Beginners and experienced yogis alike can all be faced with the challenges of learning new asanas. As true yogis, we are taught that the posture is not the final goal, but a step along the lifelong yoga journey. Our egos tell us that we should/could/must learn how to do a pose because it will make us feel good. This is not what yoga is about, but I sometimes think that it kind of is a bit about this. We are all human, and we gain pleasure from working hard and achieving a goal (passing exams, driving tests or saving for the deposit on our house.) Working on specific yoga postures is similar, but also very different.
It`s the journey not the destination
To begin with we should bear in mind that there is no final perfect posture, we are all unique and what comes easily to one, could be incredibly challenging for another. Yoga teaches us to honour our limitations and gently nudge them each day to take our practice and self to new limits. It can be frustrating to be working on a posture each day and feel that you are getting nowhere. There are most likely positive changes each time you practice, changes so subtle that you wouldn’t perceive the differences. But there are ways to help you deepen the practice and support yourself on the journey towards feeling more comfortable in your chosen posture.
The breath which guides us through our practice is also the marker of when we have pushed ourselves too far. The breath is the first to go when we begin to struggle, and we must remember to keep it smooth, deep and even. On the inhale we lengthen the body to find extra space and on the exhale, we slip deeper into the posture. By concentrating on the breath, we can fine tune the movements of our bodies and allow them to gradually open up to the practice over time.
Mind Over Matter
‘Practice and all is coming.’ This is a famous quote from Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the fore-father of the Ashtanga yoga practice. He meant that attending one class a week and doing nothing in between times will not help you progress in your yoga. We need to do a little each day over a consistent period. Accepting that you will not achieve the splits in 6 weeks (no matter what the internet splits challenge says!) is the first step. But 6 weeks of consistent, daily practice will get you a lot closer to the splits than if you did very little. To achieve this level of dedication you need to get on your mat every day and do something. It’s about building habits and over-riding the thoughts in your head that say, ‘You can’t!’
Take a step back
You may be working on headstand posture (sirsasana) but finding it difficult to curl up into the little ball, or to walk your feet in close enough to tip your weight. Taking a step back and practicing preparatory postures is a great way to build up the strength, flexibility and confidence to move onto the next level, when you’re ready to do that. You could also try introducing the posture and its preparatory poses into your daily practice. That way by the end of the week you could have spent between 14- and 35-minutes working on that one posture – that will surely help you on the way to discovering more about yourself and your yoga.
Core and Foundations
If all else fails, engage the core or look to core strengthening exercises. Pilates is great for this, as it focusses on developing a strong core through very subtle but effective movements. Learn more about uddiyana bandha, one of the energy locks in the body. By using this ‘upward flying’ energy lock, you can bring lightness and a sense of ease and control to your yoga practice. You may even find that it is core strength and engagement of the bandhas where you need to focus your efforts.
Also look at your foundations, this is the part of your body connected to the floor. Depending on the posture you’re working on this could be your hands, feet, head, shoulders or any combination. In arm balances you need to focus on gripping the mat with the pads of your fingers and grounding the underside of your knuckles downwards. At the same time, draw the palm of your hand upwards. Standing postures can present numerous challenges as they are influenced not only by the feet, but knees, hips and the whole body above. If you have an imbalance or tightness in the hips, this will affect how well you can work with a standing posture. You are aiming to root down through the toes, heel and ball of the foot, while drawing up on the arches.
What to do next?
The best way to find which of these points will work for you is to play around with the postures. Research them using books, magazines, or the internet. Many yogis are happy to share tips and tricks on social media – just ask! Or better yet, seek out an experienced yoga teacher and book a one-to-one where you can focus on a specific posture. You will gain a wealth of knowledge in a short time and leave with tools to incorporate into your practice to help you in the long run.
In the end it is your yoga, and it must work for you. If a posture doesn’t feel right, then please back off. Yoga should be the perfect balance between pushing yourself and accepting your limitations as they change each day. Take each posture to your maximum stretch, then back off a little so that you can breathe. But above all, keep at it. A regular practice is the only way you will be able to achieve your yoga dreams and come to realise that it IS the journey and not the posture destination.