Often a student will ask how long will it take until he or she can get into a particular pose. If I had a crystal ball, I very happily would answer that question with certainty, but as those of us who have made yoga an integral part of our lives know, the answer can range from tomorrow to never. In part, this uncertainty is the beauty of the yoga practice — and there is a reason it’s called a practice.
More often, students are curious about what may be stopping them from moving forward in a particular pose or family of poses. That is a much more targeted question with a more definitive answer. For example, if you’re struggling with parvritta bakasana but already have a clean chaturanga and bakasana, then it’s more likely that the twist is holding you back than strength in the shoulders or core. The more we practice, the more we can see the different parts of the puzzle in each pose and can assess where the resistance is on our own.
Sometimes students feel like they have in a sense plateaued with their practice. They haven’t given birth to any new poses in quite some time — and while the focusing elements should be enough to call us back to yoga again and again, let’s face it: we’re human and the thrill of a new pose in the repertoire is quite alluring. In this case, my best bet is that such a student has been getting by on their own natural abilities. Think Manny Ramirez. Imagine the possibilities if he had as much focus as Tom Brady. Anyway, at some point natural ability will favor either strength or flexibility and we need to have equal amounts of both to move forward physically in our asana practice.
In any of these cases, I would recommend a home “practice.” Now it’s not going to be a fast, flow-y practice in which your sweat your arse off. To be honest, you may get bored. We’re not going for the calm of a yoga class either, so feel free to watch The Real Housewives of your choice as you go through it. The idea is that practicing these poses regularly, and holding for longer periods than you would in a public class, will make a dramatic difference in your “real” practice. Have a timer handy rather than a digital clock. It’ll make the timed holds more accurate. Plus, you won’t have to worry about being time keeper as you practice.
The poses below aren’t fancy poses, by any means. But I do believe that honestly and regularly practicing the poses below, with discipline, will make the party-trick poses much more accessible.
⁃ Supta padagustasana 1 and 2 (Reclined hand to big toe), holding for two minutes. Unless your hammies are seriously long, please use a strap. More accurate alignment will make a huge difference. No is looking and, even if they are, no one cares if you need to use a strap. Try to press the hip of the extended leg down toward the heel on the floor without letting the leg on the floor pop up off the floor. Press the thigh bone down toward the floor. The magic is in the details.
⁃ Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down dog) Try holding for five minutes. If you’re newer, try for a minute or two and gradually work your way to five minutes.
⁃ Dolphin for two minutes, or, again, work your way up to that hold in 15/30 second intervals. It’s best to use a strap (measured shoulder-distance) around you upper arms, right above the elbow, so that your elbows don’t splay, and a block framed between the index fingers and thumbs, so your hands don’t creep in. If you’re going to take the time to do it, you may as well get as much benefit as you can.
⁃ Dolphin plank for one minute, rest and then do it again for a minute. Use the block and strap here as well. For both dolphin and dolphin plank try it with the block at the wall and then with the feet pressing into the wall.
⁃ Bjujangasana (low cobra) and salabasana (locust) variations. Hold these poses for 15 – 20 breaths, focusing on the alignment in the legs and feet to steady the pose so that you can find the openness in the thoracic spine. Try it with the hands interlaced behind the back to really open the upper back. The hands reaching out in front will strengthen the shoulders, the lower back and serratus muscles. Lifting one leg at a time will strengthening the inner thighs. Even though these poses are often thought of as beginner backbends, they are an incredible place to strengthen the entire back body (which helps with much more advanced poses).
⁃ Uttita Hasta Padagustasana 1 and 2 at the wall, holding for 2 minutes each. Alignment is super important here. Make sure your lifted leg is no higher than hip height and that you are exactly a leg’s distance away from the wall. You can measure by siting against the wall and placing a strap under your heels. This set-up will make sure you don’t lean into the wall. It’s a subconscious cheat. Also in UHP1 make sure your standing leg toes’ are at 12 o’clock. Once in the pose, focus on dropping the outer hip of your lifted leg down toward your standing heel WITHOUT bending the standing leg. It’s the same work from Supta padagustasana. For tight hammier and hip flexors, use a strap around the ball of the lifted foot. In UHP2, again, make sure your lifted leg is only hip-height and your standing leg is exactly a leg’s distance away from wall. You’re going to feel too close. Trust me; you’re not. The big-toe side of your foot should be parallel to the wall and the toes of your lifted leg should be pointing at 12 o’clock toward the ceiling. Here, focus on your lifted hip dropping toward your bottom heal without leaning all the weight into your opposite hip. Firm in the outer hip.
⁃ Parvrtta Ardha Chandrasana at the wall, holding for 2 minutes. Again, make sure you are truly a leg’s distance away from the wall. The grounded foot’s toes should be perpendicular to the front edge of your mat. The lifted leg’s toes should be pointing straight down to the floor; they’re going to want to turn out. Focus on pressing the outer edge of the hip of your standing leg toward to the heel at the wall while keeping the lifted leg’s quad fully engaged. When you twist, keep shooting your sternum to the front and the center of your mat.
⁃ Vira 3 at the wall, for as long as you can stand. Not for the faint of heart, Vira 3, when truly aligned, is probably the hardest standing pose. Set up your legs just as you would for PAC. Make sure you don’t turn your lifted toes out at all, and keep this leg hip height. Also, make sure you don’t lock your standing leg and you don’t inch it further away from the wall. These are the common “cheats.”
⁃ For more experienced students, we should try to hold both sirsasana and sarvangasana for 3 – 5 minutes. If you’re working toward this goal, try in 30 second intervals and, of course, come down at any time if you’re feeling anything in the neck. Make sure you’re extending through the ball of the foot or the feet so that you don’t collapse into the neck and low back. The longer you hold these poses the more you’ll feel your legs working to keep you up. If this hold is already attainable, the practice becomes mental. Try not to get bored up there.
⁃ Viparita Karani (legs up the wall), at least five minutes. Really, this is the best pose ever. It’s so simple physically, yet the subtle benefits are profound for the nervous, digestive, circulatory and endocrine system.