Do you believe that less is sometimes more?
How about when it comes to your yoga practice?
I know there is no black or white answer. It depends on the context. Sometimes—as in the case of kindness, generosity, empathy, and gratitude—more is typically welcome and (hopefully) contagious. Abundance of those qualities feeds our souls and develops character. They enable us to nurture the world.
But when it comes to yoga, are two hours on the mat better than one? Possibly, but again, it depends—on the kind of practice, your energy level and health, and even whether or not you’re practicing alone. There are no absolutes, and the variables may change from day to day. I regularly enjoy 15-minute yoga practices that feel satisfying and complete.
If you want to practice more, start by asking yourself why.
A warm, perfectly toasted everything bagel with green olive cream cheese will forever be my ideal breakfast. Do I enjoy it more if I slather on an unspeakable amount of shmear? No, not really. It just winds up all over my face. Why would I use a half pound of cream cheese that hides the taste of the bagel instead of a thin layer that allows me to enjoy the complementary combo? I wouldn’t.
The belief that more of something delicious will be more satisfying often doesn’t pan out. Dismantling this idea requires a magnifying glass and a willingness to acknowledge that we often take more than we need or can appreciate. Minimalists understand this. With each thoughtful choice, they practice the art of determining when less is more.
Minimalistic living and the eight-limbed path of yoga.
Minimalism has always been an integral part of the yogic lifestyle. Practicing the yama of aparigraha (non-greed, non-possessiveness) is an essential component of the practice of living our yoga in our daily lives. And once one embraces the philosophy, it's an intoxicating way of life. I first began to adopt minimalism on a long backpacking trip in my late 20s. If you have to carry all of your possessions on your back every day, you start to see what’s really necessary and what’s not.
A minimalist yoga practice doesn’t automatically mean an easy practice. It can be easy, or it may focus on a few specific postures and breathing practices that offer the maximum benefits asana and pranayama can offer.
Simplifying removes the distraction of complex sequences and transitions, which can allow you to focus more deeply on the experience of the practice.
A minimalist yoga practice provides more than the obvious.
If you're thinking there's no way you could enjoy practicing yoga without several arm balances, inversions, and too many chaturangas to count, I can very much relate. For nearly all the years I've been practicing and teaching, I followed the “more is never enough” doctrine. The more intensely demanding a sequence or pose already was, the more I wanted to look for ways to make it even harder and more imposing. I liked the challenge. (Admittedly, I still enjoy and sometimes embrace this challenge in my home practice.)
I had embraced minimalism in many other areas of my life, frequently joking that I wouldn't be happy until our house looked as though it had been robbed. However, I had not brought this approach to my yoga practice.
But lately, the pursuit of minimalism and aparigraha has become an even more satisfying test of my discipline in yoga. And detaching from the more impressive-looking postures has offered me the opportunity to practice strengthening in poses I may not otherwise have considered physically challenging. Considering our attachments and inspecting why we feel so connected to specific postures and threatened at the suggestion that we minimize those elements of our practice is a powerful opportunity for growth.
Over the years I’ve certainly been guilty of being overly attached to a few postures. The first time I saw crow pose, bakasana, I knew I had to nail it. I remember feeling a powerful sense of shame when I couldn’t do it the first, second, or tenth time I tried. Never mind that there were myriad other postures I practiced with dignity and awareness of the value they offered. Why did I prioritize complicated poses? Why did I value them over others?
I sat with those questions for days, pondering why complicated asanas have so much power and why we often dismiss the simpler ones.
This motivated me to practice mountain pose (tadasana) and focus deeply on feeling all of the dynamic muscular possibilities. Try it right now, if possible. It can offer lots of opportunity for strength-building if we choose to engage fully and enjoy the intense focus, even if it doesn’t look super cool. Give it all of your attention and commitment.
What does a minimalist practice look like?
Practicing minimalism within the context of yoga may entail doing fewer poses, embracing a shorter practice, and/or choosing foundational postures instead of the overly complicated. Simplicity is a key component of minimalism. It encourages us to wade past the distracting and create a practice that requires less intensity and striving. Minimalism provides us a greater opportunity to be present and to see the abundance in less.
Yoga minimalism is a version of restorative yoga.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t exert energy and effort. But approaching the practice from a minimalist perspective can create the opportunity to work both smart and hard.
Stepping back from the need to achieve a specific pose offers different gifts and opportunities. Deborah Adele, the best-selling author of The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, discusses the beauty that lives inside the practice of non-grasping and self-restraint, writing, “Restraint is not a bad thing or a negative thing. It is a much-needed grace that can feel like a fresh breeze blowing a new hope and possibility in our individual and collective lives.”
Backing off from the fancy postures, at least some of the time, and delving into the subtle body and barely perceptible changes in anatomical actions will serve us well.
When we digest and embrace the goals of longevity, mobility, comfort, strength, and healthy joints, we begin to more clearly see our bodies as the protective and wondrous homes they are. This type of practice is also more inclusive and accessible to many more people.
Additional benefits of a minimalist yoga practice:
• You'll uncover value and sensation within a posture that you may not have previously investigated. High crescent lunge may appear to be a relatively simple pose. But it delivers a powerful dose of strengthening, stretching, and balance. Have you ever fallen out of it? Just doing a little experimenting and moving your feet slightly closer or farther apart will increase your balance so you can focus on all the other gifts the pose brings. You may also decide to lower your back knee to the ground for more support in the pose.
• The strength of a balanced ego feels divine. Choosing not to push past boundaries you desperately need to respect can boost your confidence. Knowing what you can do and choosing the wisest and most thoughtful actions will arm you with assurance and resilience. It’s an act of strength to be willing to adopt the old adage “Just because I can doesn’t mean I should.”
• Humility is gorgeous. It really is. When I get internally choked up watching a yoga student process and practice, it’s usually when they’re being raw and vulnerable. Recently, a regular student came to class and informed me that she was experiencing pain in her right rotator cuff. Typically, she does a handstand every chance she gets. She backed way off in her practice that day, skipping anything that could strain those tender muscles. After class, she explained that she first noticed the pain a couple of months before, but pushed through it and kept doing handstands and side planks anyway. With a smile, she confessed, “I just didn’t want to listen to my body. And now my body is yelling, so I have to.”
She chose to focus on a simpler practice and lovingly applied the less-is-more philosophy. The smile on her face said it all. Welcoming a minimalist approach provided her maximum comfort and the deep, knowing confidence that comes from understanding that it’s enough for her to know what she’s capable of executing. Making the decision to practice ahimsa (non-harming) only required a couple of modifications and eliminations. That’s what an advanced yoga practice looks like.
• You’ll compare yourself less to others. When we’re not striving and aching to achieve, we tune in to actually feeling things. You’ll feel more, and therefore you’ll instinctively know not to compare yourself to others because there’s nothing else to see or witness. Just you.
Creative, dynamic, fun, exciting vinyasa flows have always been my jam. And it’s really okay to love all of it. But to find moderation and prioritize safe, effective practices—while enjoying handstands and arm balances a little less frequently—may be the key to your own happiness and longevity.
I just turned 48. And my joints aren’t as cooperative as they once were. Yeah, I can still make most poses happen, but the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t support that decision with certain poses—such as with a deep squat (malasana). I can’t deny the feeling of grief and possibly even a bit of resentment that my body doesn’t work perfectly anymore. But dwelling on that does me no favors.
A Minimalist Sequence
Try this minimalist sequence each day for a week. If you like, you can journal about your practice before and after. It will take just 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how long you want to spend in each pose. It’s both muscle-building and restorative. It’s just not fancy.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Take at least ten breaths here to position your body weight as evenly across the soles of your feet as possible. Find the heart opener by widening across your collarbones. Address any overextension (or lack thereof) in your lumbar spine and adjust to remove any uncomfortable pressure. Maintain your spine’s natural curve.
Wide-Angle Standing Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana)
Prioritize the lengthening of your spine versus getting your hands to the floor. You can traction your hands onto your legs or hips or position blocks on the ground to support you. If you tend to hyperextend your knees, consider whether a miniature bend in the knees would be beneficial. If a slight bend feels better, keep it. Aim not to sit too heavy in your hip sockets by making sure to fold forward from your hips, not your waist. If your hamstrings are highly uncooperative, befriend a barely perceptible fold. How the pose feels is the priority over how far forward you can fold. Bending your knees a little more generously may help too.
Warrior II Into Triangle Pose (Virabhadrasana II Into Trikonasana)
Make this two-posture sequence less challenging for your muscles by keeping your hands on your heart in warrior II to give your arms a rest, and by not bending so deeply into your front knee.
Or to amp up the heat-building benefits, bend your elbows in warrior II and engage your triceps and biceps isometrically by contracting your arm muscles without moving your arms. Feel the sensation of your triceps trying to defy gravity. Lift your front heel to build strength in your calf.
In triangle, you can side bend more gently and rest your top hand on your hip.
Or you can work your obliques by reaching both arms alongside your ears and pretending you’re holding a ball between your hands.
Do both postures on one side first, then switch sides and return to mountain pose.
High Crescent Lunge
From mountain pose, step one foot back and bend your front knee. You can modify by bringing your back knee to the ground and resting your hands on your heart or on blocks.
Or turn up the volume by lifting your front heel and adding isometric engagement through your arms by pretending you’re holding something heavy between your hands as you keep them reaching toward the ceiling.
Switch sides when you're done.
Seated Twist (Marichyasana C)
To simplify, hold the bent knee gently with the opposite hand and place the other hand behind you for support. Take a gentle twisting action toward your bent knee.
To increase the heat, make sure your straight leg is engaged and that foot is flexed. Hook your elbow outside the bent knee (which will encourage a deeper twist) and sit as tall as you can.
Be sure to switch sides.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana)
If you want to make this more restorative and easier to hold for longer, consider placing a block under your sacrum. I’d advise keeping it on the lowest or medium setting. Position it perpendicular to your spine. If you place it on the lowest setting, try straightening your legs to see if you like that sensation.
Or place a block between your thighs to assist you in keeping them parallel so that you avoid collapsing in your lower back. Actually, you could do both—place a block both under your sacrum and between your thighs.
Breathe with awareness and confidence, allowing your heart to open and your back to bend gently.
Reconsider what this pose can and should look like for you on this particular day. A traditional savasana may be just what you need, but if your feet, ankles, or knees feel creaky and congested, perhaps legs up the wall (viparita karani ) is the best option today. This can also be done using a chair—lying on the ground with a mat and/or blanket underneath you and resting your calves on the seat of the chair.
Whatever shape you take, make yourself as comfortable as you can so that the stillness waiting for you can be welcomed as the comfort it truly is.
Photography: Andrea Killam