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Time has an almost magical capacity to change your perception. A lengthy hold in a yoga pose can test your endurance and resolve but also give your nervous system a rare opportunity to center and settle. On the other hand, moving quickly from posture to posture can bring a much-needed tempo change to your day, although it can also challenge your control and coordination and, perhaps, your ability to be present. So which is the preferred approach?
The answer, as with many questions that arise in the practice of yoga, is “it depends.”
So, how long should you hold a yoga pose?
Imagine a bell curve with the x axis as the amount of time spent in a pose. Rapid, uncontrolled movement would be on the left side and an agonizingly long hold on the right. The ideal amount of time to sustain a yoga pose, measured on the y axis, would fall somewhere in between.
In general, you want to remain in a pose long enough to feel its benefits, but not so long that you can no longer maintain the integrity of the posture.
A look at short holds
There are reasons to play toward the left end of the curve. A faster pace allows you to create warmth, increase your heart rate and blood flow, lubricate your joints and fascia, and cultivate a sense of rhythm not unlike dancing. An energizing pace might be an ideal morning wake-up, midday energy boost, or after-work stress release.
But on the minus side, a fast pace allows little time to consider your alignment, position your props, or maintain a steady pattern in your breathing. In an already fast-paced world, rushing through poses can feel frenetic.
And let’s explore longer holds
There are also reasons to explore the right side of the curve. Slowing down gives you time to inhabit each pose fully—to mindfully position each part of your body, secure the support of props, breathe into the shape you have created, and feel its physical and energetic impact.
It’s in this liminal space, the moments when the length of time between ticks of the secondhand seems to stretch, that your body and mind can adapt to the challenge offered by the pose. In more intense asanas, you grow stronger or more mobile. In more introspective practices, you might have time to settle into the posture in a way that facilitates deep physical, mental, and emotional release.
Of course, what’s “long enough” depends on the individual. If you’ve ever had the experience of overstaying your welcome in a standing posture, jaw clenched and muscles shaking, or feeling the initial calm of a less intense pose dissolve into discomfort, you understand.
The answer to how long to hold a pose…
So how do you find that magical middle zone? Again, it depends. The duration times for a pose can vary tremendously. The practice style, your intention, and your level of experience are key considerations.
The word “vinyasa” roughly translates from Sanskrit to English as “to place in a special way.” This style prioritizes free movement and flow, with breath as the foundation. Each pose punctuates the rhythm of the breath like mala beads on a string. You might inhale as you open into one pose and then exhale as you transition into the next. You may spend only a few seconds, if that, in each shape.
Some yoga styles have set sequences and standard hold times. Most Ashtanga poses are held for five breaths, usually representing a little under a minute per pose. Research suggests that this pace and breath rate elicit positive physiological effects, especially on heart rate variability.
In hatha classes, the emphasis is on staying in a pose to cultivate patience and persistence. It’s possible that you might remain as long as a couple of minutes in a posture.
The style of hot yoga known as Bikram consists of a set sequence of postures that is the same in every class. The time in each pose can vary from 6 to 60 seconds. Research suggests that a one-minute hold is sufficient to build strength and flexibility provided the hold is repeated five times a week.
There is an emphasis on precision in Iyengar yoga, which often relies on props to achieve the “perfect” alignment in a posture. This style leans toward longer holds in a pose, sometimes 5 minutes.
In Yin practice, you hold still in a position that provides sustained traction or compression on targeted tissues. Three to five minutes is the minimal amount of time required in the pose to elicit subtle physiological changes in the connective tissues.
It’s not uncommon to spend upward of 10 minutes in a single restorative pose with your body weight supported with propping. It takes a long time to completely soothe and settle the nervous system, and the aim of this style is to do exactly that by decreasing sensation and sensory input rather than creating more of it.
…ultimately depends on you
Regardless of the style of yoga you practice, the middle zone of the curve for how long to hold a yoga pose is fairly small when you are introduced to yoga. It takes longer to find your alignment, and you tend to fatigue more quickly. Even in the quieter and more reflective styles such as Yin and restorative, it takes time to learn to sit quietly with whatever sensations arise without shifting or fidgeting.
However, as you become more proficient in the postures, your middle zone expands. You are able to arrive in the familiar shapes more quickly, and your body and mind have adapted to allow you to remain still longer without losing your form or focus.
For many students, the time spent in the pose is where self-study, the true foundation of any yoga practice, begins. In a set sequence with standard hold times, your outward pace may not vary, but your internal experience does. A minute holding Plank Pose can feel like the blink of an eye on some days. On other days, it seems an excruciating eternity. In experiencing both, you learn to ride out those peaks and troughs and arrive on your mat less attached to expectation and a little closer to equanimity.
If your practice style isn’t centered around a standard sequence with a set pace, then how long you hold the yoga pose is one of the more influential variables you can use to curate your experience on the mat. Do you need to move, to shift and shake off, or will you lean in and linger? Honing the skill of self-study in this way teaches you how adjusting your approach, acting mindfully rather than out of habit, can completely change your outcome.
About our contributor
Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.