Once More, With Enthusiasm
Determination, confidence, and the ability to let go lift you into this challenging balance pose.
By Christina Sell
I love watching fireflies light up in the yard on warm summer evenings. Ever since I was a child, their flickering lights have captivated and delighted me, making these flying creatures seem more like magical fairies than insects. Recently, as I watched them, it occurred to me that fireflies, or lightning bugs, as we used to call them, provide a great metaphor for the yogic path of awakening. Each bug, like each one of us, has the ability to light up from within and to shine radiantly.
Yoga scripture has many names for this inner radiance: divine spark, the light of consciousness, the light of the heart, and tejas, fire or spiritual luminosity. And unlike the firefly, whose light appears programmed to blink on and off, we possess an inner glow that never waxes or wanes. It shines brightly—its symbol is the sun—even when clouds or inclement weather obscure its true nature. Indeed, this tejas continues to burn with intensity, whether we’re aware of it or not.
So why the firefly metaphor? While our spiritual light may never dim, our ability to see and experience it does, causing its presence to seem more like the fickle firefly than the steady light of the sun. Self-doubt, fear, negativity, and even stress limit our connection to our inner light, often allowing it to surface only intermittently, if at all. Most of us need time, perseverance, and discipline—especially in the middle of a busy life with all its inherent ups and downs, distractions, and obligations—to lift the fog and keep the light visible. But grit and determination alone won’t get us very far on the path; Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (1.20) suggests we also need confidence (shraddha), joyful effort (virya), and mindfulness or gentle persistence (smriti) to succeed.
Applying this trio to your asana postures in general, along with renewed vigor or conviction (samvega; YS 1.21), will prevent you from judging yourself too harshly when you can’t execute the “perfect” pose, and allow you to approach your practice with curiosity and a certain level of playfulness. A pose like tittibhasana (firefly pose) can derail the most earnest practitioner if she takes the process too seriously. This challenging arm balance both requires and cultivates shraddha and virya. To execute the posture with steadiness and ease, you must commit, with confidence, to a deep forward bend at the hips; work up ample arm strength to support the pose; and activate the legs with enough energy to facilitate the lift and bring lightness to the back body, so you experience a sense of “taking flight.” Don’t get discouraged: very few people can do this pose the first time they try. Just have fun with it.
I’ve broken down the various components of the final posture in the following sequence so you can work toward tittibhasana, even if you can’t do it right away. Bring your best can-do virya spirit to the posture, and chances are your efforts will yield surprising inner and outer results, even if you experience just a glimpse or a flicker of lightness and possibility.
Before beginning this sequence, warm up with some sun salutations and some shoulder stretches. If you have time, work to open your hips and stretch your spine as well in a few standing postures such as parshvakonasana (side angle pose), trikonasana (triangle pose), virabhadrasana I (warrior I pose), and parshvottanasana (intense side stretch pose). Parivritta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose) would also help to prepare your back muscles for the postures in the sequence, since the twisting actions can loosen the muscles along the back and aid in the deep forward bending that is part of this sequence.
1. Upavishtha Konasana (Seated Wide-Angle Pose)
Sit on the floor and separate your feet as wide as you can, with at least 90 degrees between your legs. Grab hold of your big toes or the outside edges of your feet. Squeeze your leg muscles strongly so that you see your kneecaps lift up. Press your heels into the floor and, without moving your feet, isometrically draw your legs toward one another until you feel your inner thigh muscles engage and your chest lift. This “drawing in” action tones your adductor muscles and is essential for tittibhasana. Press your tailbone down and make sure your kneecaps face the ceiling. If you’re flexible, your knees will tend to roll inward. To counteract this tendency, lift your low belly and firm your adductors. Look up and hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
2. Parshva Upavishtha Konasana (Seated Wide-Angle Pose to the Side)
Sit on the floor and separate your legs wide. Firm your thigh muscles and press the backs of your thighs down into the floor. Lift your arms overhead, stretching through the sides of your waist, and turn to face your right leg. As you exhale, extend your trunk over your leg and grab your right foot with your hands; fold your torso over your leg.
Keep your left sitting bone anchored, your left kneecap facing the sky, and your left toes pointing straight up. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths and then repeat on the other side.
3. Pashchimottanasana Variation (Seated Forward Bend Pose)
This pose mimics the shape of tittibhasana. Sit on the floor and separate your legs slightly wider than your outer hips. Grab the outside edges of your feet and gently pull them toward you. This action helps you fire the muscles along your outer shins, which—together with the engagement of your adductors—helps you access the strength you need to open your hips and to lift off the floor in the arm balances.
Press your heels into the floor and isometrically draw your legs together. Keep the action in your outer shins, your kneecaps, and your inner thighs, as you press the backs of your thighs into the floor and elongate your chest toward your feet to stretch your spine. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
4. Ardha Ananda Balasana (Half Happy Baby Pose)
This supine position opens your hips and helps teach you the leg actions for the arm balances. Lie on your back and place your left foot on the floor, with your knee facing the ceiling. Grab your right foot with both hands. Press your foot into your hands and resist that action by pulling your hands against your foot. This dual action will help set your femur bone in the socket and engage your muscles as you stretch them. Keep the dual action of pushing and pulling, and, using your right hand, bring your right knee toward the floor alongside your torso. Encourage your opposite hip to remain on the floor so that your pelvis stays level and your hip gets a deeper stretch. Keep your knee close to your torso by engaging your adductor muscles. This action is essential for keeping your legs in place in tittibhasana. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths and then repeat on the other side.
5. Eka Hasta Bhujasana (Elephant’s Trunk Pose)
Sit on the floor with both legs out in front of you in dandasana (staff pose). Keeping your left leg outstretched in front of you, interlace your hands around your right foot and lift it up until your right shin is parallel with the floor.
Push your right foot into your hands as you pull your hands against your foot. Keeping that dual action, bring your right knee alongside your body, next to your torso, until your knee is behind your body, and your hip stretches. Place your right knee over your upper right arm, as high up by the shoulder as possible.
Clamp your right leg in place on your arm by bringing your right heel toward your right sitting bone. Using your inner thigh muscles, squeeze your right knee to your right shoulder and push your right shoulder back against your right knee. Place your hands on the floor out in front of you. Squeeze your legs, push your hands into the floor, engage your belly, and lift yourself off the floor. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths, if you can, and then repeat on the other side.
6. Anjaneyasana Variation (Lunge Pose)
Stand in tadasana (mountain pose). Lift your arms overhead and swan dive into uttanasana (standing forward bend pose). Step your left leg back to a low lunge with your right knee over your right heel, your left knee on the floor, and your back toes curled under. Place your forearms on the floor, with your palms together. Squeeze your right inner thigh toward your torso. Keeping your leg muscles toned and your upper arms as vertical as possible, exhale and release your sternum toward the floor to move your thoracic spine into your body and to deepen the stretch in the hips. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths and then repeat on the other side.
For an even deeper stretch, put your front foot on a block, positioned parallel to your upper torso.
7. Bhujapidasana (Shoulder-Pressing Pose)
Stand in tadasana with your feet slightly wider than your outer hips. Lift your arms overhead and swan dive into uttanasana. Lift your right heel off the floor and use the webbing between your right thumb and forefinger to push your calf and shin forward so that you can place your right shoulder behind your right leg. Depending on your flexibility, the width of your pelvis, and the breadth of your shoulder, you may need to widen your legs a little more to wiggle yourself under there. Once your right leg is set, lift your left heel, nudge your lower left leg forward, and place your left shoulder under your leg.
If you walked your feet out, bring them closer together, if you can. Here is where you really need the work of your inner thigh muscles (the adductors). Squeeze your knees toward your torso; bend your knees enough to put your hands on the floor behind your feet. Keep squeezing your knees as you push your hands into the floor to support your weight with your arms.
Now cross your right ankle on top of your left ankle. Once you have the cross at the ankles, lift your hips and your feet until they are on the same level. Release and try again. This time, lift your left heel first when you set the pose up and cross your left ankle on top of the right.
8. Deep Uttanasana Variation (Deep Standing Forward Bend Pose Variation)
Stand in tadasana with your feet slightly wider than your outer hips. Bend your knees slightly and place the webbing between your thumbs and forefingers on the back of your calves. Push your calves forward and place your shoulders behind your lower legs. If doing both at the same time is too difficult, use the technique given in eka hasta bhujasana—lift one heel and do one leg at a time. Wiggle your feet closer together and squeeze your knees together. Bend your arms at the elbows and reach behind your back to clasp your hands behind your waist.
This is a deep forward bend and an intense request for the shoulders. If your back or your shoulders feel strain here, do not push it! Don’t allow your strong efforts to take you toward injury. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
The Peak Pose
9. Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose)
Set this pose up just like you did the deep uttanasana variation. Once your shoulders are behind your calves, squeeze your knees together. Keep squeezing your knees together as you bend them and place your hands on the floor behind your heels. Lean your weight into your hands, squeeze your knees toward one another, and push your shoulders back into your knees to stabilize your shoulder joint.
Push your hands into the floor, tighten your kneecaps, and round your back slightly to help get a sense of lightness, and lift. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
When you have finished practicing these postures, do setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge pose) and sarvangasana (shoulderstand), if you wish, to stretch your shoulders. Take time to enjoy some gentle reclined twists on the floor and a well-earned shavasana.
Christina Sell has been teaching yoga since 1998 and is the author of Yoga from the Inside Out and My Body Is a Temple.