Learning simple yoga poses is easy: Look at your yoga teacher (or the book or video) and follow along. When you're ready for more complex asanas, however, this Simon Says strategy may need to give way to a more methodical approach.
So just how do you master a new pose? While every practitioner develops his or her own secrets of success, these tried-and-true principles can get you started. Break the pose into smaller bites instead of attempting 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.
For example, divide a standing pose in half. First, focus on the proper action of the legs and feet while keeping your spine in neutral and your hands on your hips. Then explore just the top half. Once you feel comfortable with each half, combine them to practice the whole masterpiece. Warm up with some simpler actions first.
A handful of fundamental movement principles crop up again and again in both elementary and advanced poses. Exploring them first in a familiar posture can help you move toward a more complicated pose with both integrity and clarity. The principles of forward bending that you learn in a basic pose like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), for example, carry over to the more complex Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Angle Standing Forward Bend). Practice Uttanasana first, keeping the hips even and the spine long, folding at the tops of the thighs rather than from the waist. Then integrate these concepts into the more advanced pose.
Use props creatively. Props can help less-expert practitioners move toward challenging postures without compromising integrity and alignment. With a little creativity, you can discover innovative ways of using them to help you experience the essence of a pose without risking injury.
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 Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), use a strap. If you have difficulty sitting with
a long and neutral spine, support your pelvis on a blanket. Props are like training wheels—they can help you find your way in the beginning, even if you eventually want to wean yourself from them.
Practice, practice. With perseverance, postures that once seemed impossible will be within your grasp. Pulling off a new pose can be both gratifying and exhilarating, but remember that your spiritual evolution doesn't depend on your ability to stand on your hands or wrap your foot behind your head. In yoga, the journey never ends. When you master a new pose, an even more challenging one always awaits.
Claudia Cummins teaches yoga in central Ohio.