I love everything about Ardha Chandrasana or Half Moon Pose. On a really good day when I’m balancing effortlessly in Half Moon, standing leg firm and rooted like a pillar, ribcage revolving open, shoulder blades pressing into my back, I really do marvel at the magic of being able to balance all of my body weight on five tented fingertips and one tiny foot. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like Michelle Kwan soaring around the ice in her signature spiral move.
There is no other balancing pose that fills me with such delight. Arm balances come close to experiencing this feeling, but arm balances require such effort—both physical and mental. Sometimes just figuring out how to get into them can feel like a game of Twister…’You want me to put my right knee on my left triceps and my left knee where?’ But Half Moon feels more like unraveling, like coming completely undone in a good way. I told my husband years ago that Half Moon is a pose that makes me feel inexplicably sunny. And when I later looked up the benefits of the pose in Yoga as Medicine, a book by an MD and Iyengar practitioner, Timothy McCall, I found that the suggested sequence for depression (which is written by renowned Iyengar Yoga teacher Patricia Walden) includes Half Moon. It says:
“Patricia finds this pose particularly helpful for a tense, constricted mind because of the way it gets you ‘to focus on the periphery of the body—extending through the fingers, extending through the toes, extending from the center outward. There’s a freedom and a liberation in that.’”
For me, this is absolutely true—and I have suffered from depression in the past. It’s a pose that feels incredibly expansive, yet it requires laser-like focus and a grounded stability.
Half Moon Pose certainly has its challenges: You have to really root down through the standing leg while finding buoyancy in your torso, top arm, and top leg. When you first start practicing it, you might feel like your pelvis and top leg are weighing you down or throwing you off balance. To find your sweet spot in the pose, try pressing your back foot into a wall. Pressing against the solid wall will make the pose lighter, because it will help steady your balance. When you feel balanced, you can more easily align and engage the muscles of that leg, which will make the whole pose lighter. Your pelvis will feel like it’s floating on top of your standing leg instead of sinking heavily onto it.
It also makes it easier to engage your standing leg skillfully. When I use the wall I notice that instead of jamming my standing leg back into a desperate state of hyperextension, I can press the standing thigh back while I externally rotate the top outer edge of the thigh. Admittedly, my standing leg might not actually externally rotate very far, but imagining this rotation creates balance in the leg.
The second way the wall can help: It makes it easier to align your lower back and torso. If you are of the bendy lower back persuasion, you might have a tendency to overarch your lower back and puff your ribs out into a banana shape. When the body makes a banana, it is infinitely more difficult to balance. So when you press your foot into the wall, draw your front lower ribs in and down. Then lengthen your tailbone toward your heels and feel your abdomen engage. From there, you’ll be off and soaring—and even smiling like Michelle does as she whips around the ice.
There are a few ways to practice Half Moon at a wall, but my favorite is as follows. Begin in a shortened version of Triangle Pose with the outer edge of your left foot pressing against a wall. You will move away from the wall when you transition into Half Moon, so it’s a good idea to make the distance between your feet in Triangle about a foot shorter than you normally would.
From Triangle Pose, place your left hand on your left hip and look down at the floor. Simultaneously take your right fingertips 8 to 12 inches in front of the pinky toe side of your right foot as you lift your left leg up and press the sole of your foot into the wall.
Adjust your right arm and your standing leg as you need to—see that your right fingertips are directly underneath your right shoulder and your right leg is directly underneath your pelvis. Setting your alignment this way will ultimately make it easier to balance.
From this clear alignment, refine the work of your legs: Bend your right knee slightly and draw the outer edge of your right hip back, toward the wall. To straighten the right leg, press the mound of your big toe, the pinky toe, and the heel down deliberately into the ground as you take the top of your thigh back. That standing leg should feel firm and strong, like a pillar. Firm both legs and send energy all the way through them, out through your toes. Notice how steady you feel when both legs are firmly engaged and aligned.
Once you have the foundation of the pose set, it’s time to fly. With your left hand on your left hip, imagine that your ribcage is a corkscrew and begin to turn it open toward the ceiling. Ultimately your left shoulder will stack above your right and you’ll extend your left arm up. Try not to over-bend the lower back or thrust the lower ribs out. Instead, imagine two little balloons on your kidneys (this is the area just below your back ribs). The balloons are keeping the lower back full and light and buoyant, which makes it easy to take the lower ribs into your body. You’ll feel your lower abdomen engage and draw back as you do this.
From there, reach, reach, reach through the fingers, the feet, the top of your head the way a full moon extends rays of light. Can you balance all of this engagement while you keep your breath continuous and your eyes soft? Can you feel yourself whipping around the ice?
When you’re ready to come down, exhale and bring your left leg back to Triangle Pose. Then inhale to come up and switch sides.
An editor at Yoga Journal for nearly a decade, Andrea Ferretti has had the honor of writing about and learning from some of the best yoga teachers in the West. She has been greatly influenced by Sarah Powers, Sally Kempton, Cyndi Lee, and her husband, Jason Crandell. For more of her personal writing, visit her blog, Mindful Living.