A few weeks ago, I learned that I had been doing a yoga pose wrong for the entirety of my time practicing yoga. It took about 7 years for anyone to tell me otherwise, so I want to share the knowledge with you here today so that you can be an informed yoga practitioner.
You may have heard of the Crow Pose – it’s taught as an arm balance that is “beginner-friendly” if there is such a thing. It’s an intro pose to the pose category of arm balances and it’s often the first arm-balance you’ll ever try.
There’s also a pose you may (or may not) have heard of that is quite similar – Crane. Crane is an inversion, and similarly to Crow, could be considered an “intro” to the category of inversions.
The problem is, a vast majority of teachers (myself included up until a couple weeks ago) cue you into Crane Pose and call it Crow Pose.
If you’ve got an established “Crow” practice and you’ve really been doing Crane this whole time…congratulations on mastering an inversion without even knowing it!
The anatomical difference
Besides the fact that one pose is an arm balance and one pose is an inversion, these poses also have different attitudes and require different muscular engagement. They also have different Sanskrit names. Kakasana = Crow Pose. Bakasana = Crane Pose. Kak means crow in Sanskrit and even sounds like a crow cawing. Bak means Crane in Sanskrit.
An arm balance is a posture in which you are balancing on your hands. But there are many inversions where you are balancing on your hands as well. The difference between an inversion and an arm balance is the positioning of your hips. In inversions, your hips are always above your heart. That is why Downdog is considered a “gentle” inversion.
In Crane (Bakasana) Pose (formerly known as Crow, if we want to be all Prince about it), the knees rest on the back of the triceps near the armpits, the hips are lifted above the heart, and the practitioner works towards straightening the arms. This position kind-of, sort-of imitates the crane – long legs on the ground and body up above, long neck looking down in search of food. The practitioner needs a keen sense of awareness of the serratus anterior muscle to stabilize the shoulders and straighten the arms, plus crazy triceps strength to get the arms to straighten. There needs to be some flexibility in the hips to get the knees all the way to the back of the triceps, near the armpits. It’s a given that the core is doing it’s fair share of centering and stabilizing the body 🙂
In Crow (Kakasana) Pose on the other hand (almost never cued), the knees move to the outside of the triceps and the inner thighs squeeze the outer arms. The hips stay level with the ground and the rest of the torso and body is much closer to the ground. Think of Chatarunga arms in this one. The bent knees on the outside of the arms make the legs look like the wings of a crow. This posture relies much more on a relationship between the triceps and biceps and the inner thighs. These muscles resist one another, providing the strength to balance on the hands. Again, the core is holding its own to establish a center of gravity. It’s tempting to lift the hips higher (because that is mostly what we’ve been taught to do), but sometimes even more challenging to keep the hips lower.
Why does everyone teach Crane (Bakasana) Pose as Crow (Kakasana) Pose? It’s common to hear that they are the same pose (they are not), or that they are interchangeable (they are most definitely different).
I’m not sure exactly why this has become a “thing” in the yoga world, except that Crane (Bakasana) may actually be easier for some people then Crow (Kakasana) Pose (it’s debatable) and there is a large lack of awareness and education in the yoga community around where the poses come from and why they are what they are. It’s like a general misunderstanding of where our food comes from. Many of us just assume that whatever we’re told is true.
The story of the crow and the crane goes all the way back to ancient texts. The story of the crow can be found in the Yoga Vasistha and the crane can be found in the Mahabarata, an epic tale that is central to yoga philosophy and wisdom.
In this story, Lord Yama (the Lord of Death) decides to disguise himself as a crane to test his son Yudisthira. This is an unusual choice, as we would associate death much more readily with a crow then a crane. But Lord Yama makes this choice purposefully, to fool those who are might be looking out for him.
When you think about the qualities of a crane, you might think of a regal, graceful, and majestic bird. The crane is patient and doesn’t move much. It stands and waits for his prey to come to him. His head is down as he waits.
In the Crane (Bakasana) Pose, when our knees are placed so high up against the armpits, we start to stimulate the lymphatic system, a system of the body that helps boost the immune system and move us away from death. We look down, rather then ahead, as we practice patience with the body. Looking down also takes the faculties of the eyes away from us so that we must balance using the muscular strength of our core and rely on an inner sense rather then an external sense to find our true balance.
When you think about a crow, crows spend most of their life flying and surveying for their prey. They are always looking out at the horizon for the next meal. This is why in Crow (Kakasana) Pose, we keep our hips low and our eyes out. This requires a great deal of strength in the arms and perseverance. You can even add on a bending of the arms to mimic the impression of flying — this will challenge your body intensely.
In the story of Bhusunda the Crow from the Yoga Vasistha we learn about how Bhusunda attained immortality and the values that one must practice to do the same.
Now you can see that both poses are different anatomically, have a different mental attitude that we cultivate while practicing them, have different names and different animals they are associated with, and have their roots in ancient yoga philosophy.
Whoever decided Crow (Kakasana) Pose was Crow Pose and Crane (Bakasana) Pose is Crane Pose is rolling in his/her grave every time a yoga teacher calls out Crow (Kakasana) Pose but cues Crane (Bakasana) and vice versa. I hope this understanding makes the difference clear to you and helps you find a new perspective in your arm balance and inversion practice.
When/if you decide to first try either of these postures, it can be helpful to use blocks in front of your forehead to assuage your fears of falling and/or under your feet to help you get your knees higher up on your arms.
Here’s a short video with some more info about the postures, how to get into them, and their qualities.
For a longer version, with the full story of Bhusunda the Crow and Yudisthira and the Pandava brothers, visit my online yoga studio for a free 20-min story-time video and demonstration!