Garudasana is a beautiful, spiralling swirl of a standing balance. It takes its name from the mythical Garuda, king of all birds and vehicle of choice for Hindu God Vishnu. Garuda is depicted as a majestic golden beast with a man's body vast red wings and an eagle’s beak. Associated with the all-consuming fire of the sun’s rays, garuda can be literally translated as “devourer”.
Even in its less exotic translation as “eagle pose”, garudasana is a posture that deserves every bit of its evocative name. Poised, graceful, fierce, and with hunter-sharp awareness, it’s a powerful creature to emulate. However, on a bad day, garudasana can feel ungainly, awkward and wobbly.
Here are five tips to help your king of the birds take flight:
1. Prepare the Body
Garudasana requires openness in the shoulders, as well as engagement and flexibility in the lower body. Before you attempt it, practice some abdominal strengthening work to activate your core stabilizing muscles. (Learn more in Core Strengthening: Boost Your Abdominals with this 15-Minute Yoga Sequence). Moving through cat-cow postures will help release the back of the shoulders. Finally, practicing a hybrid of gomukhasana legs with garudasana arms is an ideal warm up posture, as it prepares the outer hips for the leg wrapping movement, while imprinting the arm position in the body ready for the full posture to come.
2. Create a Stable Foundation
As with all balance postures, the firmer your base, the easier it will be to find and maintain your stance. For garudasana, it is far easier to establish the foot position before you wrap the arms, so that you can use the arms to stabilise on the way in. Enter from tadasana and bend both knees, then transfer your weight into the right leg, rooting your right foot securely into the ground. Feel both sides of the ball of the foot, and the inner and outer heel in contact with the earth. Pick up the left leg to wrap the thigh on top, then place the shin over the right lower leg. Finally, the left foot or toes can hook at the back of the right ankle.
Don’t have the full wrap? Don’t worry. Simply wrap your leg as far as it will go, then place the big toe on the ground or to a block. This will give the stability of the hooked foot, and allow you to take your focus into the rest of the pose. You can also brace yourself against a wall if necessary.
Take a few smooth breaths here, sinking the hips back and down while drawing the ribcage up and away from the pelvis.
3. Wrap Your Arms
Create a cactus shape with the arms, lifting the elbows to shoulder height then flexing and pointing the fingers straight up. Draw the elbows towards each other in front of the chest, wrapping the left elbow under the right and taking the back of the hands towards one another. Keep them here, or if it’s accessible, continue to wrap the forearms, bringing the palms together. Press the palms together and broaden across the collar bones to engage the shoulder blades on the back.
Keep the elbows at the height of the shoulders, while maintaining space between the tops of the shoulders and the ears. Send the breath into all sides of the ribcage and visualise your wings blooming from your shoulder blades and spreading open behind you.
4. Find Your Drishti and Take it Deeper
Traditionally in garudasana, the drishti or gaze point is to the tips of the thumbs. Make sure these are pointing straight up by pressing the base of the thumbs together. However, if focusing on the thumbs sends your balance off, try adjusting your focus to a still point through your arms directly in front of you. The intention through garudasana is to cultivate an unwavering focus and concentration, so use your drishti to help you do that, staying fully present in the posture. (Learn more in The 9 Drishti of Yoga.)
To heighten the intensity, focus on drawing the periphery of your body in towards the midline. Think of it less as a squeezing, and more of a subtle energetic pull in to your centre of gravity and stability. You can choose to remain here or go deeper by sending the hips further back as you bend the standing leg more. As you do this, lengthen the tailbone down towards the ground while keeping a lift through the front of the torso.
Want an added challenge? Go for a sleeping eagle variation. Flex the knees more deeply, taking the hips back and down, and lowering the torso forwards until the elbows hook over the knees.
5. Let go of Attachment
The most important thing in garudasana is to find your center. There’s little point in finding your physical balance if its at the expense of your mental or energetic equilibrium. So practice for the sake of the practice, not the finished pose. Maintain your mental equanimity through any wobbles or topples, and with steadiness of mind, find your way back. There’s always a second side to iron out any creases!
Why go to all the trouble?
Garudasana has great benefits for both body and mind. Physically it builds strength in the foot, ankle and lower legs. The wrapping and engagement through the inner thighs can help release tightness in the lower back, and the challenging balance is good for improving core stability. The arm position of garudasana is ideal for easing tension between the shoulder blades and across the upper back.
The benefits on a mental and emotional level go even deeper. In cultivating the focus and concentration of this mighty king of all birds, we also connect in to its power. We may not yet be quite ready to fly, but through finding equanimity and inner stillness, we can certainly cultivate a freedom from the ties of constant thoughts, worries and anxieties.
So keep practicing, stay present with the posture, and learn to expand your calm awareness and focus through your whole body. The words of Thich Nhat Hanh can be helpful here:
"There is no way to peace - peace is the way.”