When it comes to yoga poses, the difficulty level depends to a great extent on your strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve got Popeye's arms, you may be able to flip into a handstand and tell a joke while doing it. But if you’re inflexible, no amount of brute strength will help you to pull your leg behind your head. You won’t be able to complete poses that require deep stretching. In addition to the physical demands, yoga poses can be difficult to master on the mental and spiritual planes.
Confronting Weak Spots
Standing poses can help beginners to address weaknesses, such as tight hamstrings, and also develop the awareness of standing on your own two feet. These poses can prove most difficult during the novice stages of yoga practice. For example, the Intense Side Stretch Pose, or the Parsvottanasana, requires that a beginner works on tight wrist and leg muscles and aims to improve extension. In this pose, stand with your legs together and arms by your sides. Put your hands in the Namaste position, palms together with fingers pointing up as if in prayer, behind your back. On the inhalation, jump your feet out to about 3 feet apart. Rotate to face your right leg, exhale and bend forward. Turn your right foot out 90 degrees and the left 75 to 80 degrees. Hold the pose for several breathing cycles and then repeat the movement on the other side.
Acknowledging Cultural Differences
Compared to other cultures, Westerners are used to sitting for prolonged hours on chairs. The concept of sitting on the floor cross-legged in the Lotus Pose is not only alien to the body but also can be excruciating. The hip consists of a ball-in-socket joint surrounded by strong ligaments, which become even more rigid when not stretched regularly. If you can’t perform the Lotus Pose without ample pain or straining your knee joints, perform stretches for your hips flexors first. For example, seated forward lunges will increase the flexibility of your hips. Sit on the floor with your right leg bent with your knee pointing forward and your right foot drawn to your left hip. With the left leg fully extended behind you, sink the right hip into the ground and hold the stretch for a few breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Joel Kramer, a yoga instructor based in California, espouses an approach to yoga called “playing the edge,” according to John Schumacher’s article, “Asana” in Yoga Journal. In this method of teaching, strive to push yourself to perceived limits. Become aware of the precise point at which a physical movement shifts from comfortable tension to bad pain. For example, in the Supta Padangushasana, lie on your back and catch one foot by grabbing the big toe. By raising your leg toward your head, test the limit of your stretch or the point where tension meets pain. As you grow more flexible, that edge constantly changes. From a seated forward bend, advance to the Tortoise pose in which you sit with knees bent. Placing your feet flat on the floor and spread shoulder-width apart, bend forward and slide your hands under your knees. Once you’re comfortable with that pose, try the Foot-Behind-the-Head Pose, or Eka Pada Sirsasana, in which you pull your foot behind your head.
Because the mind tends to be restless and easily distracted by the stimuli of the modern world, yoga practitioners can find the Corpse pose, or Savasana, to be the most difficult yoga pose. When you’re striving to control the different forces in your life, this pose requires that you let go and surrender. Lie supine for five minutes and allow your body and mind to enter a state of deep relaxation. Your heart rate, breathing and metabolism will slow down. Brain wave patterns will also slow down. By detaching and emptying your mind, you can expand your consciousness.
Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.