day wrapping your foot around your leg. If you need, slide a block beneath the lifted foot for stability.
If you find that you simply can’t wrap your foot around your calf, that’s OK. It could be a lack of flexibility or strength, but it often has more to do with the anatomy of your hips. We all have different ranges of motion and limitations and angles at which the femur inserts into the hip socket. At some point, your femoral head won’t be able to move any further in your hip socket, which means your leg will only wrap so far. It’s not you. It’s your hips. Never force your body into a position it resists. If you can’t fully wrap, try bringing the almost-wrapped foot a few inches off the mat and balance there.
Can’t get your palms to touch? You aren’t alone! Tight shoulders or back muscles can limit your range of motion in this challenging pose. Instead of bringing palm to palm, bring the backs of your hands together. If this is challenging, you can instead bring your palms and forearms to touch or cross your arms at your chest and place your hands on opposite shoulders.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Imagine sending your breath down into the earth for steadiness. Exhale before you cross your arms. This allows a little more space. And unclench your neck and jaw. You’ve got plenty of tension elsewhere. Create a little space where you can.
Let your muscles feel the alignment without the balancing challenge. Practice the pose seated in a chair or even lying on your back, whether on the bed or mat. Eventually, try the pose standing with your behind against a wall to help steady you. When you try it standing on your own, bring a block beneath your lifted foot for steadiness—whether the effect is physical or psychological makes little difference.
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Now is about when you need to remind yourself to continue to focus your drishti. When you steady your gaze, you instantly start to calm your mind. This will help you find stability in any challenging pose, balancing or otherwise.
To enhance your steadiness, squeeze your legs and arms in toward the midline of your body.
You can do Garudasana in phases. Let your body acclimate to the stretch while taking the balancing component out of the equation. Do just the legs, perhaps standing alongside a wall so you can reach out for support. Do just the arms, perhaps while you’re seated. You can even do Eagle Pose on your back from the mat or even bed.(Photo: Getty Images)
Attempt to practice Garudasana only after you’ve warmed up in other poses that challenge and stretch the body in similar ways, yet less intense, ways.
At the very least, take several rounds of Sun Salutation A. Foundational yoga poses like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) stretch your shoulders and back body.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose) works much of your lower body in the same manner as Garudasana. Incorporate Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) and Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle) to open your hips and shoulders. Vrksasana (Tree Pose) also opens your hips and hones your sense of balance.
If you experience tightness in your shoulders, prep with Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) and Extended Puppy Pose. Also, you can get deeper into your hips with Pigeon Pose and Crooked Monkey Pose.
See also: More Yoga Poses, From Basic to Advanced
It’s likely that the hip of your lifted leg will automatically pull forward after crossing your legs. Draw that hip back in line with the other so they evenly face, or square, the front of the mat, as if you were in Mountain Pose or Chair Pose.
Ideally, you would lift your elbows so they are approximately the height of your shoulders. This, in turn, can cause your shoulders to hunch by your ears. To counteract this constriction, draw your shoulder blades down your back.
Another common tendency is for your forearms and thumbs to lean in toward your face. If you find that this is happening, slowly bring your forearms away from yourself, as if reaching your wrists toward the wall in front of you. Move toward a right angle between your upper and lower arms (we know, we know) to the extent that your upper back and shoulders allow.
Ready for a challenge? Bend your knees and sink your hips and slowly, slowly start to lean your chest forward toward your thighs. In this variation, it’s fine to bring your forearms closer to your face. Some teachers actually cue you to rest your thumbs against your forehead, also known as your ajna or third eye chakra.
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Counter poses are designed to help release the body of whatever strain it just underwent. Following Garudasana, drop into Balasana (Child’s Pose), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), even Uttasana (Standing Forward Bend). Or simply come back to Mountain Pose. Yes, you need to repeat on the other side.
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