In this article I have described Karandavasana in a way that it can be learned without a teacher lifting us up from the floor. While this may provide good exercise for the teacher I don’t think that it does much towards the student being able to perform the posture themselves. The key is to no not let it get to the point were you fall down to the floor and then can’t lift up anymore. Instead of that stop right before you would loose your composure, hold it there for a few breaths and then pull up before you fall down. By practising this daily this “point of no return” can then be gradually lowered. This means that we need to step-by-step lower the point from which we can still pull up without help.
Karandavasana is the most difficult posture in the series, however, progress is possible if its phases are precisely isolated. It is essential that we isolate the movements of the hip joints from the movements of the spine and the movements of the shoulder joints to succeed in this difficult posture. We will also learn the importance of being able to revert each phase of this posture before going on to the next. As with all complex postures, here also the key is to completely break the posture down into its constituents and isolate the respective phases of the movement.
Phase I Placing the right leg correctly
Exhaling, while balancing on your forearms, place first your right leg into half-lotus. You will need sufficiently flexible hip joints, which we acquired through the practice of such postures as Baddhakonasana and Garbha Pindasana and strong lateral (external) rotators of the hip, which we acquired in Janushirshasana B and Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana, being all part of the Primary Series. Also performing the prescribed femur rotations in Supta Vajrasana while holding on to your toes with fervour will have prepared you for this moment.
You need to strongly externally rotate your femur to get into lotus without the aid of your hands. If you find you cannot get your right foot in far enough towards your left groin you may use momentum, to swipe your right foot over the left thigh.
Once your right leg is in half-lotus, bend your left leg and draw the left knee towards you chest/abdomen. This will bring your legs into a similar position as they are when performing Marichyasana D, only here you are upside down. The bent left leg will help to draw the right leg deeper into half-lotus. When you cannot get any further alternately abduct and adduct the right thigh (which means to move the knee away from the centre line of your body and again back towards the midline), while continuing to flex the right knee. This will make the right foot slide over the left thigh and since you continue to flex the left thigh, the right leg will now slip deeper towards the left groin. Continue to flex the left hip to draw the left knee further towards your chest, until your right foot is firmly placed into the left groin.
If your right foot does not slide up into the half-lotus position consider the same situation as in Garbha Pindasana regarding traction. The solution that worked for you there is likely to work for you here. To repeat, if you have a papery skin type (vata skin) you may find the wearing of long tights beneficial. If you have a thick watery skin (kapha skin type) you will be better of to wear shorts and sprinkle water on your thighs and feet before you perform the posture. If your skin is rather oily (pitta skin type), you could consider an oil based lubricant or emulsion. If you use this option, make sure though that you do not use too much lubricant or make your skin too slippery. You will need some amount of traction to safely perform the subsequent phases of Karandavasana.
Phase II Placing the left leg correctly
Proceed only with the next phase if your right leg is in a stable position, deeply in half-lotus. Remember that when you sit on the floor to perform Padmasana, you would never place the second leg into position before the first one is properly secured, so we will not resort to this while balancing on our arms either. Doing otherwise might endanger the knees joint of the leg that is on top.
Place now the left leg into lotus by strongly externally rotating the left femur. For most students it will be helpful to swipe the leg into position using momentum, especially if you have strong bulging thighs. Once your left leg is in position, alternately adduct and abduct both thighs. Every time when you move your knees together strongly internally rotate your thighbones (similarly to the femur movement performed in Supta Vajrasana in vinyasa 9. This will annul the previous external rotation and move your legs deeply into lotus. Both feet will need to be high up in the groins with the heels close together and the femurs almost parallel to move through the next phase of Karandavasana.
If you are new to this posture, I suggest that you stay here for five breaths then extend your legs slowly back up into Pincha Mayurasana and then exit as described under the heading of that posture. Do this for some time before you go on to the next phase.
In these first two phases we dealt only with movements of the hip joints.
Phase III Legs horizontal
If you are a seasoned practitioner, then slowly flex your hip joints until your folded legs are parallel to the floor and your knees are in height of your sit bones. In order to do so you need to extend your low back into the same position, which you hold in Urdhva Dandasana, the variation of headstand where you legs are parallel to the floor. Holding Urdhva Dandasana for a long time is a good training for Karandavasana. Similar to Urdhva Dandasana, so also in this phase of Karandavasana you need to draw your sit bones over the back of the head. The defining moment of this phase is that you have a distinct back bend in your low back.
Balance here for five breaths or for longer if you want to build strength. Then slowly lift your knees up to the ceiling, swipe you legs out of Padmasana and exit the posture in the same way as Pincha Mayurasana. In this phase we added back extension to the movement of the hip joints.
If Phase III and the proper execution of its exit has become easy for you, then you are ready for the next step. Characteristic for phase IV is that we completely annul the back bend that we created in Phase III by dropping the knees further down. You may go as far as touching the thighs to your ribcage but do not go further yet. Focus on stabilizing the shoulder blades using the latissimus dorsi, lower trapezius and rhomboid muscles. Keep your humeri (arm bones) still completely flexed and resist to lower down further.
Stay here for five breaths and then transit backwards through the previous phases and out of Pincha Mayurasana. If you cannot lift back up out of Phase IV then do not go any further but take the time to learn it. The further you lower down the harder will it be to come back up. You need to imprint into your body the memory that you can lift up and then you slowly extend the limit from which point you can lift up at.
In this phase we flexed the hip joints to the maximum and returned the low back to neutral from extension.
Phase V flexing the back
Once you can hold and lift out of Phase IV, start to flex your trunk until your thighs are almost vertical. Your knees will rest now on your chest. If this is not the case powerfully flex your hip joints and suck your knees into your chest.
Do not drop down further. Resist the temptation and stay here for five breaths before you lift back up out of the pose. If you can’t hold this phase and just drop down to rest on your arms, chances are you won’t be able to come back up. In this phase we only flexed the spine. The hip joints were fully flexed in the previous phase and the shoulder joints will be extended in the subsequent phase.
Phase VI extending the humeri
In this final phase of the descent we only add the extension of the shoulder joint. Perform this action very slowly. Suck your knees up into your armpits rather than letting them drop down to your elbows. You will need very strong abdominal muscles to isometrically maintain your curled trunk, which we luckily acquired by passionately performing Navasana in the Primary Series. You also need to isometrically continue the flexion of your hip joints.
You will be able to draw your knees up into your arm pits only then when you have completed isotonic flexion of the hip joint and flexion of the trunk in the previous phases. We may call this the secret of successful execution of Karandavasana.
Make sure that you lower down in slow motion. To land heavily on your arms is not conducive to healthy knee joints. It would be the equivalent to receiving a kick against your knees from the front when sitting in Padmasana. To collapse to the floor and disgracefully place with a thud ones derriere on the planetary surface, will supply a significant impact to your spine and more importantly what is attached to it’s other end, your brain.
Having therefore landed gently on our knees and in a controlled fashion, we stay in Karandavasana for five breaths and gaze towards the nose. Sustain the sucking of your knees up into your armpits while in the state of the asana.
Phase VII Lifting back up
Inhaling, strongly suck your thighs into your chest and at the same time flex your arm bones. To do so, imagine that you would lift a heavy weight over your head. Focus on stabilizing your shoulder blades, which means to draw them towards the hip engaging latissimus dorsi and lower trapezius. Combine this action with drawing the shoulder blades in towards the spine by engaging the rhomboids and sucking the medial border of the scapulae into the posterior surface of the ribcage by engaging subscapularis and serratus anterior. Only when all of those actions are performed satisfactorily can the deltoid, triceps and pectoralis major raise the heavy weight of the trunk effectively here. Do not try yet to swing your legs up. This will move a large portion of your weight, i.e. your legs, away from the axis around which you have to lift, i.e. your shoulder joint and thus increase the total weight you will need to lift.
If you have the tendency to loose your balance, i.e. falling towards the foot end of your mat, shift more weight into your hands. Continue to draw your knees into your chest by isometrically flexing your hip joints until your thighs are vertical to the floor.
This is an exact reversion of phase VI.
Continue to suck the thighs into your chest and start to extend your back now until it is in a neutral position. This is a reversion of phase V.
Continue to extend your back by lifting your sit bones over the back of your head. Stop hip flexion and just slightly lift your legs off your ribcage.
This movement reverts phase IV.
In the next phase we will encounter a change of weight distribution and it is here that many students loose balance and fall out of the posture. As we slowly extend the hip joints and lift the thighs towards a horizontal position, we need to create an arch in our low back and let the sit bones travel over the back of the head to balance the weight of the legs.
This annuls phase III.
Continuing the inhalation, we extend the knees up to the ceiling and return the spine back to neutral. From here straighten your legs out of lotus and transit out of the posture as described under Pincha Mayurasana.
This is a modified excerpt from my 2009 text Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series.