What’s with All the Pretzel Poses?

This video is less a How-to and more a chat about the wacky poses we often see in yoga–and in memes making fun of yoga. Bound twists, arm balances, upside-down and sideways–I thought yoga was about de-stressing and zoning out!

Actually, yoga is rarely about zoning out, even though that might happen now and again during shavasana. What’s happening on the mat is zoning IN, completely inhabiting the entire continuum of the self (body, mind, soul, spirit).

And de-stressing? Well that takes on many forms. We can’t always default to red wine or dark chocolate or deep fried pickles. (Well, we can, but on down the line, we’ll be adding new layers of stress to our already overwrought bodies.) One of the most effective ways of removing stress is physical exercise. Moving the body which increases circulation of oxygenated blood throughout the body helps clear the bloodstream of stress hormones. Sometimes our stress levels call for the heart-thumping push of a vinyasa practice. Other times we need to still the buzzing of the mind with a focused Yin class.

Three reasons pretzel poses are part of the yogic equation:

  1. Purely physical level: increased strength and mobility. Confession time: the first time I got myself up into crow and was able to hold it, I got a real sense of glee. Never in my youth was I able to do an effective handstand and there I was holding bakasana. We so often associate aging with being able to do less with our bodies than we did in youth. Exploring pretzel-y possibilities we learn that there are ways in which we might be able to do more than we did as bendy adolescents.
  2. Mental: developing a physical intelligence. We don’t just launch ourselves into astavakrasana (8-angle pose as shown in the title image) or hanumanasana (full splits) the first time we enter a yoga studio. We learn what muscles need strengthening, what areas need opening. We learn proper alignment–what it is and what it feels like. We begin to determine the difference between the sensation of sensibly overloading the muscles and potentially dangerous pain.
  3. Integration: the mat is our laboratory for the real world. The real world throws all sorts of chaos at us and we’re expected to navigate through the distractions to live an authentic life, a life that expresses our true selves. We are not our deadlines. We are not our frenzied schedules. We are not the flurry of emotions (fear, anger) that arise to try to deal with all of it. Somewhere inside, there is a still, quiet place. From that place, we make wise decisions. From that place, we are able to know and express what is needed. Problem is, when we’re standing in the whirlwind, that place is not so easy to access. Here’s where yoga comes in: on the mat, we put ourselves into physical chaos, a chaos that we have control over since we can come out of it at any time. In the midst of that chaos, we’re told first to focus on the breath. Consciously slowing down the breath tells our parasympathetic nervous system to relax. Focus on the breath also keeps us in the present. Stress often arises from worries about the past and anxieties about the future. On the mat, we train ourselves to slow down and come into the present so that we can honestly assess our edge in any given pose. We, then, come from a place of wisdom (Am I pushing too much? Are my fears holding me back?) and a place of kindness (I’m okay right where I am.)

How does that last point work with pretzel poses? For some, chaos is uttanasana; the second we start to fold over straight legs, our body is sending us complaints of discomfort. As we progress in our practice, we have to go somewhere else to call up the whirlwind, maybe svarga dvijasana (bird of paradise pose, as shown on the video thumbnail). There is always somewhere else to go in yoga, to go deeper, to hold longer, to reach higher. There is no final destination, and so one’s edge is constantly shifting. As we work the physical, we work the mental. As the body works harder, so too does the mind in order to maintain the “repose in the pose”–and we can bring that habit of mind (with its wisdom, patience, and kindness) out into the world.




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