Not too long ago, a student asked me if there was a specific amount of time that one should stay in a pose in order to get the most out of it. Voicing a common concern many people have as they begin to explore or deepen their yoga practice, she wrote: “Is it better to do a pose a numerous times for greater benefit, and hold it for an extended period of time, or should I do a wide variety of different poses in any given practice session?”
My answer was simple: “Yes. And yes! Both ways of working are beneficial.”
It’s a common habit that many of us avoid the poses we dislike or don’t feel confident in. As a result, we may miss critical work altogether.
To paraphrase BKS Iyengar, one of the world’s foremost yogasana instructors, “the moment you want to come out of the pose, is precisely the moment the pose is just starting to reveal its gifts”. By holding a pose longer than we would like to we move beyond the superficial muscles that support the shape and have to then find the structural support from intrinsic muscular action.
For example, I’ll have students hold adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) for up to five minutes. By then most people want to come out of the pose and begin to squirm, trying to negotiate their boredom or discomfort. The impulse to bail out and give up is palpable. That’s when I suggest students simply notice the frustration or boredom and then commit: I am going to remain here for five more breaths.
Many people find they can relax into it much longer after those five breaths, but if not, then we release the pose and surrender entirely, without judgment. The idea isn’t to make the pose into an endurance event, but rather to challenge the assumption of what we can and cannot do. Often we find it’s the mind that collapses long before our physical strength does. We say “I can’t” when what we really mean is “I don’t want to”.
Recognizing the difference between these two statements has benefits that extend far beyond the yoga mat in how we think about life and our capacity to meet it, either in a defeated or empowered way.
There’s also merit to going into and out of a pose several times. Vinyasa is a form of practice where poses are moved into and out of, in sync with the breath, dynamically. It builds a different sort of strength, and for some is more satisfying and less frustrating than holding poses. Movement builds heat, burns off stagnant energy, and improves circulation, among other benefits.
Every yoga posture has specific benefits for every system of the body: musculoskeletal, glandular, organ and nervous systems. Whole volumes have been written for specific health conditions and which poses are likely to benefit those conditions more effectively. While I won’t go so far as to say yoga can cure anything, it definitely can help stimulate healing for just about anything. If we move too quickly through poses without ever exploring them deeper we miss the opportunity to receive that healing more completely.
For those of us with a very short attention span or restless nature, a dynamic approach to asana may help focus the mind, but even in a fast-flowing vinyasa class restlessness and boredom can arise. Our natural tendency to do what comes easily — what many refer to as “going with the flow” — can override our need to push the pause button and take a deeper look at our limitations and hindrances.
People practice yoga for many different reasons: fitness, strength, flexibility, peace of mind, to open the heart or heal a heart that’s been broken, to name a few. Life eases up or throws new challenges at us, and over time, we change. A balanced yoga practice is one that asks the questions: What’s right for me, right now? What do I need from this practice? It also respects those answers.
What’s right for us today probably won’t be right in 10 years, or even tomorrow. Contemplating what we really need to be healthy, sane, and fulfilled must be a consideration in any yoga practice. We live in a competitive, results-oriented and impatient culture. We want it all, and we want it now, or at the very least we want something different than whatever we do have right now. If we don’t challenge this cultural conditioning the moment we roll out the mat, we’re likely to increase whatever imbalances we bring to it.
My personal experience includes intensive study in Iyengar, Ashtanga and Yin yoga, among others. Nowadays, there are times I need to dig deep and hang out in my sticky spots. There are also times when I know I need more than anything to let go of striving and attempting to control things. While I do not consider yoga a miracle cure for every condition, I have first-hand knowledge of its therapeutic benefits—both as a teacher and as a practitioner. Meditation and pranayama are a constant for me, no matter what form of asana practice I am currently working on. As a teacher, I try to get a sense of what’s out of balance, what’s constitutionally presenting, and devise a practice accordingly.
Prescription for Balance
Whether you are a master of handstands or your tree pose is more like a falling log, a balanced practice is one that has both effort and ease in it. We should celebrate what comes naturally and enjoy the poses and parts of practice that feel wonderful, while at the same time challenging ourselves by taking on some of the poses or aspects of practice we’d much rather avoid (chanting, anyone?).
To make sure you are enjoying a balanced yoga practice, try this home practice exercise on a day you do not attend a class. Begin with simple seated breath awareness for several minutes, then warm up with sun salutations, cat/cow poses—whatever works for you—for 5-10 minutes. Then, set a timer for 10 minutes (you will do three 10-minute periods).
FIRST: Do poses or sequences that you really delight in. Don’t worry about sequencing. Just follow your heart, or gut, or intuition, or all three.
SECOND: Spend this period exploring difficult poses that you’d much rather avoid—the poses that frustrate you. It could be physical discomfort or an emotional component that triggers your aversion. Why you dislike these poses is unimportant; just get to work on them.
THIRD: Inversions. Possibly, you’ve already done inversions either in your “pleasure” or “aversion”practice. Regardless, choose an inversion you enjoy and one you dislike and work on them both, with equal commitment. If you’re working with neck or shoulder injuries, this may mean doing strengthening exercises to help you move closer to being able to attempt inversions, without not actually doing “the pose”. For example, I know many students who have neck injuries where headstand is contraindicated. I might suggest sitting in meditation and visualizing having a strong, healthy neck and the ability to set up for, enter and exit the pose with grace and mastery.
Finish up with a hearty savasana. For many of us, this is most difficult. As soon as we lie down we start thinking about everything else we have to do today. Relax. You can do this. Stay with it… Just five more deep, slow breaths…
In my therapeutic practice, I offer one-on-one instruction to students who have their awareness that something is out of balance. Sensing subtle feedback and analyzing energies requires subtle awareness, and refined attention. Often I will deconstruct a practice, pose by pose, to help the student bring greater attention to areas which remain hidden, blocked, or undeveloped. Depending on the needs that are presented, I may prescribe an Iyengar-style practice—straight, no chaser. Others require a shift away from physical practice to include a greater emphasis on meditation and breathing. Someone who is locked in grief and regret may benefit from a powerful vinyasa practice to move these energies more freely. My goal is simple: to help students get to where they want to be, and to be more happy, content and free from suffering exactly where they are.
Like a river, life flows onward—sometimes with crashing rapids, sometimes with slow-moving eddies, and sometimes with a calm, quiet ease. Yoga is both life raft, surf board, kayak and beach towel. Should we stay or should we go? Most definitely. But let’s give it just five breaths more….
UMA KLEPPINGER is a career yoga teacher with over 15 years’ experience, and returns to Yoga Pearl for her August 2011 workshop, Diamond Mind Yoga, which explores the intersection of Buddhist mindfulness techniques and yoga practice. She leads workshops and retreats throughout North America, as well as maintaining a private therapeutic practice in Bend, Oregon, where she lives. Uma is the developer of BikeYoga, a practice targeted specifically to cyclists, and has authored and published the yoga practice manuals BikeYoga: A Simple Tune Up for Mind and Body, as well as Essential Yoga: A Simple Practice for Busy People. For more information about Uma’s teaching work, visit www.bendyogatherapy.com or click to send Uma an email.