Strike The Pose

I moved to New York City a few years ago with a handful of acquaintances, a yoga practice, and a teaching background. Luckily, it doesn’t take much time to meet new friends in a city where socializing is as vital as vitamin D. It has still taken time to build relationships and trust, but friendly gatherings and opportunities to find common ground are abundant here. Countless times now, my boyfriend and I have arrived home from a night at L’Oubli, a concert, or a birthday dinner without any pictures to show for it. Last Halloween Ariel and I dressed up as a magician team, but sadly we have no digital proof. Ariel jokes that it’s like we didn’t even exist that night. Although he can make a card disappear without a blink of an eye he can’t make the Halloween night disappear with any easy sleight of hand. It isn’t just striking a pose that makes the night true and memorable. In fact, the reason we often neglect to take pictures is that pausing to strike a pose can interfere with actually having a good time. On the one hand, it’s enjoyable to have some of these perfectly-idealized, captured moments-in-time to look back on, but on the other hand the process of taking the shots can interrupt the moment.

In order to find a balance I have committed to taking candid photographs. There is of course an art to going unnoticed because as soon as friends catch on that there is a camera snapping the moment becomes affected, and if I am going to have photographs to look back on I want to have the genuine smiles and features of my loved ones seen in their best light not necessarily the spot light. I often use the feature on my camera that is called “burst”.  After hitting the button once the camera refreshes and reshoots several times allowing me to get a whole sequence of pictures over a few seconds. It is not like a motion picture, but the photos do have a more dimensional quality.

The joy of photography is that it captures one moment in time as our pose signs at the dotted line and forever binds itself into a digital imprint to be tagged once deemed worthy. Look at yogis posing or anatomical cross sections in a yoga reference book, and the images are as decadent as 70% dark chocolate to an anatomy loving yoga enthusiast – to anyone who wants to know THE proper alignment of a pose. Perhaps it is the word “Pose” that is the problem. Wait a minute, there is a problem you ask? Ok, fair enough, perhaps it is the word “Pose” that leads to a misunderstanding in how one can practice yoga. So, for the sake of this article let’s strike the word “Pose” and let us call the yoga shapes by their Sanskrit name, Asana. Asana is more literally translated as: A Seat. I don’t know about you, but when I am sitting, even right now at my computer, I am constantly moving around and adjusting, because if I don’t I feel quite stiff and agitated by the time I do finally step away.

When we begin to practice yoga regularly we begin to develop a relationship with the Asanas. We may hear our teacher say the same basic cues over and over again so we can feel right at home as we posture in downward facing dog, tree pose, half-moon. Perhaps we arrive in a familiar pose and then we try to hold still to ensure that we keep doing it correctly and comfortably. I often ask my students in class to notice whether they have simply placed themselves in the ‘niche’ that they now know to be Triangle or Trikonasana, rather than subtly allowing movement in and around the most centered and balanced alignment of the Asana. I am teaching my students to understand that the various Asanas are not poses we are aligning perfectly for some photograph; each Asana is to be created dynamically in the moment. This is one of the reasons that I also instruct students to place the back of their hand on the inside of their calf when creating Trikonasana.

In this variation one does not have a goal of how low the hand has to go. In other words, the fingertips do not have to reach a block, the floor or the big toe, which are all predetermined distances. Instead, the hand can easily and freely float up and down the inside of the calf depending on our flexibility on any particular day. This makes the pose less goal oriented and more center-focused.

With the back of the hand pressing against its corresponding leg’s inner-calf it allows the nervous system to relax, because if the body is tipping on its side the nervous system is naturally going to ask the muscles to turn on in order to keep us from falling. With the hand pressing into the leg the nerve endings can feel that the hand is grounded via the leg. However the hand is not putting wait onto the top of the shin bone, which can put the knee, ankle and hamstrings at risk.

This hand to leg variation also helps to create a stabilizing lever between the arms and legs via the core, which will allow us to safely revolve the torso in the Asana, to breathe freely and to look up to the top hand. However, rather than holding still once it feels like we are in a peak expression of the pose we can return our attention back to our foundation and notice whether or not the weight of our feet has melted like candle wax down a candelabra toward the path of least resistance. We can redistribute the weight in our feet and the work in our legs, which may open up more space in our backs and because our hand is freely pressing along the inside of the leg we can easily move it up or down the inner-calf as needed. This freedom of the hand in this variation of Trikonasana will allow us the good space and stability we need to stay in the posture safely as we build endurance in this Asana.

If we were to be photographed in a burst of pictures each individual shot would actually show us in a slightly different orientation in and around the most centered variation of the Asana. Practicing in this way will ensure the health of our joints, our muscles, our spine. Also, when we are not attempting to hold a position we can breathe freely, and we can more easily coordinate the breathing body with the physical body and the mental body.

If you haven’t tried this variation before – give it a go next time. Any time we change one thing about the way we practice an Asana we change everything else. Perhaps you will realize how much weight you were putting into that bottom hand, and you will find that your legs and core have some catching up to do. Or perhaps you will find a lot less pressure in the crease of your front hip on those tighter days when the floor or the block feels too far away. Ultimately it comes down to this: May we always allow the postures to inspire us into seeing ourselves and the world in new ways. Yoga helps us to cultivate freedom and to expand our range of motion when we strike the pose and instead create an Asana.

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About Joyce Englander

I teach weekly yoga classes in New York City, which focus on moving mindfully and gracefully with the breath. I believe that learning yoga is similar to learning a language, and the more you are around it the more fluent you become. This blog is an opportunity to share my thoughts and re-visit lessons from class; to create a bridge for students to translate their classroom experience into real life. I am interested in how practicing yoga can help to improve people's lives and reduce needless suffering.
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One Response to Strike The Pose

  1. Stephen Tosh says:

    Joyce: The notion that an asana is not a static concept but something to be explored every time you are on the mat has carry-over to all aspects of life. Your instructions on Trikonasana in yesterday’s class were so insightful and allowed me to understand and explore the asana in a completely new way, rather than simply ‘grasp’ at it. Then, this moorning, I waas reading Richard Freeman’s new book and he had a similarly interesting expositon of the same asana.

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