I have always wondered if the yoga pose Bird of Paradise (Svarga Dvijasana) referred to the tropical plant or the bird, or both. I always assumed it was the plant because I was close to many bird of paradise plants in my native south and now, too, in San Francisco. The Sanskrit Dvija means ‘twice born’ and Svarga means ‘paradise’ or ‘heaven’ so it may refer to both the tropical plant flower in form and a bird that is twice-born, first as an egg and then as a chick.
Bird of Paradise is a very challenging pose. It requires flexibility in the shoulders (in inward rotation), in the hamstrings and in the adductors (inner thighs). It also demands 3-dimensional core strength and most importantly a resilient ego because you will fall at some point :) The first time I attempted it I felt like I had tied myself into an untenable knot unable to even breath. I perplexed over how not to explode as I tried to release myself and then did anyway. Once I learned how to do the pose, I learned to love the leverage afforded by the full-arm bind and the confidence-building qualities of balancing.
Here are some preparatory poses and tips on how to set yourself up in a useful way in order to move closer towards the full pose. Working into the preparatory poses with patience will help you find your way into the pose with a deep experiential understanding of the needed actions in the body.
For inward rotation in the shoulders:
Gomukhasana arms (cow face arms)
Paschima Namaskarasana (reverse prayer pose)
For Opening the inner thighs and hamstrings:
Modified Upavistha Konasana (Wide-legged side stretch working your shoulder toward the inner knee)
Wide Low Lunge on hands, Wide Low Lunge on forearms (Lizard), Wide Low Lunge with shoulder under thigh
Standing Happy Baby Pose (shoulders to inner knees)
Utthita Parsvakonasana with hand on hip, in a half-bind or full-bind (shoulder to inner knee)
Coming into Bird of Paradise from the ground up:
Three key Steps
1. Standing Happy Baby Pose (shoulders to inner knees)
2. Bind around the right leg, walk the right foot closer to your center, lift the heel, LIFT YOUR GAZE TO FIND A DRISHTI (gazing point)
3. As you lift the right foot off the ground ACTIVATE YOUR RIGHT FOOT
Being in the Pose:
Knee is bent if you cannot lengthen the leg but KEEP THE FOOT ACTIVE
Lengthen the leg if you have the flexibility
In both cases, work the energy in the opposite direction of the lifted leg. In this case, energize the left shoulder and torso to reach back on the left back diagonal. There is a constant downward and frontward right diagonal energy that you must balance because of the weight and trajectory of the lifted leg.
An Accessible Alternative:
I was teaching a weekly class to a group of seniors from the Leadership High School here in San Francisco. Right before class the students would always go over to a wall of yoga poses in our studio to pick out which poses they wanted to learn. One time, they chose Bird of Paradise. I knew their yoga practices pretty well at this point. They were willing to try anything and had the bodies of resilient teenagers. I quickly came up with the idea of having them try it at the wall. It turned out to be one of the most accessible ways I have ever taught the pose. Try it and you will be amazed:
1. Stand at the wall (in this case with your left side toward the wall) about 2 feet or so away and take your left leg to the wall with your knee bent. Notice that my leg is not directly to the side but instead at about a 45 degree angle. Try your best to keep your right leg somewhat under your center of gravity.
2. Take your left hand to your left heel inside the left leg. Work your shoulder as close as you can to the inner knee.
3. Either find a full bind connecting the hands or use a strap to connect them.
4. Use the sensitivity of your toes to gently press your self away from the wall being sure to activate your foot as you do.
5. Draw the energy in the opposite direction of the leg, in this case the right back diagonal…even take your gaze back over the shoulder to emphasize this energetic flow of your body.
Fly like a bird or enjoy the beautiful presentation of your body just like a tropical flower.