Have you ever looked at a yogi (or any athlete for that matter) and thought, “wow, that would be impossible for me?” Good news, 95% of the time it's not! So let’s talk a bit about how to approach and master difficult yoga poses.
One of the most amazing things about the human body is its adaptability. Don’t believe me? Ask any advanced yogi where they were 10 years ago. Chances are that their scorpion pose didn’t have nearly as much sting to it.
Ultimately, adapting and advancing our physical capacities is a simple formula of effort multiplied by time. If you stick with something long enough, and find satisfaction in each marginal gain, then eventually, you’ll succeed (there's a broader life lesson in there too, if you want it).
However, this doesn’t mean all “effort” is created equal. There are definitely smarter strategies we can use to maximize our efforts and progress safely and effectively. I won’t say this is going to allow you to get your foot behind your head in 10 days. These aren’t easy fixes. Just tried and true tips and methods that I, and countless other yogis and athletes have used to slowly, safely, and effectively “level up.”
Work Active Flexibility at Your End Range of Motion
Active flexibility and end range of motion are two terms that should be in every yogi’s vocabulary.
Active flexibility is the combination of strength and flexibility that allows you to pull your body into a given position without using gravity or another external force for support. As opposed to passive flexibility where you relax into a stretch, with active flexibility you contract antagonist (opposite) muscles to open areas of the body. This also serves to support and stabilize your joints. For example, a standing forward fold where you allow gravity to pull the upper body downwards will increase the passive flexibility of your hamstrings. Lying supine (on your back) with one leg straight up in the air and one leg straight on the ground, then pulling the lifted leg in (with or without using the hands for light support) will increase your active flexibility since it requires you to activate the hamstring muscles and use the quadriceps to pull the leg to the end of its range of motion.
End range of motion is the maximum mobility you have in a movement. It’s the furthest that you can move a body part in a given direction, generally determined by both flexibility and joint mobility.
Now, when we’re working on difficult postures or movements, we’re generally required to move beyond our current range of motion. A simple example is moving from standing into a Malasana or yogic squat. As we move down, there may be a point at which we feel we can’t go any lower or at which our upper body begins to lean forward to compensate for a lack of flexibility and mobility in the hips. If we continuously work only our current range of motion (for example, squatting down to 90-degrees and back up), we’ll never increase that maximum range. Similarly, if we only passively stretch into our Malasana (perhaps by leaning against a wall and sinking the hips down), we won’t build the strength needed to use the posture in a free-standing state or use the same body position in more advanced variation (such as crow where the body position is similar but the weight is lifted onto the arms). Furthermore, we risk over stretching our connective tissues because our muscles are not engaged to protect them in the stretch. This isn’t to say that passive flexibility is inherently bad or that it can’t be used to help support active flexibility, just that active flexibility is a more functional, safe, and direct path to difficult postures.
So how do you actively work your end range of motion? Let’s use the shoulder mobility we need for a nice, straight handstand as an example. First, we need to find where our end range of motion is. To do this, we can simply lift the arms overhead and backwards, then feel for the point at which they cannot reach back any further. Now, to passively stretch this range of motion (which can/should be additionally be done particularly your shoulders are tight) you could find Puppy Pose by crawling the hands forward from Table Top and sinking the chin and chest to the ground. However, to work your active flexibility in that end range of motion, you may also add Shoulder Pumps into your practice. These are simple movements that begin with reaching the hands backwards and overhead while standing. You then pull back while engaging into the shoulders, followed by a controlled relaxation of the shoulders so the arms come forward slightly. Repeat this motion steadily for 30-60 seconds. Notice if you’re able to reach back a little further by the end of the exercise.
You can apply this to any movement where you need increased flexibility or range of motion by 1) finding your end range of motion, and 2) using controlled, minute movements to safely engage to the edge of your RoM then relax and repeat.
Work on Progressions
While this may seem common sense to some, we’re all guilty of seeing something cool then immediately (and disastrously) trying it for ourselves. The point here is that there are foundational, prerequisite movements for almost every yogic movement or posture. If you want to master an advanced pose, explicitly research and master each of the progressions leading up to it. Break the pose down into its component parts.
For example, if you want to learn Titibasana (Firefly Pose), like in this mini-flow, you need a lot of core compression strength and hamstring flexibility, as well as a good bit of upper body strength and arm balancing experience. So how would a progression that works on these elements look?
Firstly, by looking at the positioning of the upper body relative to the legs, you can see that you’ll need to be able to bring your chest almost to your knees in a regular forward fold. Start there.
Secondly, you can see that the legs are pulling upwards while the hands push downwards. This means significant core engagement and compression strength. To work this, you may take a wide straddle while seated, then work on pressing the hands into the ground between the legs with the arms straight and lifting the seat off the ground. Similarly, you could try engaging the core in the same position and lifting the feet up without leaning the body backwards. Once you master this, try lifting the seat AND the feet at the same time.
Thirdly, you can see that the triceps are under the hamstrings in Titibasana, meaning you need to start in a squat with the shoulders almost all the way under the seat. This means a lot of hip flexibility. Work on your squat. Then slowly work on bringing the shoulders under each leg. From here, try to lift one or both feet with the knees bent.
Now keep in mind, this isn't a progression you would go through in a single practice. This may take place over the course of months (or even years). Master each small movement in each part of the body before moving forward.
To advance, we need to break things down and progress slowly through each component of a posture. Then, we slowly become able to successfully put it all together. When you skip steps, you end up with an unbalanced, partial pose (or even worse, an injury).
Use Negatives and Props
Since we’ve already started building our fitness vocabulary with “end range of motion" and “active flexibility,” let’s go a little further. Two other helpful concepts in yoga are concentric contraction and eccentric contraction (isometric contraction is also useful, but we’ll save that for another time).
Concentric contraction refers to engaging while shortening a muscle. Take for example, a bicep. As you bend the arm and lift the dumbbell towards the shoulder, the bicep muscle is activating and contracting.
Now, eccentric contraction is the opposite. It refers to activating while lengthening a muscle. If you lower that same dumbbell (in your bicep curl) slowly to the hip then the bicep muscle is lengthening while still activating. This is also referred to as a negative (think “going down”). A squat is another easy example. When you squat down, your glutes and leg muscles are stretching while activating. This is eccentric. When you flex your posterior chain and contract those same muscles to lift back up, that’s concentric.
It takes a lot more strength to perform a concentric contraction than an eccentric contraction. Meaning, if there’s a movement you really want to master but can’t yet approach, try to find the eccentric version of it first. While not technically yoga, I like to use the pistol squat (or any one legged squat) variation as an example, such as in this mini-flow. Performing a concentric repetition (standing on one leg from a squatted position) is very difficult for most. However, lowering down to your seat on one leg is significantly easier. The goal here is simply to slow your descent rather than lift your whole body weight up. Once you can perform 3 or 4 good eccentric repetitions of a movement, you can generally get through the concentric version at least once.
We often don’t plan or record our yoga goals in the same way that we would with other exercise programs, however, this can be a very useful tool, especially if you’re trying to approach specific advanced movements. Think about what you want to achieve, research your progressions (as per the suggestion above), and set specific time frames for reaching each marker. You don’t need to revisit these benchmarks each practice, but keep them in the back of your mind. They will both serve as motivation and an accountability mechanism. Plus, when you look back after learning a new skill, you’ll be able to reflect on how far you’ve come!
Now, before we end, we’d just like to note that the practice of yoga isn’t all about reaching difficult poses. Its benefits go far beyond. However, when a fitness-focused practice is what you need, we hope these tips can be of use. Let us know about your experiences with any of these approaches in the comments below! Also please feel free to share anything that’s helped you get past a barrier or take your practice to the next level!