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Yoga Basics: Moving Toward Mastery

June 12, 2010
Learning simple yoga poses is easy: Look at your teacher (or the book or video) and follow along. When you're ready to move on to more complex asanas, however, this Simon-says strategy may need to give way to a slightly more methodical approach.

So just how do you master a new pose? While every practitioner cultivates his or her own secrets of success, a few tried-and-true principles can get you started.

Break the pose into smaller bites instead of trying to swallow it whole. Just as a pianist might practice the fingering of each hand alone before performing an entire piece of music, you can divide any pose into discrete movements and practice them one at a time.

In a standing pose, for example, divide the pose in half. First focus on the proper action of the legs and feet, while keeping your spine in neutral and resting your hands on your hips. Then explore just the top half of the pose. Once you feel comfortable with each half, combine them to enjoy the whole masterpiece.

Warm up with simpler actions first. A handful of fundamental movement principles crop up again and again in both elementary and advanced postures. Exploring these principles in a familiar pose first can help you move toward a more complicated pose with both integrity and clarity.

For example, the principles of forward bending that you learn in a basic pose like uttanasana carry over into more complex forward bends like prasarita padottonasana. Practice uttanasana first, taking care to keep the hips even and the spine long, while folding at the top thighs rather than the waist. Then move on to the more complicated wide-legged prasarita padottonasana, integrating these same principles. You might even follow this by trying a seated forward bend like upavista konasana.

Use props creatively. Blocks, straps, bolsters, chairs, balls and walls were introduced to help less expert practitioners move toward challenging postures without compromising integrity and alignment. With a little creativity, you can discover innovative ways of using props to help you experience the essence of a pose without risking injury to the body.

If your fingers don’t reach the floor in a standing pose, place a block between your hand and the floor. If you can't reach your big toe in supta padangustasana, use a strap. If you have trouble sitting with a long and neutral spine in a seated pose, prop yourself up on a folded blanket. Just remember, props used in this way are like training wheels - they help us find our way in the beginning, but eventually we want to wean ourselves of them.

Practice, practice, practice. Check your ambition at the door, and cultivate patience and good humor. With perseverance, postures that once seemed impossible will be within your grasp.

And remember, the joy is in the journey. Although mastering a new pose can be both gratifying exhilarating, your spiritual evolution doesn’t depend on your ability to stand on your hands or wrap your foot behind your head. One of yoga’s beauties, after all, is that the journey never ends. When you master a new pose, an even more challenging asana always awaits.

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (July 2003).