In yoga asana practice, there is a point at which students learn to hold poses longer. They’ve learned the basic shape of each pose, which part of the body grounds and which extends, and have heard the instructions of how to breathe in the pose. At this point, they hold each pose longer, the body awareness deepens, and they receive more messages from the muscles and joints – discomfort, shaking, fatigue.
I remember this stage of practice. In class one day, the instructor gave us a standing forward bend with the legs scissored (Parsvottanasa). It requires folding forward, keeping the heels down, engaging the core and balancing. The instructor said, “I see you like to hold back.” I wasn’t sure he was talking to me. Then, he used my name, “Margaret, you can go forward another two inches.” He was right. I did.
I was unaware I had used my muscles to control how far forward I went. To avoid discomfort I was holding back — I call this “guarding.” My brain had told me how far forward I could go; that day I listened to my body instead. We stayed in that pose for another three minutes, and this gave me time to explore the pose. Holding poses isn’t about doing them better; it’s about developing a more complete awareness of what we’re doing. Once aware of guarding, we can choose to explore. In those long holds, eventually, we learn how effortless the pose can be.