Today’s show answers a listener question about how long to stay in each pose when practicing at home. We talked about cultivating a home yoga practice and I gave a few of my favorite general guidelines for starting (and maintaining) a home yoga practice. That episode focused primarily on the question: What poses should I do? and I recommended (as I still do!) choosing five poses. You can read the whole post and listen to the episode right here.
Today, I’d like to focus primarily on the question: How long should I stay in each pose?
This is an amazing question. And although it seems quite simple on the surface, it speaks volumes about our overall thoughts, feelings, patterns related to our practice.
My short answer to the question is (annoyingly, ha!) “It depends.”
Personally, when I began my asana practice twenty years ago now, I could not hold a pose. I mean, physically I could. I was young, strong & flexible (bla-bla-bla). However, staying in a pose for even five breaths was SIMPLY NOT POSSIBLE for my mental and emotional states. I mean, I was wound UP. Hanging out in a pose without someone barking 47 precise alignment cues at me was so scary. I had to be alone with my thoughts. And at that time, although I had a lot of body awareness with respect to action, I had nearly no skills at actually feeling what I felt in my body (interoception) or capacity for concentrating on those real feelings. I was alllll up in my head. So I moved. I flowed with my breath until I could find my body. Until I could rest in my body. (And until I got the “classic” Ashtanga-Vinyasa rotator cuff injury and couldn’t practice. (But that’s another story for another day.) My point is, until the body and mind are ready, you might need to move quite quickly from pose to pose.
After about 10 years of practice calmed my nervous system down enough to be able to hold poses (I am only kind of joking), I stayed in them longer. For me, I usually set some sort of arbitrary system of holding like 5-10 breaths. By this time, I had transitioned into an (Anusara) alignment based flow practice, so during those 10 breaths, I went through a checklist of alignment cues to focus on to *optimize* the pose, or to continue to avoid actually feeling my personal sensation palette. Even though the cues were in a sense “safer” than my Ashtanga practice had been, they were very much based on conforming the body to a pose, rather than finding the aliveness of my own form, and not at all about experiencing an alignment that reminded me of my innate connection to all life. But, the process continued to unfold in its own time and way.
After I gave birth, my movement practice shifted. I mean, my whole life shifted, but I started practicing a bit of Feldenkreis with my asana and moving into a subtler state of awareness. Because so much of mothering a tiny (and growing) baby required being with things exactly as they are, I became more interested in exploring the sensations that were coming up in my own body. During this time, all of my practices started to shift big-time. I also was noticing (this started during pregnancy, but my integration of it needed to wait until my body was no longer pregnant) how many conventional alignment cues seemed to fight the natural physiology of my experience as a woman; “perfect” alignment of poses yanked my own joints out of safe alignment, dialing it in totally led to mental and emotional responses that did not follow the “benefits” touted by various yoga asana resources (check out my month-long inversion experiment here). I realized that I needed to become/ needed to realize that there is more wisdom in my own experience than I was previously aware of OR giving myself credit for. (This goes for everyone listening, by the way. It’s not just me.) The particular blend of somatic yoga therapy I was really digging into at this time inspired a framework for being in my body:
- How do I do it? (Answered from the body, not the mind.)
- What do I feel? Where do I feel it? What does it feel like?
- What happens if…?
Approaching the shapes with questions rather than answers really changed things for me. (Incidentally, I now think it is only ethical to teach this way. I totally call bullshit on anyone who tries to tell another being a) what they “should” feel in a pose and b) what the result of any experience will be. These suggestions keep students from having their own experiences, by tainting the experiment with suggested results. AND, although I can offer guidance based on my own experience and the collective experience of my teachers and the teachings, I cannot know how things will play out in this particular moment under current circumstances for anyone.)
It was also during this time that I began to experiment with Yin Yoga, where holds are much much longer. And embedded within the practice is learning how to be with the mind in its discomfort and how to inventory the body’s sensation library. The sensation-al/ analytical framework that emerged for me during this time was as follows:
- What do I feel in the body?
- Where do I feel the breath?
- Where do I try to go in the mind, and when?
All of this, I find totally useful for both real life and asana practice. Asking these questions no matter what I’m doing (walking my dog or holding a downward-facing dog for 5 minutes), yields useful data and allows for a more complete experience in whatever it is I’m in. I also found that the more time and effort I devoted to my pranayama and meditation practices, the more my capacity for feeling and knowing developed.
Other questions I think are supremely useful to return to over and over again are:
- Why do I practice yoga?
- How is *this* supporting that purpose?
There are also seasonal factors to consider: if you are feeling sluggish, you might experiment with some quicker transitions (quick being a relative term, always); if you are feeling un-grounded, be sure to include at least a few longer-held shapes into the mix (although if you are SUUUUPER un-grounded, you may need to flow a bit first.
Finally, look to what you are avoiding. I’m definitely not suggesting that your practice should become a torture chamber or that you should strive to make your life as difficult as possible through your yoga practice, but if you are consistently avoiding something, ask yourself what about it repels you, then look for the reason behind that. If you avoid longer holds because “you’ve got to get your workout in”, ask yourself “why?” and then ask “why?” to the answer to that question. Keep asking. Then ask, what if I hold space for the possibility that something else might be true. If your mind is keeping you from your physical practice, then work with your mind.
- Stay curious.
- Trust your own experience.
- Look for questions rather than answers.
If YOU have a question or topic for discussion, email me!
All love, Kelly
You can download this episode to any device by clicking here.
I adore hearing from you. Stay in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by connecting on social media (I hang out on Instagram most frequently these days).
For those of you interested in joining our practice community, check out all of the at-home practices over in the Wildcat Yoga Club.
- New practices up in the Sunrose Yoga Shop: Spectrum, a subtle body exploration, and Cosmic Spiral, a collection of meditations & a sound bath.
- Wildcat Yoga Club// our online yoga community. The Clubhouse contains an ever-expanding library of audio and video practices, plus lectures, tutorials and video Q&A sessions, plus monthly online workshops in meditation, active listening and embodied voice. Membership also includes discounts on all courses, retreats and products in the sunrose yoga shop. All for $15 per month or $150 per year. Connect with the yoga of your real life by visiting http://www.wildcatyogaclub.com.
- Every month, I donate 15% of my income to organizations and funds that align with my mission (and the mission of my podcast and teaching). In April, we donated to Mercy-USA to provide aid to Syrians and 350.org, a climate activist organization. Thanks to the generosity of North Portland Yoga, we also made an extra donation to the Black and Missing Foundation. In May, I’ll be donating 15% of my income to Oceana and Families for Children. To see all of the organizations we’ve supported, check out our mission statement. If you would like to recommend an organization to support, please connect via the contact page. Thank YOU!!!
- Looking ahead: our fall immersion will take place in November and we’ll focus on taking our pranayama practice deeper. Stay tuned.