Sometimes, asana gets complicated. We speed through a huge range of different postures in a single class and work hard to achieve new ones; to balance on our arms, move into deep backbends, fold and twist and challenge ourselves.
A complex practice has its place — but it’s important not to lose touch with your foundations.
During my most intricate physical yoga stage, when I was really into working hard to add new postures to my practice and deepen the ‘difficult’ postures I was already working with, I let go of the simple ones.
By neglecting those postures, and other seemingly simple ones like them, I was actually missing out on the depth I was trying to build.
For me, striving for new or more objectively difficult postures was a way to keep my practice interesting. My mind doesn’t like doing the same thing over and over again, and once something is familiar I’m autopilot, entering and leaving a posture without really experiencing it.
Does that sound familiar?
If so, let’s talk about the power of simple postures. Because they are the ones that can keep your practice interesting and empowering and health-supportive for years to come — if you give them the attention they deserve.
One Workshop Changed it All
Three years ago I went to a workshop. It was led by UK yoga teacher and author John Stirk; I’d read his recent book, The Original Body, and wanted to understand his approach first-hand. I thought it might add something to my practice but I didn’t expect it to change the direction of my practice in a big way.
It was a three hour workshop and after some movement to warm up our bodies, we spent most of those three hours lying down with our knees bent and feet flat to the ground, or sitting.
Stirk asked us to cross our wrists under our chins while we were supine, and move our arms very, very slowly during the space between inhales and exhales — extending the moment when the body is empty of the breath, and using that moment to experience movement in a new way.
There was no fast sweaty flow, no long holds of strong postures that made our muscles tremble, but there were moments when my muscles did tremble anyway, and not a single moment when I was bored.
Stirk’s teaching challenged me in a completely new (to me) way, and afterwards I made a commitment to myself:
I would make friends with the simplest postures in my practice. In a way I hadn’t ever done before — even in the very early days of discovering yoga.
How to Make Friends With a Simple Asana
Getting to know those core postures was a process that evolved through months of practice. It was all about depth, and challenging the mind to stay interested, stay curious, and keep noticing new sensations even without the big stimulus of a new or intricately technical asana.
The simplest postures can be intricately technical if you give them the time.
The process grew into roughly these steps:
1. Choose a posture to explore.
Not a flashy one, but one of those postures you’ve always done but never paid that much attention to. Think chair pose, plank, uttanasana (standing forward bend), paschimottanasana (seated forward bend).
2. Practice it — warm and cold.
Flow through sun salutations and a simple sequence, including your chosen posture within the sequence a few times. Return to it; stay in it for longer, try different ways of breathing, different depths of the posture, and always bring the awareness back to it.
And do it cold. Find the posture without warming up — but without pushing your body into it.
Discover the edges of the posture when you’re cold; the sensations of it, the thoughts and feelings that come up when you commit to being patient with it.
3. Concentrate on it, and explore it.
What are your muscles doing? How are your bones supported? What happens if you enter the posture in a different way from usual? Or not as deeply? Or deeper?
How can you use this posture to strengthen the body? How does it translate into your everyday life?
4. Learn about it.
Use anatomy books or the power of YouTube to uncover the workings of muscles and bones in your chosen posture.
What’s it actually doing? How can you make it more beneficial?
5. Acknowledge when you start to hate it.
Hate is a strong word; but it’s normal to feel aversions to something you focus on intensely, especially something usually perceived as simple.
Don’t worry if you start to have negative feelings towards it. Notice that, acknowledge it, and allow it to pass.
But What’s the Point?
All sounds fairly straightforward; but isn’t it boring? You know these postures, you can do them with relative ease; so what’s the point?
The physical benefits are huge. By working deeply in simple postures that don’t demand any compromising twists, bends or very intense pressure on joints in awkward positions, you can strengthen and stretch muscles safely.
You’ll develop your understanding of how your body works in those postures, and when you’re really working with the body rather than pushing it to do something that doesn’t really do it much good.
And you’ll carry that knowledge into the rest of your practice and even your everyday life; you’ll feel the benefits of working closely with simple postures when you’re sitting at your desk, or standing on a moving train, or planting your feet firmly on the ground in the middle of a crowd of people.
But beyond that, you’ll be able to fall back in love with your practice — and increase its capacity it to support your mental and emotional health.
You’ll create a habit of curiosity even when something seems simple. You will learn to look for the details, look for the deeper benefit or potential in everything you encounter.
By focusing on the simple postures you can start to recognize that sometimes, you don’t need more or something, or better of something; all you have to do to find the power in it is look at it in a new way.