Why I Don’t Hold Poses and Neither Should You

I never hold poses. Holding poses is too much work. Here’s some of how Dictionary.com defines to hold:

19. to remain or continue in a specified state….
Hold still while I take your picture….
21. to keep or maintain a grasp on.
22. to maintain one’s position against opposition; continue in resistance.

Even if you intend to mean just “remain here,” it’s part of the connotation of “to hold” that you are keeping yourself in a static state, resisting against opposition. Note their example of “Hold still while I take your picture” – that’s what people think of when they hear the cue to hold:  Stay still. Don’t move.

The problem with holding  a pose still is that your body is hardly ever in a static state, because you are always breathing. If you are not breathing for more than a few seconds, you are dead. You really don’t want to aim for more like death. Go for more life in your postures!

You Are Always Moving

What happens when you breathe ? (follow that link for a little anatomy knowledge). You move. Your whole body moves. The big movements of breathing are the torso expanding and softening. That’s because respiration is initiated when the diaphragm contracts and pulls down. This action inflates the lungs and expands your whole torso. The diaphragm attaches to the lower ribs and your spine, so they are moved as the diaphragm contracts. – and your ribs and spine are some pretty big parts of your body. When the diaphragm relaxes, everything that expanded softens back to the original position.

These movements are happening at a rate of 12 breaths per minute, so that’s a lot of moving you are doing while you are sustaining a posture for 1, 2, or more minutes.

breathing lungs photo: Breathing Lungs thl_8c01eb1e2e948fc70d33bb1baad4fc0.gif
The whole torso moves as you breathe.

If you are relaxed, your shoulders are also floating along with the movements in your torso, and if you are relaxed then your arms and legs are also moving a little in response to the big movements of your torso. Your whole torso moves as you breathe. In fact, every cell in your body expands and condenses when you breathe – even the cells in rigid structures like your bones and cartilage.

Notice in the video clip at left how big the movements the ribs make as you breath are. Remember the ribs are bones and cartilage they so cannot move by themselves. There are muscles attached below and around the ribs making them move.

Watch the tops of the shoulders, the neck, the belly. They are all moving. The back of the torso is moving, too, though you can’t see it in the picture.

downward facing dog pose
In downward facing dog, the torso is suspended. The motions of breathing can be especially large in this position. (image credit: Susie Anderson)

In a pose like downward facing dog, where your torso is held in suspension, the movements of your torso can be exaggerated compared to the movements you typically make when you are sitting or standing.

You have to work to stay still. To hold the pose statically, you have to dampen down the movements your body is making as you breathe. That is a futile effort because your body has to breathe, has to move. So when you try to keep still, you put yourself in this position of fighting the big ongoing movements of breathing, and that’s why Down Dog can be such a tough pose if you are struggling to keep it static. Letting your body move is a lot easier, and it’s a lot more fun.

Do This Instead

Instead of holding a posture, sustain it. Here’s the definition:

Doesn’t that sound better?

Work with the movements you are already making as you breathe. It’ll feel like your torso is floating. Every time your breathing muscles relax, sink down more and let go of any unnecessary effort you are making. Soften in preparation for the effort that is about to come.

Every time the muscles of respiration contract, extend, get taller, move a little more forcefully, reach, push, get long — deepen your pose.

Let the pose keep going as you sustain, get more and more relaxed and more and more intense as the time lengthens.

In this way, you can sustain the pose for long periods without strain. It’s energizing to work this way. You can enjoy the posture for a longer time than you can if you forcefully grip and hold yourself static.

If you are interested in having me teach your students about sustaining versus holding, I teach a workshop on breathing (Gorgeous Sun Salutations) where I show you how to work with the movements of breathing, not against them.