Long holding of Poses “Sthira sukham asanam”

Young student holding headstand during Teachers Training in IndiaI have heard so many different things from different people, on this subject of long holding of asanas. I know a person who used to hold headstand for totally longer  than 1 hour per day (during a few different sessions each day I believe) to get her kundalini to rise. She became quite sick, and had a lot of mental problems.  The assessment was that  as a result of all the Headstand, her kundalini certainly did come up – but she was not really prepared, even though she had been staff at an ashram for some time during this practise.  She suffered incredible problems with her liver and digestive system following, and was in the ashram recuperating with ayurveda, for many years. 
 
Other people have a favourite asana they hold for long periods, and they are benefitting from more flexibility, and calm.
 
My personal feeling, now with some years of practise and some mistakes, and some successes, is that we need to hold the postures – some of them – for a long time.
 
I have observed that each of us prefers some asana and does not like to practise others – this is usually what is easiest for us, we prefer – and its easier because of the body/strength/injuries/shape/male female etc. 
 
I believe we should practise more of the asana’s we are drawn to (so for a longer time holding as well!), even up to 10 or 15 minutes if your body is comfortable and fairly relaxed.  For beginners I would never recommend anyone holding any pose except maybe a standing balance pose or something equally simple and not strenuous, for more than 2 or 3 minutes.  The body needs years in most cases to build the strength and balance to hold postures comfortably and steadily for longer than that
It is so important that we enter into a state of “Sthira sukham asanam”,  as Patanjali said, it’s a fine balance between steady holding or strength, and comfort or relaxation.
 
However, we also must keep practising the other asanas we like less – I believe that the more difficult ones we practise for less time and slowly work our bodies and emotions into accepting that pose more comfortably!
 
Note: Any asana we cannot do or find painful at all we MUST check – is it hurting because we are doing it wrong (if you practise at home, take a class with a knowledgeable, experienced teacher and ask her to observe and check that you are entering the posture correctly, and holding correctly, and exiting correctly – there is room for damage and strain in each step!!)
 
What I found is that one or two of my “worst” or least liked/enjoyed postures have become my favourites over the years, as I discovered things about them I needed to adjust in my body – AND in my emotions.  So for example, I used to hold forward bend for only a few seconds in my own practise as it was hard for me, and I didn’t enjoy it. 
 
Then I read a WONDERFUL book from a swami in Swami Sivananda Radha’s ashram, Swami Lalithananda
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Inner-Life-Asanas-Language-Magazine/dp/1932018190/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1258212356&sr=1-1-fkmr2
 and i discovered that the emotion of Surrender is attached to practising paschimothasana and I started to think about surrender and all the things that meant to me, when I was practising – and my forward bend got a lot better, but more importantly, I started to love it – it was a time I could surrender – the pose helped me to work with the mind and emotion…
 
So working gently into holding postures for longer is also starting to work with the mind and emotions – if you can see with your own intuition or the help of an excellent teacher (that book was incredibly helpful!!) then you maybe find the emotional/thought patterns that are stopping you from holding the pose, and you can work with those as well as the body, and start to hold for longer.  I have heard that if you hold some posture for 3 hours, steadily and comfortably, you will achieve a state of samadhi (remember that padmasana is also a pose….  )
 
I also heard (I think from Prahlada) that holding for half an hour means you have mastered the pose – so that seems to be the normal limit of how long you would want to hold any one pose.  But in a 2 hour very meditative class with more advanced practitioners that you know well as a teacher, it is also possible to ask students to stay holding each pose for 5 minutes (Some more difficult like dhanurasana, and salubhasana, only for 3 or less !!) as we do in one class in ATTC.
 
I would not do a fully 5 minutes for EACH posture regularly as a class with students, it is a special kind of advanced, explorative class which only some students will be prepared for.  In this kind of class, one needs to work very closely with the breath, and a teacher would need to be very focussed and help the students to maintain relaxed stances while reaching deeper and deeper, with the breath. 
In my own practise, I often spend 5, 10 or even more minutes in a few of the postures – I like sirsasana, sarvangasana, paschimothanasana, and ardha matsyendrasana – but even this changes, and sometimes I’ll spend 10 minutes between left and right, stretching in preparation for pigeon.  I don’t think I am fully in touch with my intuition, but am starting to listen to my body, and often these advanced long holding stretches bring out emotional and mental scars, or trash which obviously needed resolving!!
I do think that for each person it is as unique as we are individually and as much as we change, and need different things, every day!  Sometimes a quick runthrough of surya namaskaram, some backbends, forward bends, a quick shoulder stand and sideways twist, and maybe a balancing pose to finish is all I can bear – nothing being held for more than 1 minutes – but then I’ll slip into a wonderful meditation, in padmasana, which happily lasts 30 minutes, and of course lotus pose is an asana too – so is there a rule?  I don’t believe there is.  We have to see, for today,  which postures we CAN stay in for longer, and which we NEED to stay in for longer.
And listen closely to our bodies.  Where we are struggling in the pose, but feel we need to pursue it, there is that wonderful process of softening the body using the breath that just does wonders for me – once I get into that mindset, it seems like I can stay in any particular pose for any amount of time!
One special note: If I’ve had tea, coffee, chocolate, a confusingly stressful day with lots of emotions, or eaten a very big meal that is proving hard to digest, I simply cannot stay in postures for long.  And I think thats a good thing – not forcing the body when its uncomfortable.  But I do try to take less of the stimulants, because I love staying in poses for longer.
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