The Benefits of Practicing Different Variations of Poses

by Baxter
sinjerli-variation-iv-1977 by Frank Stella*
In my recent post Evolving Ideas About Yoga for Healthy Aging I made the following statement about variations:

“Because I’ve realized the limits of always doing poses the same way (you get really good at that body position, but not the vast array of other possible places to challenge yourself), and the benefits to the brain of continued new learning, I now place more emphasis on learning to vary your poses by changing them on your own.”

Nina mentioned that this was an interesting development and maybe worth discussing in more detail. So, I took look back at past posts that touched on some aspects of adding variability to poses and agree that consolidating and expanding on this concept is of value! 

To start, I’ll begin by discussing the benefits and limitations of practicing poses and vinyasas in the same way over time. First the benefits: 
  • You improve at doing the poses, they become easier and you gain strength, flexibility, balance and/or agility required to do them. 
  • You gain confidence in doing the pose with a specific alignment and focus. 
  • You can gradually increase strength and flexibility in static poses by slowly advancing the amount of time you hold the poses. 
  • You can gradually improve balance in static poses by slowly advancing the amount of time you hold poses. 
  • With continued practice, you improve in the agility required to do vinyasas that are always done the same way. 

And here are the limitations from my perspective: 

You miss out on exploring the full range of motion of many of your major joints by always sticking to one form of a pose.

You limit the strength and flexibility benefits to those defined by only one version of a pose-for example, I get really good at Warrior 1 pose with the arms vertically aligned, but not necessarily in other possible positions. 

You master a yoga balance pose or agility practice, but don’t challenge yourself outside the limited alignment needed for that pose or that agile transition. 

Once you learn them, practicing poses or vinyasa again may only require accessing memory and not much new learning.

Now that I’ve put forth my arguments in favor of practicing variations in addition to classic poses, what do I mean by “variations,” exactly? Well, starting with static poses, you can take any classic static pose, such as Warrior 1, and modify the alignment of the pose in some new way, as long as the new position is generally safe for your joints. (Some ways of assessing this is if there is an absence of pain or significant sensation compression while you do the variation and if you are pain free after doing it.) 

For example, you could vary the arm positions in different ways. You could stop your arms anywhere short of vertical and hold them in their new position or you could take them further out to the sides, anywhere from the usual Warrior 2 position up to the usual Warrior 1 position. You could also change the position of your feet in the pose by spacing them a bit wider apart, adjusting the angle of the back foot in or out a bit, or reducing or increasing the distance between your front foot and back foot. All of these minor adjustments will need to be processed by the brain (brain exercise!). They will also challenge the muscles and fascia involved in a new way, with some areas strengthening in a new way, and others stretching to a different degree. And by regularly varying your position in any given pose, you improve the range motion of your joints and create greater strength through your range of motion. 

You can vary static balance poses in a similar fashion, creatively exploring the edge of stability, referred to as “controlled instability,” where you begin to feel like you might lose your balance. My version of Tree pose called Cypress Tree is a good example (to try it out, see my video). In Tree pose, leaning a bit side-to-side or slightly forward or back will stimulate all the components of your balance system to problem solve in order to keep you upright. You can also try this with other standing balance poses, for example, with Eagle pose and Warrior 3.

Although I enjoy static poses and my initial introduction to yoga was in the Iyengar system, much of life, when not sitting in a chair, on a plane or standing in line somewhere, involves motion. So, I am also keen on dynamic versions of poses, in which you start from a neutral position and move in a coordinated way with your breath in and out of the full pose position. For a simple example, here is how to practice Arms Overhead pose dynamically. From Mountain Pose, on an inhalation swing your arms forward and up alongside your head into Arms Overhead pose. On an exhalation, swing your arms back down into Mountain pose. Repeating this cycle 6-10 times. 

Just making static poses into dynamic ones in this way will provide you with all the inherent benefits already mentioned for variations of static poses. Once you are comfortable with that technique, you can add variability into the dynamic poses themselves, such as with arm variations as I described for Warrior 1 or by using blocks or straps between the hands to challenge the body in new ways. You can apply this to just about any pose you have learned, using imagination and creativity to create a new dynamic experience. This includes converting static balance poses into dynamic ones, such as Dynamic Eagle pose (to try this pose, see my video). 

Creating new challenges to balance and agility through new variations is, I believe, essential as we age, as life is unpredictable, so the more places you have visited before by feeling slightly off balance or stepping in a slightly different way, the better your chances of preventing falls. One way I do that with short vinyasas is varying the foot placement, such as when stepping from Standing Forward Bend into Lunge and Downward Facing Dog pose in the Sun Salutations, I sometimes narrow the stance between the feet and sometimes widen the stance. 

In general, any variations, whether static or dynamic, that you introduce into your asana practice become “brain aerobics,” as Ram and I have both described in the past—non-trivial changes to a routine activity, involving multiple senses, which are good for brain health. And as I mentioned in my post Evolving Ideas About Yoga for Healthy Aging, you can also use this creative approach to your poses to come up with new variations that help you to accommodate new physical limitations and changes in health status that are inevitable parts of the aging process. So, next time you are on your mat for a home practice, see what new variations you can come up with! 

To see more on these topics, check out these pasts posts: 

If you want to learn about some of my variations in a classroom setting, there is still room in my upcoming Yoga for Healthy Aging intensive this July 23-28 in Berkeley, California. See for more information and to register. 

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