This winter I’m teaching Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose) every week in my two-hour classes. Every week.
Will simple repetition boost progress in this surprisingly demanding restorative pose? If taught only occasionally, students never familiarize themselves with it. Most require elaborate prop set-ups to accommodate tight quadriceps and iliopsoas, knee and ankle issues, and so forth. If unfamiliar with the pose, they can’t remember how to set up, much less what the pose is about.
Once I established weekly Supta Virasana for my students, I had no choice: I, too, had to practice this pose more frequently. I decided to do Supta Virasana every day.
Setting a new habit
A few years ago I read about Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity tip. I decided finally to try it—with a wall calendar and a neon highlighter. In January I missed two days, and the blank squares annoyed the “completist” in me. In February I didn’t miss a day—and when possible I did the pose twice in one day. Unbelievable.
Such a conspicuous track record was indeed a motivator. Numerous apps have expanded this idea—don’t break the chain!—and might be worth trying: Momentum syncs across Mac devices, while Productive offers more features. I am hesitant, however, to increase recordkeeping (busywork) beyond my existing Mac iOS Calendar and Notes.
Spending time wisely
I’d been feeling guilty about my sporadic practice of Supta Virasana. I’d typically saved this pose for when I might have “extra time,” after I’d done my preferred Gomukhasana or Supta Padangusthasana or any backbend. But extra time is an anomaly.
Now Supta Virasana is top priority and it gets done. Strangely, yet logically, if I commit to something, I suddenly have time for it.
Long ago I read an essay by late US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist about spending time wisely. He contrasted time with money: while spent money can be recovered, spent time cannot be. I tried unsuccessfully to locate that essay, but a Google search did find a commencement address in which he gave similar advice:
For all of life’s disparities in talent and wealth, each of us is given exactly the same amount of time in each hour, and in each day, and in each year. It is a limited amount, and it is impossible for anyone to be so rich in “time” that he can enjoy every single one of the things which time may buy. So, you must make choices….
Supta Virasana was only one example from my long list of things undone. Feeling guilty about not doing something is a signal of misallocated time, of unwise choices. Rehnquist makes a bracing observation:
You may tell yourself that you are only postponing the opportunity to do these things, but in fact you are sacrificing it.
I am sacrificing things beyond yoga poses, I know, but I’ll focus on asana here. Even within this realm of my life, there will never be enough time for everything. Periods of focus—on a pose or a family of poses—can be effective. Last summer I realized during a workshop that I was only vaguely acquainted with Niralamba Sarvangasana. No surprise; I rarely practiced it. At the workshop I watched a classmate demonstrate the pose, smoothly moving her arms from extension (grounded on her blanket stack) to neutral (alongside her body) to flexion (grounded overhead). Inspired, I added Niralamba to my Sarvangasana cycle last fall. It was time well spent; I cultivated a “relationship” with this pose and thus furthered my practice.
Are you wondering if this uptick in Supta Virasana has made a difference? Two months in, my students more clearly understand the pose. Most know that it’s not a backbend (cf. Paryankasana), but calls for neutral spine and relaxed abdomen. Most can build their prop set-ups more efficiently (and I’ve seen a few structural masterpieces). Most can hold the pose for a few minutes.
I vary sequences so Supta Virasana arrives at different stages, although I typically include it before Sirsasana and often allow time for preparatory Ardha Supta Virasana. In March I plan to include the pose twice, at the beginning and again in the second hour of class.
Regarding actual change in their bodies, it’s too soon to tell. Doing Supta Virasana once weekly for two months amounts to eight times. Eight times, in the context of a longtime, perhaps lifetime practice, is a snapshot of the pose.
Me? Even with daily practice, fundamental change will be hard-won. I initially set a minimum hold time of five minutes, but by the end of January preferred to hold for six to 10 minutes. In February I sometimes did two holds of five or six minutes, with a brief break in between—and sometimes lowered my set-up for the second hold.
In mid February I felt a hint of knee irritation. Maybe increasing my hold time within a few weeks was like ramping up running mileage too fast. So I eased back, shortened my hold times, and let my knees, not my ego, guide my practice.
How should we assess progress anyway? For now, sticking to Supta Virasana—for winter, for six months, for the year 2017?—is probably the relevant factor. Only after practicing for a sufficient period can we measure progress in its general definition, as improvement. Zen Buddhist master Shunryu Suzuki said it well in “Bowing,” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, “Oh, this pace is terrible!” But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress….