Float Your Yoga

This time, we have a guest writer for the article, the first time it is a student and not one of the Loving Kindness teachers.  Tom writes about moving toward handstand and other inversions, especially handstand, in a swimming pool.  He volunteered a lot of this information, and his insights and tips were so good, I (Ti) thought others might be interested and benefit from his practice and exploration. Tom’s original article was longer than I like to share here, but for folks who want to read Tom’s whole original article, it’s here.

Float Your Yoga

 by Tom Roche1

Most humans fear falling, which can infect our relationship with inverted poses (viparita sthiti). Conversely, few things delight us like clean, clear, shallow water. Fortunately, this is readily available in the LKYS area and it gently combats our fear of and weakness in inversions with two wonderfully anti-gravitational forces. Buoyancy reduces your weight: the simple, gravitational, unidirectional force on your entire body. The importance of this for asanas like handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) cannot be be overstated: when you’re supporting your weight with your arms instead of your legs, you really really wanna reduce your weight. But wait, there’s more! If you start to fall out of this (or any other) asana in water, buoyancy not only opposes your downward acceleration: the farther you descend, the more buoyancy reduces your falling force! At the same time, as you fall through water, its viscosity is also frictionally reducing your velocity. Together, buoyancy and viscosity are magic for yoga … and you can have them merely by stepping into a “yoga pool” (formerly known as “swimming pools” 🙂 or a more naturally-occurring body of water.

But, as with all magic, implementation can be tricky. Here are a few tips, in approximately declining order of importance:

  1. Yoga under water is still yoga, and you still wanna relax, but you do not necessarily want to breathe deeply 🙂 As I am fond of saying, “there is no absolute good but absolute good.” Like relaxation, breathing is not an absolute good regardless of context. Which raises the question: when you’re not breathing, is it still yoga? My answer is “yes,” sincepranayama is about breath control–including pausing or holding breath.
  2. Depth matters. Both the buoyant and viscous forces acting on your body increase their magnitude as you become more fully immersed. Viscosity is not so important here, since handstand and even handwalk are, like other asanas, relatively static. (The depth/viscosity relationship is much more important, as previously noted, when falling, but also when doing water aerobics.) Buoyancy is great, but for handstand and every other asana that comes to (my) mind, ya gotta “stay grounded”–e.g., on the bottom of the pool. This is trivial in “shallow water,” which I’ll define (for the purposes of this article) relative to you (its reader): water such that, when you stand (on your feet) in it, its level is at or below your navel. In deeper water (at or above your navel), you may experience difficulty staying on the bottom, whether doing handstand, shoulderstand (more below), or a “normal” standing position such as half-moon. Deeper water can also provide unwanted horizontal force: while most noticeable in a water body large enough to have a current (rivers, lakes, the ocean), one can even feel these horizontal forces in a pool once one is in deeply enough, particularly if other people are moving vigorously nearby. But one can adjust to those forces, and yoga (used as a verb) even in relatively deep water, as one improves one’s technique. That being said, without (e.g.) diving weights, doing any asana in water deep enough to completely submerge you will probably be difficult.
  3. A simple corollary to the previous point is (as you’ve probably guessed) that both the buoyant and viscous forces acting on your body decrease toward zero as you move in water of decreasing depth. A normal-sized adult should expect no magic in water less than 18 inches (about half a meter) deep.
  4. Another simple (but possibly less obvious) corollary to the second item is, water shoulderstand is generally harder to maintain than water handstand. This is because more of your body volume is submerged when doing shoulderstand than handstand, and the buoyant force on your body is proportional to the volume of water you displace. I can only keep my shoulderstand underwater in very shallow water, or where there is something I can push up against (like a handrail) to resist buoyancy.
  5. Remember that buoyancy (unlike viscosity) is unidirectional: it only does work vertically. This can be important in pools, since they mostly have hard walls. When you fall into a wall, your motion is approximately horizontal, so you’ll only get a bit of force-reduction from viscosity but none from buoyancy. Net: if you’re working on your water chops in a pool, try to stay away from the walls, at least until you’re reliably stable.

Enough preparation: time to dive in. Below, I discuss water handstand/handwalk specifically, but much of the following is applicable to other asanas:

  1. Start by practicing in navel-deep water. Move to slightly deeper or shallower water as needed, until the duration of your handstands is limited only by your breath (or lack thereof). Use buoyancy to practice adjusting (and reacting to changes in) your hand position, the location of your center of mass relative to your hands, spinal curve, etc. Find the maximum depth at which you can keep your hands planted on the bottom (more below), and increase it.
  2. Start handwalking paths of constant depth. Key for this, as with “normal” walking (on your feet, on land), is getting the feel of off-balancing oneself (only slightly!) to ease (just enough!) propulsion in the desired direction. In many pools the direction of a path of constant depth will be perpendicular to the direction of the slope of the pool’s bottom, so practice traversing your paths of constant depth in both directions, to get the feel of how the slope changes your balance. More importantly, practice at different depths to get the feel of how the differing buoyancy changes how you move.
  3. Do “handwalk laps.” In rectangular pools one can define a “lap rectangle.” One side of your lap rectangle is given by the two corners (as near to the wall as you can safely go) at the shallowest end of the pool. You define the other side of your lap rectangle by identifying two points (also near the wall) at your maximum depth. To “handwalk lap” is then merely to traverse that lap rectangle. Go both directions, and do the diagonals.
  4. Extend your points of maximum depth–or, as Ti would say, “go deeper.” I find working in deeper water (between navel- and neck-deep while standing normally) takes both more and less work:
    • I put more effort into “the plant,” i.e., getting my hands down and my weight on them. Technique for planting in shallower water is essentially identical to that used out of water: bend over and let gravity “do the work.” In deeper water, I must put significantly more effort into reaching the bottom with sufficient force to stay down despite buoyancy.
    • I put less effort into “the stick,” i.e., getting my hips and legs straight and above my arms and trunk. In shallower water, as on land, this works against gravity. (And when one’s ass is as big as mine, that’s serious work 🙂 In deeper water, this works with buoyancy; as a result, in water up to my neck, if I put more than the slightest effort into straightening my legs up, my hands lift off the bottom and I float free. The answer is, use less effort: to paraphrase one of my teachers, “Never do something when nothing will do.”

Eventually I seek to “graduate” to land handwalk. I’m not there yet, but, in my water practice, I can now

  • feel, for extended periods, the differing modes of balance produced by changing the position of my legs/hips relative to my arms/trunk
  • deliberately “off my balance,” and then regain it, without falling over. Which is, after all, what walking is: losing and regaining one’s balance in a chosen direction.

And, with minimal time devoted to a seriously-fun practice, you can too. Enjoy!

1 © 2015 Tom Roche. This article (latest full version probably here) is made available and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. These terms and this work are independent from Ti‘s blog, to which different terms may apply.

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