At 34, I sometimes feel like an old fogey in my yoga practice.
To be fair, I’m absolutely a little bit of the old-fashioned type and I’m definitely kind of old soul-ish.
And I think the term fancy yoga poses can surely be relative.
When I say fancy yoga poses I generally mean most inversions like handstand and headstand, as well as basically all arm balances, and we can also go ahead and throw in poses that require excess flexibility too.
Yet these are the poses that people are Instagramming. These are the postures that people are rocking out in Facebook profile pictures. (I guiltily hang my head at that one.) And there’s a reason for that—they can be fun to practice and fun to look at.
At the same time, these poses are unnecessary, in my book at least. Why? Here are a few reasons.
1. We don’t need them.
The physical practice of yoga exists to make our bodies healthy for our inner growth, development and enlightenment (or, more simply put, self-awareness). We hop on our yoga mats and move through our asanas so that we are physically capable of sitting for meditation and other mental, emotional and spiritual work that arises during our day.
A more modern perspective on this is simple: I practice yoga so that I can have the patience and necessary attributes to best parent my child throughout the rest of my day. Possibly yoga helps you with anxiety, depression or management of stress levels. Maybe you practice so that you can focus more at work. (I think you get the picture.)
In short, we do not need to contort ourselves into crazy pretzel shapes or bust out insane inversions—they’re simply unnecessary because we can work our strength and create flexibility in other more moderate poses that are ubiquitously accessible and significantly safer.
Are these dramatic poses valueless, though? No, of course not. There’s a reason that we rock out these postures—but we’ll get to that later.
2. We can work harder while doing less.
This one is often lost on new practitioners (which is why this philosophy tends to creep into our practices as we age).
Check out my blog on how we can tell the difference between our quads, glutes and hamstrings within our postures. These suggestions are micro-movements and deep mind-body connections to dig into on the mat—and it’s easier to experience these “minor” yet profound actions within our bodies if we’re not pushing ourselves too far or too hard.
Working “average” asanas like the sun salutation series and warrior poses will allow us to get in touch with ourselves as well as possible, so that we can translate this back into these other—fancier—poses—and sun salutes not flying arm-balances are the morning standard for a reason. (They do the job—working every part of the body effectively and safely.)
3. Go with the flow.
Okay, I said that we would get into this subject later and here it is; we’ll touch upon it a little bit now.
The main reason to practice poses such as arm-balances and inversions, besides their own individual benefits, is that for practitioners who are strong and agile, these poses can once again allow us to get inside of the body and out of the head by offering something more difficult—and I do think that this reason is worthwhile and has its merits, but as I get older my thoughts on this are definitely changing.
Let me tell you why.
This is personal opinion and my experience as my practices continues to mature, of course, so some might disagree, but I find that as I get older I still want challenging classes and sweaty mat sessions, but I’m drawn to classes with more “normal” poses and flows and I’m tending to steer away from classes that tend to wind up with my foot behind my head, for example.
The thing is, I’ve worked patiently and diligently over these years to gain both strength and flexibility (I was never a dancer, a gymnast or anything of the sort), but I find myself more likely to enjoy mellower sequencing because I can really, truly focus on my breath and these aforementioned micro-movements and I just don’t feel the need to do crazy things every single time I want to practice. On occasion, sure. Regularly, not so much.
Additionally, it is easier to stay present—and practice real yoga—when I’m rocking out a super demanding pose—and I guess you could say that I’m finally up for a real challenge.
4. We don’t need to watch the teacher show off.
Often, when these poses are practiced in class, there are only a few people present who can get into the posture.
Now I teach and have taught these “fancy” postures—and I do agree that understanding we don’t need to get into the full posture to be successful is a great lesson to also experiment with on the mat. Still—and I hope I don’t sound cocky here because trust me when I say that I am no Instagram queen—I am, at least from time to time, one of these few people who can get into the full, fancy pose—and from my point of view it’s just awkward to have the majority of the class stop their practice entirely to gawk at those who are trying or, worse, to turn the class into the teacher’s asana ability version of show-and-tell.
If you want to practice fancy yoga poses, here’s what I suggest: go to a specific class where those showing up want to play around with them or attend workshops specifically for inversions or arm-balances; and, teachers, you might want to contemplate exactly what type of class—and what intentions—you’re bringing into your classroom with you.
Most people are taking the time out of their daily lives—and time away from their special people—to attend a yoga class in order to become healthier, fitter, happier versions of themselves—period.
Fancy yoga poses, like I mentioned earlier, can certainly be both fun and entertaining, but I think there’s a genuine reason that seasoned practitioners tend to get more “boring” as their practices age with them—and these reasons I have listed above are just the tip of that iceberg.
So, new practitioners, here’s an idea: begin to play around, not only with trying new poses on the mat, but also with backing off slightly.
Try going 50-70% on the mat instead of 120% and see what happens. My bet is that we all might begin to become aware of sensations that we hadn’t previously recognized—like the work of our strong hamstrings in wheel pose—because over-working in more localized regions of the body has lessened.
In other words, yoga is all about balance.
The “advanced” practitioner isn’t one who can do handstand with lotus legs, it’s someone who understands that backbends are all about lengthening the spine and opening the heart—so if you’re jamming your lower back and stressing out to get there, the end does not fit the means.
Food for thought.
Now get on your mat and have some fun, with or without fancy yoga poses.
This article was previously published on elephant journal.