"How long should you hold a yoga pose?"
Someone asked that question last week in yoga teacher training.
Meet Amar Bharti Ji (above).
He says he’s been holding his right arm up in the air since 1973. His story goes like this: Amar was an average middle-class family man. Then, one morning in 1970, he woke up and decided to dedicate his life to Shiva. He left his job, family and friends to dedicate himself to his spiritual practice.
Three years later, feeling he was still too connected to mortal life, Amar decided to make a sacrifice - his right arm. He raised it as a sign of his devotion - and never put it back down. Amar's sacrifice means his arm is no longer functional. He experienced years of excruciating pain. But the pain has now passed - and his arm is atrophied and frozen in this position.
Most of us would probably agree that 48 years is waaaay longer than we’d care to spend in any yoga pose. But you probably also have different goals for your practice than Amar does. So, how long should YOU hold a yoga pose? IT DEPENDS. On what YOU want to get out of your practice.
Do you want to relax? Build strength? Increase flexibility? Get a quick energy boost? Find enlightenment?
The key to getting the most out of your yoga practice lies in matching the goal you’re trying to achieve with the right kind of practice.
And the kind of practice you do will determine how long you hold your poses.
So, a great place to start answering the question 'how long should you hold a yoga pose?' is by identifying your goals. For example:
But before we dig any deeper into the benefits of different kinds of yoga practice, we’ll need to take a quick detour into some movement science. Here's a short video that walks you through the 3 basic styles of stretching we use in yoga practice and how they affect your body/mind.
1. Dynamic Stretching
2. Active Static Stretching
3. Passive Static Stretching
Benefits of Long Hold Times in Static Poses
Restorative Yoga, Yin Yoga and Iyengar Yoga are a few examples of practices that are famous for using long hold times – but they do it in dramatically different ways to achieve completely different outcomes.
In Iyengar Yoga there’s a strong focus on alignment and on holding active static poses. This style of practice helps you:
I asked one of my early yoga teachers, Nesta Falladown, a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, how long you should hold a yoga pose. She had a long list of 'it depends' in addition to the ones we've already covered. She says:
“it depends on experience in practice, age of the student, how they
feel at the time of practice, what it is they need on that particular day,
what their state of mind is, weather, the level of difficulty of the asana,
the state of the breath …” She goes on to say that ' A short answer and good guideline is
to start with shorter holdings and build up. Start with 15 seconds
or less if stamina is not strong.
BKS Iyengar suggests holding:
She recommends reading “Light on Yoga” or “Yoga: A Gem for Women” for more specific detail on how to perform each asana from the Iyengar perspective.
If you specifically want to increase your flexibility, the current ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) exercise guidelines are to do static stretching:
Yin Yoga focuses on long holds of passive static poses and gentle stretching. This style of practice helps you:
Restorative Yoga focuses on holding passive static poses for long periods of time. In Restorative, you’re aiming to get into a position that’s completely comfortable and just relax - without stretching or strengthening anything. Restorative yoga:
Benefits of Short Hold Times in Dynamic Poses
Vinyasa Flow and Ashtanga-style yoga practices use dynamic stretching, which helps you:
Sometimes you’ll experience several of these styles of movement within a single yoga practice. This often happens under the umbrella of ‘Hatha’ Yoga. And, of course, every yoga practice with a Restorative Savasana.
So, how long should you hold a yoga pose? It depends.
Whether you’re challenging yourself to lie down and relax for 20 minutes, to hold a plank for 30 seconds, to get to the end of a 70-minute dynamic Vinaysa Flow - or to hold your arm in the air for the rest of your life as a sign of devotion – the point is to meet YOUR goals and transform YOUR limits, whatever they may be … and however long it takes.
These stretching and flexibility guidelines are in Table 5.6 of ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 11th Edition.
When I took my first intensive yoga teacher training, a classmate asked if I felt like yoga was changing me. I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment, but I remember saying “I feel like I am starting to appreciate my body for what it can DO rather than the way it LOOKS.”
That answer kind of took me by surprise. Years later, in Exercise Psychology class, I learned that it’s typical for women to view their bodies as ‘objects’ - but hadn’t realized I saw myself that way until the moment I put it into words. I also learned that yoga is especially effective at shifting people out of objectified body consciousness and that yoga people tend to be more satisfied with their bodies, with fewer body shape concerns. What I would learn over the next 15+ years of dedicated study and practice is that:
Seismic shifts in self-perception happen when you learn to pay attention to your body.
And yoga is really, really good at getting you to pay attention to your body.
The Buddha said developing awareness of physical sensations is the foundation of mindfulness training. And for good reason. You have to have a body to have any kind of experience at all! Your body, and the sensations moving through your body, are always taking place in the present moment. When you focus your attention on sensations, you aren’t feeling what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. You can only feel what is happening RIGHT NOW - which makes sensory awareness the perfect foundation for anchoring your mindfulness practice. If you’re focused on how you feel, you are present in the moment.
When you shine your ‘attentional spotlight’ on any of your 5 senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell), you are using a form of sensory awareness called exteroception. In yoga, you use this type of awareness when you feel your body in contact with the ground, consciously focus your gaze (drishti) or focus on the sound of a gong in meditation. These types of awareness practices can enrich your relationship with the world around you by enhancing your sense of connectedness to your environment.
Try this Meditation on the 5 Senses
What you may not know is that you have more than 5 senses!
Your 6th and 7th senses are called proprioception and interoception.
PROPRIOCEPTION – YOUR 6TH SENSE
This is your ability to sense your body position without any visual feedback. When you’re driving and you move your foot between the brake and gas pedals without having to look at your feet, that’s the magic of proprioception at work. A well-known proprioceptive test is the ‘sobriety test’ where you close your eyes and touch the tip of your nose with your index finger (or not). Try it.
You have probably noticed that there aren't any mirrors in a yoga studio. When you’re in Warrior II, for example, and you’re learning to sense whether your shoulders are elevated or relaxed … or if your wrists are in line with your shoulders … without the help of a mirror or any other visual feedback, you are honing your proprioceptive sense.
This process of observing and refining your body’s positional sense - without thinking about your body in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘attractive’ or ‘unattractive’ - gets you to see yourself through a lens of non-judgmental self-awareness. The more you practice seeing yourself this way, the more natural it becomes to view yourself with curiosity and objectivity rather than through a lens of criticism, judgment or social comparison. As you train your proprioceptive sense and become more coordinated, balanced and confident your sense of appreciation for your body grows too.
INTEROCEPTION: YOUR 7TH SENSE
Interoception is your ability to sense signals and rhythms that originate from deep inside your own body. It allows you to feel your heartbeat and sense muscle tension. It also lets you know when you’re hungry or thirsty; if you’re tired or have low blood sugar.
Interoception can also help you to regulate your emotions. You need to be able to correctly sense the physiological changes that go along with different emotions so that you can interpret what you’re feeling. For example, the experience of ‘fear’ feels like shallow breathing, a racing heart and increased muscle tension. Your ability to be aware of and identify different kinds of body sensations translates into your ability to notice feelings like stress, anxiety or tension and deal with them in the early stages.
This is essential to your well-being. Many modern diseases are believed to be ‘diseases of dissociation’ from the body. Anxiety, depression, gut disorders and eating disorders are some of the ailments that fall into this category. In these illnesses, awareness is skewed. If you aren’t able to correctly monitor internal processes - if you can’t tell in the early stages that something is off - it’s hard to take the right steps to restore your body’s delicate balance. Training interoception teaches you to hear your body’s ‘whispers’ now, so you don’t have to hear it ‘scream’ later on!
Norman Farb, a researcher that studies the relationship between interoception and health, suggests that as you get better at this type of sensing, you learn:
Developing presence and agency means that you practice listening to your body and giving it what it needs.
Many of us have been desk-bound for the majority of our lives, and have had to learn to live ‘from the neck up’ in a job that demands you pay attention to deadlines and schedules rather than your body’s biological urges to eat, rest, use the bathroom or move. A mindful movement practice can put you back in touch with your senses. As you get better at reading your body’s signals you can get better at giving yourself what you need to keep yourself in balance.
Here's one of my very favourite interoception practices. The Heart Rhythm Meditation
Our brains have two distinct ways of operating:
Mindfulness practice develops your ability to be in the ‘direct experience’ state. Focusing on direct sensory experience filters out your relentless ‘default mode’ mental chatter. When you catch yourself telling stories about yourself like: “I don’t have the body to wear that” or “I’m too old”, you are operating in ‘default mode’.
Mindfully focusing on sensations helps you develop your ability to tell the difference between what is objectively true (present moment sensation) and what is story-telling and judgment (your thoughts about what is happening). When you focus on bodily sensations, you give your mind a break from ‘thoughts gone wild.’ Once you’ve trained yourself to notice the difference between thoughts about reality and reality itself, you can decide which thoughts are worth paying attention to and which ones to ignore.
Your brain is a random thought generator. It is going to spin stories because that is what brains do.
You don’t have to believe or listen to every story your mind conjures up.
Practice sticking to the facts about your experiences. Focus on body sensations and functions. Statements like “I just held plank pose for 30 seconds. I am getting stronger.” or “I really let go in savasana today. I feel so relaxed.” are good examples of ways to think about your body that foster appreciation for your body by putting you in touch with objective truth and direct experience.
Learning to draw your attention inward and ‘sense yourself’ with curiosity, accuracy and objectivity - leads to greater understanding, respect and love for your body. While this isn’t the purpose of practicing yoga, it is a wonderful side effect😊
Farb, Norman et al. “Interoception, contemplative practice, and health.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 6 763. 9 Jun. 2015, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763
LIBERATED BEING PODCAST - Interoception, Contemplative Practice and Health with Norm Farb
LIBERATED BEING PODCAST - Interoception in Practice with Bo Forbes
There’s a saying that goes ‘anxiety lives in the future and depression lives in the past.’ Too much time spent worrying about the future or ruminating on the past steals from our enjoyment of the present moment. And if peace is going to be found anywhere, it’s in the here and now.
According to a 2010 Harvard Study, we spend almost half of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. That’s half the day spent with your mind and body doing different things! Participants reported they were less happy when their minds and bodies weren’t rallied around the same task.
People that live more in the present, tend to be happier and more relaxed. It’s not that hard to understand why. The ability to let go of heavy over-thinking is a gift. So is the ability to see and experience life and relationships without preconceived ideas (especially negative ones that have NOTHING to do with your current relationships). Being in the Here and Now puts us in touch with openness, creativity, playfulness and positivity.
Don’t get this twisted though. It’s perfectly natural and healthy for your mind to wander. We have to spend some time thinking about the past and planning for the future. The key is to be able to be present when your presence matters. Here are some time-tested techniques for bringing your mind into the ‘here and now.’
1) Set an Intention
An intention is a force – like a magnet – that pulls your attention towards certain things and away from others. If you want to steer your awareness towards being in the present moment and away from rumination and worry, begin by setting an intention to do just that. Try one of these statements on for size and see how it feels: “I am here in the present moment. All that exists is now” or ‘My power is in the present moment.” Repeat it to yourself often to focus your attention, time and energy on what is happening NOW.
2) Adopt a Mantra
Think of your mind like an untamed puppy. Puppies are famous for getting into mischief. They’ll chew up your furniture, get into the garbage and drag it across the floor if you leave them unattended. Give that puppy a bone and it will sit quietly and chew. Using a mantra is like giving your mind a bone to chew on – so IT doesn’t start dragging out the garbage.
Try the mantra ‘Just this’. Anytime you need to bring your mind back into your body and into the present, say ‘Just this… Just this conversation, Just this drive home, Just this paragraph…’
3) Return to Your Senses
Reel your awareness back into your body with this quick mindfulness trick, known as the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique. Sit quietly. Tune into your surroundings and notice:
5 things you can see: your hands, a tree, a cup
4 things you can physically feel: your feet on the ground, the pen in your hand, clothes against your skin
3 things you can hear: birds singing, your breath, a whirring fan
2 things you can smell: coffee, fresh-cut grass, rain
1 thing you can taste: the air, a mint
This exercise helps to bring your awareness into THE NOW
4) Tune Into Your Beath
Follow your breath in and out. This is a basic mindfulness meditation practice that settles your body and mind. Your breath acts like an anchor that keeps your awareness tied to the present moment. Your breath is always with you and it’s always happening NOW, so you can tune into it anywhere, anytime. When your mind wanders, just return to your breath. This trains your ability to steer and re-focus your attention at will. Here’s how to calm yourself and come back to the present when you get lost in thought:
5) Do Some Balancing Poses
Can you imagine drifting off and forgetting what you’re doing while you’re in Eagle Pose? Me neither. It just doesn’t happen. This is why balance poses are a great tool for getting out of your head and into your body. Try the Warrior III balancing sequence above or create own balance pose sequence using:
6) Take a Mindful Walk
Take a relaxing walk outside. Open up your senses and take in your surroundings – sights, sounds, smells, temperature, feel the sun or breeze on your skin. Observe with an open, curious mind and without making up stories or explanations about your experience. Notice what draws your attention. Whenever you notice that you’re lost in thought, bring yourself back to walking with awareness of your surroundings.
7) Immerse Yourself In A Creative Project
Anything challenging that requires focus, skill and mastery is good for practicing mindful attention. Whether you compose a piece of music, make a floral arrangement or paint a portrait of your cat, creative pursuits can lead you to a flow state where body and mind are fully integrated around the same task. Pick a project. Bring mindful attention to it, and resist the urge to judge the result. It's about the process; not the final product.