“The edge”: That sliver of a yoga pose we are often encouraged—or encourage our students—to investigate.
It’s worth exploring. Learning to distinguish between the challenge that strengthens us and the challenge that proves a touch too much is a continual project that can enwisen our yoga practices and our lives. And there is often a richness at the edge (or limit, or end range): an increase in sensation, certainly, but also in awareness. This crystallization of attention may be due to the sense of risk we feel in approaching the outermost range of our physiological capacities.
While pulling our leg as close to our chest as possible in supine pigeon, or stretching our legs to their maximum in full splits, or reaching the limits of our strength during long plank pose holds, we may be asking ourselves some of the most discerning questions of our practice: Am I okay here? Am I aligned in the way I mean to be? What exactly am I feeling where? Am I still able to breathe? How does breathing affect the place in my body where I am feeling the greatest intensity?
Many of these questions may get at the idea of enoughness: Am I feeling enough sensation here, or do I want—and can I safely handle—more? But what would happen if we applied this same discernment to other phases of the pose?
If we always go full steam ahead, like destination-focused travelers, we could miss some valuable information and opportunities along the way. And sometimes, we may wish to steer clear of the outermost limits of a pose for various reasons.
For instance, if we are taking it easy or being mindful of a vulnerable area, it may behoove us to stay well within a comfortable range of sensation. If our focus is on alignment, we may notice that it is harder to tinker with our positioning when we’re at max capacity in an asana. We may also come to find that stretching our muscles as far as they can go does not inevitably improve our flexibility: Tightness may stubbornly persist despite all of our efforts. When we approach our edge in certain poses, we might feel like we’re running full speed right into a wall—and that wall never gets any farther away, let alone disappears.
If we always go full steam ahead, like destination-focused travelers, we could miss some valuable information and opportunities along the way.
If any of the above experiences sound familiar, another approach might be to devote the same intensity of interest we give to the edge of a pose to the first point in a pose at which we feel a stretch. If we increase our noticing toward the beginning of a pose, we could revive our interest in the asana as a whole and become pre-aware, pre-aligned, and stabilized before we get to the toughest moment. Perhaps this approach could even release some long-held tension, and help push our edge a touch farther away—or help us get to the same edge with more ease.
Another effect of focusing on the beginnings of sensation is that we may even lose the desire to go as far or as deep as we possibly can in a pose. Maybe an earlier stage proves rich enough to linger in. And that would be okay: We don’t always have to go to our edge. There may be times when it is not the pose itself, but our self-awareness, that is asking to be deepened.
If you want to explore this shift in attention, here are some suggestions: Do any pose the way you usually do it, noticing how far you go and what you feel; then back up and try again, restarting the pose with attention to its details, like alignment and muscular activation, but also to breath. Very gradually, begin to move into the pose, and pause and linger as soon as you feel the hint of a stretch. After a couple of breaths there, decide if you would like to go deeper or if you are already getting enough sensation.
Below, we’ll apply this approach to seated wide-legged forward fold. But you can apply it to any pose you like, perhaps firelog or paschimottanasana, or all of the poses of any sequence you enjoy, encouraging yourself or your students to explore the first point of sensation instead of the last endurable point.
Before you begin, to get your hamstrings ready to move more freely, you are welcome to warm up with an active practice that feels good for you (perhaps with this “morning yoga warm-up,” or with sun salutations like these for beginners or this more accessible version at the wall).
Step 1: Noticing Your Usual Edge
Sitting with your legs spread wide, and hands alongside your hips, lengthen your spine and lift up through the crown of your head. (If your spine is rounding, you could bring your hands behind your hips—so you are at a bit of a backslant—or sit on a blanket or two to find more length.) Then fold forward as deeply as you comfortably can, hands alongside your hips or on the floor between your legs. (Only come down to your forearms if that is manageable for you.)
Notice what you feel as you encounter your edge—and which questions are relevant to you: Am I okay here? Am I aligned in the way I mean to be? What exactly am I feeling where? Am I still able to breathe? How does breathing affect the place in my body where I am feeling the greatest intensity? Am I feeling enough here, or do I want more?
After a few breaths, return to an upright seated position, draw your legs together and wiggle them.
Step 2: A Mindful Restart
Let’s begin again. From a seated position, take your legs wide apart, but this time not so wide that you feel any stretch just yet. To reduce any sensation of stretch and to lengthen your spine, place your hands a few inches (or more) behind your hips. Root down with your sitting bones and press down with your palms, fingertips, or fists to help elongate your spine and boost your chest up.
Pay even more attention than usual to your legs. Flex your feet, and press down with your heels, pointing your toes up toward the ceiling. See if you can aim your knees up toward the ceiling, too. Reach your heels away from you and the tops of your feet toward your hips.
Notice what you feel when you create these actions assiduously; notice where you feel a sense of engagement. Find your breath, inhaling and exhaling deeply but easily, and watch how your breathing affects the activation of your muscles as well as the length of your spine.
Step 3: Finding the Beginning of Sensation
Moving slowly, and staying connected to the fullness of your breath, aim to find the very first hint of stretch. Without losing the engagement or alignment of your feet and legs, walk your hands a little closer to or alongside your hips, bringing yourself to a more vertical position.
If you don’t feel a stretch yet (along your inner thighs, the back of your legs, or your back), press down with your hands—keeping them where they are for now—to re-lift your chest and perhaps to help you tip forward slightly.
(Only if you feel no stretch here would you walk your hands to the mat between your legs.) Have the patience of a fisherman: Instead of careening toward sensation, see what sensations come to you, enjoying the beauty of the landscape as you wait.
Once you’ve found the beginning of a stretch, pause. Sense everything there is to sense. Recommit to the actions of your legs and feet, re-ground your sitting bones and re-lengthen your spine. Breathe.
Ask yourself the questions that you found mattered to you at your edge: Am I okay here? Am I aligned in the way I mean to be? What exactly am I feeling where? Am I still able to breathe? How does breathing affect the place in my body where I am feeling the greatest intensity? Am I feeling enough here, or do I want more?
Step 4: Noticing Your “New” Edge
Now where do you need to go?
You may find that, with your attention fully awakened, the pose feels like enough at a much earlier stage, and that a point you used to brush past becomes newly interesting. If that is true, stay exactly where you are, breathing and enjoying the sensations that are present for you here.
If, however, you notice the stretching sensation dissipating after a breath or two and you feel compelled to go farther, then tip your spine forward more (keeping your hands alongside you and pressing them down to help you lengthen your torso as you fold, or placing your hands or forearms on the floor between your legs). Have you found the same edge as before? Does it feel the same? Notice what, if anything, is new.
When you are ready, use your hands to help bring you to an upright seat if you came forward, and draw your legs together. Relax into savasana or practice other poses of your choosing.
Extrapolating from your explorations, you may find still other phases of a pose—besides the edge and besides the beginning of sensation—where you would like to pause: Each pose contains a multitude of poses, easy to breeze by en route to an edge, and all of them are worthy of attention.
You may even start to link this practice to times in your life when you seem to hit a very familiar wall in pursuit of a goal. Next time, maybe you’ll want to stand back and take a good look around before you run straight for it. And who knows? Maybe what you thought was a wall will turn out to be only a small square on a vast horizon, surrounded by wide-open space where you can play and dance.
Photography: Gina Lenz