Slowing down can be a challenge. A slow yoga practice, with each pose held for a couple of minutes, may evoke feelings of impatience or stagnation. It can also be humbling, causing us to feel startlingly weak and shaky in the poses we’ve been practicing for years with ease.
And yet, the challenges inherent in slowing down are invaluable. When we slow down, we have the time we need to refine and fully experience each pose. Admittedly, a slow practice will be less of a cardiovascular workout than a fast, flowing one, but it may help us build strength where we need it most. While holding a pose from one to three minutes, our bodies might find a way to shift the burden of the work from our phasic muscles (which are more superficial) to our tonic, or core, muscles (those closest to the bones, which support them in their healthiest alignment). The shaking we might experience en route is a good sign: the phasic muscles are having their last hurrah before transferring their efforts to these deeper muscles. On the other side of the shaking, it’s not collapse that awaits, but another layer of strength.
Usually the moment we’re dying to move out of a pose is the moment where we’d gain the most if we stayed. Another few breaths and our left foot would figure out how to bear weight, our shoulder blades would figure out how to slide up our backs, our breath would finally jimmy its way through the last vestiges of our resistance. Hold the pose long enough, and the part of us that was not fully participating may well come to life.
Usually the moment we’re dying to move out of a pose is the moment where we’d gain the most if we stayed.
To entice yourself—or your students—to slow down, here are three ways to make long holds endurable, and even pleasurable. Try any sequence of poses you’d like using any of these methods, but commit to holding each pose for one to three minutes, or longer. (Feel free to start with one minute. If a pose is not intensely challenging for you after one minute, it’s a sign you’re ready to hold it for two. If a pose isn’t challenging for you after two minutes, hold for three, etc.) A stopwatch or kitchen timer can be helpful (if we hold a pose according to breath count alone, the breath often speeds up in the interest of getting us out of the pose faster).
A caveat: Holding poses for a longer period will be safer and more productive if you do so while in the healthiest possible alignment. In the vast majority of poses, sending your weight into the four corners of each foot (or, if your feet are not on the ground, reaching through those four corners), while tracking your knees toward your middle toes, are good places to start. In poses where the spine is in its mountain pose (tadasana) shape, be sure to move your tailbone and the back of your head toward the same imaginary yardstick behind you, and lengthen them away from each other. (In poses where the spine is flexed or extended, focus on creating as much length as possible.) Remember to breathe fully: with every inhale, allow the waist to expand. With every exhale, encourage the waist to draw in.
Reward yourself for your stamina with an extra-long savasana!
Though in a slow practice you won’t be transitioning quickly from one pose to another, nor exploring as wide an array of poses as you would in a fast flow, you might be able to quell any restlessness by considering the changes that occur within a single pose—and the myriad sub-poses that each pose contains.
As you hold each pose you’ve chosen for yourself, notice the way in which it feels like one pose after one breath cycle, and another pose after five breath cycles, and another pose after ten. Even without you moving, the pose becomes a new pose, a new pose, a new pose.
A minute passes. Does the pose become harder, or easier? Another minute passes. Does it grow harder still, or easier? Does the challenge move from one part of your body to another? Where do you feel the pose working its magic right now? And now?
Notice the changes that occur in your mind as you hold each pose. What is your attitude toward the pose now? And now? Do you do more thinking toward the beginning of the pose or toward the end? Do you have more objections to holding the pose at the beginning of the hold, or at the end?
In savasana, as you listen to the ticktock of your heart, notice that this pose is also one pose after one minute, another after two minutes, and another after three. Your emotions come and go, your thoughts disappear and reappear, your cells die and new ones form. The worlds inside you and around you are changing with time; mountains and rivers are changing. As you become more relaxed, look deeper: Is there anything that doesn’t change—anything that is immune to the effects of time?
Instead of beginning with stillness, ease yourself into it by moving in and out of each pose of your practice several times before holding it. By practicing this way, you satisfy the part of yourself that craves movement before committing to stillness.
Following your own breath, come in and out of each pose, moving forward and backward or up and down. Gradually make each movement smaller, more subtle. After a minute or so of these ever-decreasing movements, settle into the pose.
As you oscillate in and out of a pose, notice if the urge to move dies slowly, and if your body seems to incline toward stillness of its own volition, as if it belongs there.
Is your mind more active when you move, or when you are still? When you notice fluctuations of the mind, instead of trying to bring them to a sudden halt, imagine that they are getting smaller and smaller, and that your mind is returning to stillness.
In savasana, imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth, slowing down gradually, and eventually finding equilibrium at the center of its arc.
For those of us who prize fast, fluid motion, holding poses can be easier if we can recognize that what we think of as “stillness” may not be so still at all: movements are occurring inside of us at every moment.
As you hold your poses, notice the movements of your breath. What moves with the breath? Can you feel the breath moving your lungs, rib cage, sternum, and shoulder blades? Expanding and contracting the ring of your waist? Can you perceive the reverberations of these movements in your fingers and your toes?
Notice the steady pounding of your heartbeat as it works to circulate your blood. In every minute, your blood loops its way through your entire circulatory system. Can you tune in to the throb of your pulse in your neck, your wrists, elbows, and knees— evidence of the constant flow within?
As your awareness moves further inward, you might even sense the subtle movements associated with the flow of your craniosacral fluid. This protective fluid flows around and inside of the brain and around the spine. It flows according to its own rhythm, whose effects ideally percolate through every bone and tissue of the body.
Visualize the impulses moving to and fro along the latticework of your nerves, the messages being sent at breakneck speeds from your brain to your body, and your body to your brain. Visualize the synapses busily firing inside your brain to create your every thought.
In savasana, now watch how your thoughts jump and glide and flow, one to the next—while you relax atop this spinning earth, inside this whirling galaxy, inside this drifting universe. Is there anything at all that is truly still?