āsana lab: aṣṭāṇga’s nāvāsana (boat pose)
Nāvāsana, or the boat pose, is possibly the most unpopular āsana in the primary series. It often gets rushed in Mysore practice and is dreaded in a led class. I have to admit, in the past, I’ve been guilty of skipping the odd nāvāsana when I thought my teacher wasn’t looking. If you’re thinking that sounds like a good idea be warned – we do notice – that’s why we count extra slow in a led class! Hopefully, shedding some light on this foreboding posture, and why it’s important, will help shift your perspective and you’ll come to appreciate and maybe even enjoy it.
Nāvāsana comes at the mid-point in the primary series, as we reach the series pinnacle and the most challenging postures. By this point we’re able to access the deep hip opening, spinal flexion, hamstring flexibility, and shoulder rotation required for earlier postures; but in order to properly prepare for what’s to come, in particular kūrmāsana and kūrmāsana, we need sufficient abdominal strength. This is where nāvāsana comes in.
The main action of the posture is hip flexion. Nāvāsana is entered on the inhalation from downward dog (seventh vinyāsā). We lean back on our sitting bones and raise the legs to create a 90-degree angle so the feet are at eye level and the toes are pointed. The arms are held parallel at shoulder height, drawing them back into the shoulder joints with the palms facing each other. The chest is lifted so as not to collapse the lower back and create a sinking boat. The dṛṣṭi is nāsāgre, or the tip of the nose. In order to hold the legs and the pelvis in place, and prevent the spine and chest collapsing, sufficient abdominal and lower back strength is required. Here using the bandhas provides essential support and protection for the lower back.
If you don’t yet have the strength to keep the legs straight without sinking your boat you can start with a preparatory version of the pose. With the feet on the floor and the knees bent lean back on to your sitting bones and gradually try to lift the feet off the floor whilst maintaining a straight back and lift in the chest. Hold the arms in the position described above. If you feel yourself start to sink into your lower back, bring your hands behind your knees and use this action to draw yourself up out of your lower back keeping your chest lifted.
Nāvāsana is repeated five times. Between each repetition on the inhale (eighth vinyāsā) the feet are crossed at the ankles, ideally without letting them touch the floor. The knees are drawn into the chest whilst placing the palms flat on the floor next to the hips. From here still inhaling we lift off the floor. This is a great way to prepare for jump backs as the action of drawing the knees into the chest rounding the spine and lifting is exactly what’s needed for the “lift up” part of the jump back. Don’t worry if it feels like your yoga pants are filled with lead and you’ll never lift off. Do your best; try to lift up and one day you’ll get there. If your feet stay on the floor and you don’t lift up keep trying. Remember placing the hands behind you or lifting up on your fingertips is cheating. As well as giving the false illusion of a lift it puts a lot of strain on your fingers. Those with short arms and/or a long torso may need to adjust the position of the hands in order to get them flat on the floor. The lift is finished on the exhale as the buttocks are brought back to the floor.
As well as building strength, bandha control and assisting with jump back technique, nāvāsana also promotes agni – the digestive fire. Strong agni improves digestion and elimination of waste, so five full power nāvāsanas may also help process that after practice treat!
By the fifth repetition, often we begin to struggle. Boats start to sink; the strain is showing as faces scrunch up and breath control goes out the window. If this happens, it’s much better to perform the less challenging version of nāvāsana described earlier than completely lose your breath, struggle through and potentially injure yourself. Remember “sthira sukham āsanam” (Yoga Sutras 2.46). Asana should be performed with comfort and ease. Find the balance whereby you’re challenging yourself but still performing the āsana safely and maintaining steady breath. If your face is scrunched up and you’re frowning your won’t be sending positive messages to your nervous system. Smile and enjoy your practice – even nāvāsana!
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