In praise of the long hold

An offhand caption on an Instagram yogi’s picture made me rethink my yoga practice — specifically, the amount of time I hold each pose. The caption basically said that if you want to see significant progress in a pose — particularly where flexibly is concerned — you need to hold the pose for at least a minute, maybe even as long as five minutes.

I had been holding my poses for about three to five breaths, which roughly translates to about 30 seconds for me. I saw progress of course, especially when I moved from practicing two or three days a week to about five or six days a week. Still, significant progress could seem elusive. Thirty seconds often isn’t long enough for a tricky pose to make sense to me, or to find comfort in uncomfortable poses like lizard or double pigeon. I decided to try a more yin approach and began taking longer holds in backbending, hip opening, and hamstring lenthening poses. I’ve seen a huge difference.

Take splits, for instance. I used to dutifully try to do a split, breathing through my five breaths, and then eagerly leaving the discomfort to do five breaths on the other side. Truthfully, I saw very little discernible increases in flexibility after incorporating the pose in my practice for a few months. The pose remained uncomfortable and unenjoyable.

I started to hold the pose for ten breaths on each side, sometimes repeating the sequence as many as three times. Spending more time in the pose allowed it to “click” with me, finally. I found the pose was less about pressing myself into a shape, and more about allowing my hamstrings and hip flexors to relax and melt into the pose. I felt as though I was finding new layers in my hamstrings, as though I were gently peeling back the layers of an onion. Over time I could catch glimpses of what someone might enjoy in the pose: a delicious stretch deep in the hamstrings, the stabilizing comfort of the floor beneath me. Spending this extended time in the pose has allowed me to sit in a split on my left side, and nearly do so on my right. I’m excited about the physical milestone, but I’m equally excited about coming to understand the intricacies of a pose that remained out of reach for so long; what was once terribly uncomfortable is becoming a place of release and respite.

I’m thankful I gave the long hold a sustained effort. It’s now and integral part of my practice, and my teaching, too. Many of us need that extra time to really get to know a pose, and our bodies in that pose. If you can, try making space in your practice for longer holds. Who knows what new understandings await you?

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