Chakravakasana: A Simple Yoga Flow to Quiet the Mind and Stretch the Low Back
Article At A Glance
We bind our attention to the breath and the breath to the movement to practice being present in each moment. It’s one way to free ourselves from distraction so we might experience Patanjali’s definition of yoga: Yogas chitta vrtti nirodhah, which means, “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” Chakravakasana, a simple vinyasa flow, presents a profound opportunity to do just that: to practice yoga. Included below are the benefits, how-to practice tips, and variations of this calming flow.
When I arrive on my yoga mat for a self-guided asana practice, I often practice Chakravakasana to begin. It’s like a commuter pose, transporting me from my daily activity to my practice. I can deepen my breath, flow without being pushy, loosen up my joints, and feel my way into the present moment. When I want to lift my energy, I can emphasize my inhalation by pausing before I exhale. When my thoughts are scattered, I can lengthen my exhalation, slowing my movement to match, and soothe my mind.
After a few rounds of stretching the front of my spine as I inhale and moving softly back to a variation of Child’s Pose (Balasana) as I exhale, I begin to employ more deliberate actions to refine my movement. With each repetition, I observe more fluidity in my joints. Soon, I notice the vrttis (fluctuations of the mind, aka thoughts) dwindling, and I “arrive” in my practice.
The Origin of Chakravakasana
The chakravaka bird is a ruddy goose. In India, the chakravaka bird is sometimes called the Brahminy duck or goose. The pose’s name, Chakravakasana (aka Ruddy Goose Pose), may come from understanding the duck’s courtship ritual, which involves “neck stretching, head dipping, and tail raising.” The Chakravakasana flow incorporates each of these movements.
In Indian literature, the chakravaka often symbolizes love, fidelity, constancy, and mourning. One legend says two lovers disturbed a group of meditating sages. The sages cursed the lovers, turning them into ruddy geese, and doomed them forever to separate every night after sundown. The geese would spend their nights “piteously wailing and calling” for each other, and only at sunrise would they reunite. Chakravakasana also resembles the plight of the transformed lovers: distinct poses combine to make one graceful, flowing yoga pose like the two ruddy geese come together each morning.
Benefits of Chakravakasana
Whatever style of yoga you prefer, whatever the intention of your asana practice may be today, there is a good chance you could use Chakravakasana in your sequence, too. Besides being a simple flow, it is what one might call a “blueprint pose” that instructs the actions of the pelvis and lumbar spine for forward bends. Adaptable to suit your specific needs, this posture:
- Deepens and calms the breath.
- Quiets the mind / awakens awareness.
- Increases circulation.
- Warms up the spine and keeps it supple.
- Relieves muscular tension in the low back, upper back, and neck.
- Establishes a link between the breath and the movement.
- Strengthens spinal extensors and abdominals.
- Gently massages the abdominal organs.
- Stretches and strengthens erector spinae muscles, in particular, the low back.
- Stretches and gently stimulates the kidney/adrenal area.
- Prepares the body for, or unwinds it from, prone backbends or twists.
The “Un-Cat-Cow” Pose
Gary Kraftsow, founder and director of the American Viniyoga Institute, often calls Chakravakasana the “un”-Cat-Cow Pose (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana) when he teaches public workshops. He explains that, unlike Cat-Cow, where we exhale to puff the upper back up and away from the floor, in Chakravakasana, we optimize the rounding of the low back. And where, in Cat-Cow, we rotate the pelvis forward to maximize the arch of the lumbar; in Chakravakasana, as we inhale, we highlight the mobility of the thoracic spine by lifting the sternum away from the navel and flattening the upper back curve into the body.
Chakravakasana deliberately stabilizes the mobile parts and encourages mobility where we are stiff. Cat-Cow tends to emphasize the spine to move more in the directions its curves already naturally move. Chakravakasana does the opposite, it is a balancing pose for the spine; Chakravakasana brings our attention to, and asks us to modify, our habitual patterns of movement and mind.
How to Practice Chakravakasana in Yoga
1. Begin on your hands and knees in Tabletop Pose (Bharmasana). Place your hands under, or slightly forward of, your shoulders and your knees under your hips, hips-width apart.
2. Point your index fingers forward. Spread your fingers comfortably wide. Set your feet hip-width apart with the tops of the feet on the floor and toes pointing directly backward.
3. Allow a few satisfying, complete breath cycles to move gently in and out of your nose. Feel how the breath subtly moves your spine. A soft inhalation makes space along the front of the spine (spinal extension); a calm exhalation gently flattens the lower back curve (spinal flexion).
On an Inhalation …
4. Now, begin to inhale. Use the breath to inspire and enhance the natural spinal movement:
- Use the heels of your hands as if pulling the floor back toward your feet.
- Elongate the back of your skull away from the neck. Keep your throat soft.
- Lift your breastbone away from your navel.
- Gather your shoulder blades toward the spine (scapular retraction) and away from the ears (scapular depression).
- Draw your thoracic spine toward the front of your body (flattening its convex curve any amount is called spinal extension).
On an Exhalation …
5. Initiate your exhalation. As you continue to exhale:
- Resist the floor forward with the heels of your hands as you move your hips back.
- Gently round your lower back (lumbar flexion).
- Bend your arms so the elbows and forearms move to the floor.
- Lower your chin slightly toward your throat and your forehead toward (or to) the floor to release the neck.
- Move your hips toward (or to) your heels as you move your chest to your thighs.
- You can move your chest toward the legs before the hips reach your heels to emphasize the stretch in the low back.
Return to Tabletop Pose
6. Initiate your inhalation, then:
- Gently pull the floor back with the heel of your hands to return to the Tabletop Pose.
- Stretch the abdomen and the front of your spine: elongate from your navel to the bottom of your breastbone, from the bottom to the top of the breastbone.
- Without over-arching your low back, draw your shoulder blades toward one another and away from the ears.
7. Continue to move between the two shapes, following the gentle rhythm of your breath. Repeat any number of times.
Variations and Adaptations of the Chakravakasana Flow
There are countless adaptations of Chakravakasana. The above how-to instructions could be considered a basic template or a starting point. For example, you could vary the pattern of your breath, add sound (humming, singing, or repeating a mantra) to encourage a longer exhalation, keep the arms straight to move the focus to the stretch of a tight upper back, or adjust one or the other knee slightly further back from the hands to address/discover asymmetries in your body.
Yoga Practice Tips for Chakravakasana
The Foundation of the “Un-Cat-Cow” Pose
- Keep your hands on the floor throughout the flow. You can reduce pressure on the wrists by starting with your hands slightly forward of your shoulders.
- Align your feet as wide apart as your knees—practice keeping the feet from sneaking toward each other while you flow.
The Pelvis and Low Back in Chakravakasana
- As you inhale, aim to feel the abdominals softly support the spine rather than “dropping the belly toward the floor” or an excessive compression in the low back. The pelvis may rotate a bit over the thighs resulting in a gentle arch in the lumbar curve, but it’s not the aim.
- Draw your frontal hip bones away from the thighs to engage your abdominal muscles as you round the back (even when you lay your trunk on the legs).
- Rather than “spilling the contents of your pelvic bowl” onto your legs, lengthen the back of the pelvis softly away from the waist. In other words, practice curving the whole spine evenly.
- During the exhalation, the low back is meant to round as you land on the bent legs. This posture differs from a wide-kneed Child’s Pose or a Twelve-Point Pose.
The Trunk in Chakravakasana Flow
- As you move into the inhalation part of the pose, engage the muscles around the thoracic spine. Stretch from the navel to the breastbone, and stretch from the bottom to the top of the breastbone. The low back may arch some, but it’s not the primary mover in the coming to all fours.
Head and Neck: Tips for Practicing Chakravakasana (Ruddy Goose Pose)
- Draw the chin slightly toward the throat instead of accentuating or exaggerating the cervical curve as you inhale into the Tabletop Pose.
- Gazing forward rather than upward will help you gently curve the length of the whole neck rather than hinging where the base of the skull and neck meet.
Move with your Breath in the Chakravakasana Flow
- Practice deliberately initiating each breath a moment before adding the movement. This pattern may feel unfamiliar. It demands particular attention.
- Smooth your breath throughout so it feels comfortable and calm. Avoid any strain in your throat.
Chakravakasana to Quiet Your Mind
If you want to quiet your mind, quiet your breath. The Ruddy Goose Pose is an accessible, practical application of this concept. Synchronizing your breath and movement to enhance the mobility of your whole spine, you make space between each vertebra, which affects your nervous system and calms your mind.
We bind our attention to the breath and the breath to the movement to practice being present in each moment. It’s one way to free ourselves from distraction so we might experience Patanjali’s definition of yoga: Yogas chitta vrtti nirodhah, which means, “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” Chakravakasana, a simple vinyasa flow, presents a profound opportunity to do just that: to practice yoga.