The thing is, you learn to do hard poses by doing EASY poses…
I’ve found myself saying this almost daily in the last week, so there must be something to this, both on and off the mat.
In my yoga classes, I generally sequence postures towards what is commonly called an “apex pose.” Apex poses are more challenging asanas that take skill and practice to perform. They require you to juggle more than one action at a time. Sometimes these actions are seemingly contradictory, making these poses just plain hard to do. When you actually get to do them – or even just get a little taste of what it will be like when you DO get to do one down the line – you feel great. That’s the point!
Inevitably, when I teach or demonstrate a pose that’s just a bit out of the class’ reach, someone in the group will ask me, “so, how do I get better at this pose? Just by trying it again and again?” Of course that helps, I’ll acknowledge. But more often, I tell them to go back to the drawing board and work on the actions required by the hard pose in easier poses.
Case in point: tittibhasana, or firefly pose. This is considered to be a “Level 2 Arm Balance” in the Anusara tradition – meaning it’s not straightforward, but it’s not crazy hard either. In this pose, you’re balancing on your hands with your fingertips forward. Your legs are hovering up off the ground spread wide apart, each outside of its respective arm. It’s hard to get off the ground, even harder to straighten your legs out to the sides, and especially challenging to fully straighten your arms. Simply sitting in the prep position willing your legs and butt up off the floor is not going to do much (I’ve tried it, of course!) What will do a lot, however, is dissecting the pose into its requisite actions and getting after those. What are the requisite actions in this pose? For starters, you need to be able to keep your hands solidly on the floor with fingers spread, wrist creases aligned, and all knuckles and finger pads rooting. You need to pull energy up from your fingers into the center of your palm and from there up into your arms and the space behind your heart. All of these actions keep your wrist safe and give you a strong foundation to balance upon. Can you practice these actions in tittibhasana itself? Sure, but given that you’re juggling a bunch of other things at the same time, it’s unlikely that you’ll get anywhere. These hand actions are best practiced in downward dog, chaturanga, and plank – poses you do every day, multiple times a day, that don’t take anywhere near as much focus and juggling. Another action required by tittibhasana is a truly crazy amount of hugging to the midline. Again, can you learn this in a Level 2 pose? Sure. But it’s much more accessible in standing poses. Do you need to hug like mad in Warrior 2? Not really, But you could be “practicing” that action every day, to build that skill and be ready for the day when tittibhasana comes knocking at your door.
Relevance to daily life? Oh yeah, it’s there. At some point, we are all going to be called upon by loved ones to be present in challenging situations – disease, loss, death. Are we going to be able to rise to the occasion? Maybe. If we’ve had practice, almost certainly. That practice doesn’t usually come in the form of helping people through tragedy day after day. More often than not it comes in the form of sticking by each other through small crises – altercations with a boss, minor injuries, or love interests that don’t return phone calls. These are “easier poses” – the ones we can do without too much focus. The invitation is to do them for whomever we can, and with our complete attention, knowing that they build the strength and skill that will allow us to step up when the teacher calls the hard pose name.
We don’t call it a “practice” for nothing. We really ARE practicing, for every curveball life throws our way. And practice makes perfect, right?