Have you ever wondered what certain Yoga poses are meant to do for you? Have you heard claims that twists detoxify and "wring out" the internal organs, that some poses "open" our hips and shoulders, that some poses help with depression, anxiety, or... fill in the blank. Sometimes it seems like there is a Yoga pose for every affliction of humanity.

I am not going to debate some of these claims here, although I encourage you to approach with a grain of salt any claims that seem a bit too far-fetched. Please do a bit of fact-checking before committing yourself to exertions the benefits of which may be dubious at best. This is what I do want to debate - the need for "advanced" Yoga poses to achieve the kinds of benefits they claim to provide. Does one need to do a Shoulder Stand every day for 20 minutes to receive the benefits of an inversion, for example? If we analyze what function inversion serve, we would find that there is no need to go to extremes to have the effect we seek.

Technical definition of an inversion is when the head is positioned below the heart. This may open the playing field for some who only think of the head stand and the shoulder stand as the "true" inversions. Whenever the head is positioned below the heart, just through the force of gravity, a bit of circulation is increased to the upper parts of the body: throat, neck, head, brain. The longer we stay and the more vertical the body is, the stronger the effects. If that is our assumption, then Viparita Karani (supine, legs up on the wall or chair, pelvis on a slight elevation) held for 10-15 minutes would serve the same or even greater function as a head stand for one minute.

Other inversions include Bridge Pose, Downward Dog Pose, Standing Forward Fold, and a minute or two in each would cumulatively add up to a significant effect by the end of the practice. Moreover, if you practice these poses daily, then the effects would accumulate over time even more. A Bridge Pose every day would surpass in effects a Shoulder Stand once a week.

So, if you are doing Yoga for whatever perceived benefits, take a good look at the content of your practice and ask yourself - would a bag of apples once a week deliver better nutrition than an apple once a day? I would argue that not, and moreover, an entire bag of apples at once may cause a serious stomach upset. Same with the Shoulder Stand - it is a strenuous, demanding pose that has quite a lot of risk involved, and "overdosing" on it on a rare occasion may do more harm than good.

My general philosophy in sequencing a Yoga practice has evolved towards the following: it is better to do a mid-range, dynamic version of the "goal" pose first a few times to warm up the load-bearing body parts, then hold the pose for about 30 seconds, or three-four breaths, to deepen its effects. There is rarely a need to do the final expression of the pose, or its most advanced variation. The dynamic first and static second approach delivers so much function that it outshines any contortion our ego may crave.

Most of the holding of the poses I prefer to do towards the end of class, when the body has been through a very thorough mobilization and can achieve decent alignment. This is where I disagree with the approach of reaching for the prop, be that a belt or a block, in order to find "the perfect alignment" for that extended hold, and artificially propping ourselves in a pose without the dynamic preamble first.

If you cannot be in good alignment without the props, then you need to find a different pose with the same function. This applies to all categories of poses - forward folds, back bends, twists, and inversions.

Let's take a look at a pose that is often taught in group classes that in my view is that bag of apples that may be a bit too much consumed all in one sitting - Parivrtti Trikonasana, or Reverse Triangle Pose. This pose is one of the most demanding and at the same time dangerous for the low back and the sacroilliac joints in the pelvis. The function of it is to twist the spine and by folding forward add an extra element of displacement to the internal organs, possibly increasing circulation to liver, kidneys, and adrenals.

Few people can do the full version of the Reverse Triangle in good alignment without a block. The version below serves the same function - twists the spine while folding forward (a rather dangerous combination safety-wise), yet it is gentler, safer, and doable for most people.

Begin standing with legs apart. Inhale arms out to the sides, exhale and twist from the ribs, then fold forward from the hips, keeping the spine long and low back neutral. Inhale back up. Repeat three rounds (side to side), then hold for 30 seconds on each side, lengthening the exhalation. When reaching across and folding forward, one can bring the hand to its opposite leg anywhere, thigh, shin, foot, not necessarily to the floor. We are looking for creating a bit of effort, but without strain.

Next week I will show Pigeon Pose in the same way - how to make it less stressful and safer, while at the same time receiving all the intended function of "hip opening."

Stay tuned!


Anna M.