I am infamous for holding postures longer than most of my colleagues. I have certainly heard students complain that I hold awkward posture too long. Heck, I want to complain when other teachers hold the pose more than my legs appreciate!
A friend and long time teacher once said during a workshop: “I believe you shouldn’t trust any teacher who won’t hold this posture long enough, as it tells you everything about their own practice. Awkward pose is indeed an uncomfortable pose for most of us, but the teacher, as well as you as a practitioner, should know that it is a safe posture that physically and, most importantly, mentally prepares you for the rest of class. It’s a shame to get shortened on that, so be happy with a teacher who holds this posture a bit longer.”
Well, that’s nice, you might think, but knowing this won’t be enough to maintain a pose that feels so strenuous, for an extended amount of time. So here are some tips from that annoying long-posture-holding teacher, to survive awkward pose, or any other pose for that matter, that feels the most awkward in your practice.
1. right intention & focus
We all have those days, that the moment class starts you feel that your body is just not up for it. For whatever reason you feel stiff and tight and maybe even sore. Muscles that you didn’t know existed start talking to you. You are pretty certain that they are telling you to not do the posture, just leave the room and instead go enjoy your favorite comfort drink in the coffee shop next door. And if it isn’t your body, than it will be your monkey mind telling you that it wasn’t the best day to come in because you are tired, you ate too much, you have too much work to do or just because it’s too rainy or too sunny outside. But hey, you are already there, so you might as well make up your mind to feel different and figure out what it is that will make you enjoy the experience.
Often teachers suggest at the beginning of class to set an intention. Before you start moving around, take this moment to identify with the focus you will need to approach your practice this time, what body part needs some extra attention, what thoughts you need to let go of. With every posture you have an opportunity to start over again and to recheck if you are still connected to these objectives. You can also start every next posture with an intention for that specific pose. If you always tend to come out of awkward pose before it’s over, you can make an extra determination to not give up, to listen to the teacher’s voice instead of the one in your own head. If nothing else works, you could even bribe yourself with the reward of that comfort drink after class, only if you comply with your own goals.
You’ll be amazed by how quickly your mind will get strong this way. And this will benefit you not only to execute a specific asana, but with all other aspects of your life. For me one of the most amazing effects of practicing yoga was to realize that I can do anything if I just set my mind to do it!
2. correct form
Depth in a posture is only relative to correct form. By practicing the correct form you will gain deeper depth. I am often personally guilty of this. I bypass some essentials, just because they don’t feel so good, to get to a certain end result. Just because I was able to reach a certain depth last time, doesn’t mean it needs to happen today.
How do you know what the correct form is? Listen to the teacher. He or she is there exactly for that, to let you know what steps are essential and what the results are. I find it very important to listen to the teacher each time as if it is the first time I am practicing. It doesn’t matter in that sense if it’s an entirely new practice or the familiar 26+2 series. In some traditions and some classes it’s encouraged to follow your own intuition, but I find it important to let the teacher lead me. Otherwise I could just do my own home practice, right?
Different traditions give different variations of similar postures. Utkatasana, which I have learned as awkward pose, is called chair pose elsewhere. In a flow class you might practice it with your arms stretched up instead of forward. Not one way is better than another, it’s simply that different approaches have different benefits. And this of course requires a different correct form. If you practice the way you believe is correct instead of listening to the instructions in the moment, you will most likely miss out on a lot of new information, understanding and depth in your practice.
In most activities that we do, our breath follows our movements. It seems to be something that we have only little control over, if at all. I recently watched a whole bunch of runners jogging by our house for a marathon. Most of them were panting, huffing and puffing; their mouths open in their red faces. They were focused on their pace and maybe their steps, but their breath was trailing. It didn’t seem that they were conscious of their breath. In yoga, ideally, it is the other way around. Your movement follows your breath. That is why many teachers will precede most instructions with a breathing cue: “Inhale, arms up, exhale bend forward.”
In a fast paced class, when postures are held longer or when you practice in a heated room, it will feel very daunting to focus on your breath while you are also trying to stand on one leg or bend your spine in different directions. This is why most classes will start with a specific breathing exercise that not only will warm you up, but also help you tune in to this essential force of life. Sometimes the teacher will suggest a special way to breathe in a posture. When there are no specific cues given, just be conscious of your breath and notice how you are breathing. When, after just a few seconds in awkward pose your legs start to shake and your arms begin to shiver, instead of panicking and coming out, check what your breath is doing. Are you holding your breath when things get tough? Never a good idea! Are you breathing through your mouth? See if you can shift it to your nose, this will give you more control. Is the pace fast and shallow, try to extend each inhale and exhale. Notice how this will help to keep your heart rate slow and steady. When this become your primary focus, the posture will be over before you know it.
All asana practice includes savasana at some point. Most classes will end with this posture where you do nothing, be completely still and let the benefits of the practice sink in. The faster you can find that place of stillness by letting go of your thoughts and tuning in with your breath, the quicker you will feel refreshed and reenergized. Once you get accustomed to this process you can apply it anywhere at any time with whatever you do.
Once you advance in your practice, it is important to start finding this place of stillness not just in your savasana, but with everything you do. First find complete stillness in between the poses. If it seems that you only have a few seconds in a fast paced class, you will find more time and space if you are still in between. Really still. No fidgeting with your hair. No water drinking. No adjusting of your outfit. No anxious looks around the room.
Just. Be. Still.
And then, once this is no extra effort anymore and it starts to feel like a normal thing to do, find the same stillness in each and every pose. This might seem odd when you are stretching, kicking, and contracting. The trick is to know where to be active and where not. There is always something that you can let go of. You might often hear teachers telling you to smile and that maybe seems unauthentic. What it is, however, is an encouragement to let go of some tension. Maybe its in your neck and shoulders, maybe in your face.
I recently saw an old picture of me in awkward pose, and oh, did my face look awkward! When you are able to let go of tension somewhere while at the same time you consciously contract and stretch specific body parts, you will feel everything open up! This way you create space and stillness within the pose, within yourself. Now you are truly practicing yoga!
Well there you have it, my four secrets for surviving awkward pose and an entire challenging yoga class. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. After practicing hot yoga for about 10 years I’m still working on all of this in every single class. But take my word, focusing on these four aspects will bring your practice and your life to a whole new level. Of course there is much more to work on, like having compassion for yourself and acceptance. I would love to hear how this is working out for you and what other tips you have to add!
Zefea had her first experience with yoga at the age of 4 when her parents practiced with renowned teacher Angela Farmer in the Iyengar tradition. She forgot about yoga during her teens and twenties and trained for boxing and the combat system Krav Maga. Zefea rediscovered the benefits of yoga when she started practicing Bikram Yoga in her home town Amsterdam. From 2006-2008 she represented the Netherlands as the Dutch gold medalist in the International Yoga Championships, finishing in the world's top 10. Zefea experienced new depths of yoga through practicing while pregnant (up till the day of giving birth).