I’ve been doing yoga regularly for over 3.5 years now, and in that time you see a lot of physical changes. Some poses become possible, others downright easy. But perhaps surprisingly there are some that I found doable but difficult when I started, and still find them just as difficult now. I think my form has improved, but there is still a long way to go.
Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose | Utthita Hasta Padhagustasana
With a name that just rolls of the tongue, this is one of the standing poses in ashtanga primary series. It has multiple stages: leg forward, leg to the side, then back to the center, bow down, then let go with the hand and hold the leg up on its own.
Every single stage is challenging. It starts with getting into the pose. Ideally, you’d stand up straight, lift your leg straight all the way up (slowly, without kicking wildly) until you grip the toe with your hand. Another way is to start from forward fold: grip the toe and then stand up with leg straight and extended. I’ve made some improvements in both, but in both I still have to bend the leg a bit to get where I need to be.
Once you’re up, in the beginning, most people (including me) will have to initally hold their knee instead of their big toe. Once you get used to the balance, you can start working with the leg extended. It takes a lot of flexibility and strength, and even though I can passively do splits, keeping both legs even mostly straight is a big challenge. For the next stage, I can’t go very far to the side with proper form (keeping hips level and facing forward). This could be a physical limitation or lack of flexibility.
Once you’re back in the center, you try to bow down and touch your nose to your knee, which I can only do part of the way. Then comes the best bit: letting go with your hand and holding up your leg for five breaths. I’ve definitely seen improvement in this stage, since I started at about 45° or even lower. Recently I’ve had a couple of times where I managed to hold it just above 90°, but progress has been very slow. I expect the final version of the pose (holding the leg up at ~120°) will take me another couple of years.
Chair | Utkatasana
To be completely, this might be my least favourite yoga pose. It’s funnly because it’s such a fundamental pose and you can’t really avoid it, so I practice it several times a week. And yet, I always feel like I’m not sitting back nearly far enough, keeping my back straight enough, or otherwise doing it improperly. To be fair, people do teach it a bit differently, so you might end up getting different adjustments or cues and getting confused.
One of the hardest parts for me is the positioning of the arms. Traditionally you’d keep your palms together. With my shoulders becoming stronger and therefore tighter, that has been even more challenging than it used to be. Even with hands apart it’s not easy. A good way I’ve found to practice this is with a variation of locust pose, which is sometimes called superman hold in other disciplines. Lie on the floor on your front, then raise your upper body and keeping your arms straight and in front of you.
Warrior III | Virabhadrasana III
I recently did pose in a yoga class and it inspired me to think about this topic and write this post. I’ve technically been able to do Warrior ||| since I started yoga. Unfortunately I never took a picture, but I’m fairly sure my form used to be worse than it is now.
I probably only do this pose once every couple of weeks (since you might see it in rocket, but not in ashtanga). That may explain why I feel like I never moved much beyond its most basic expression. I prefer to keep my hands in prayer or extended back, like in the picture below. More advanced versions are with hands extended forward or in prayer behind the back. I still can’t do either of those without struggling or falling out of the pose.
One of the hardest parts is actually keeping your hips level. Naturally, the hip of the raised leg wants to stack on top of the other, because that is easier, and I’m sure I did this wrong when I was a beginner. That is the hip position you should have for Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana), but not in this one.
One place where I think I have improved and quite enjoy practicing is transitioning in and out of this pose. Often you’d enter this pose from a lunge or Warrior I or II. I actually prefer coming in the other way – from standing with leg raised, e.g. Utthita Hasta Padhagustasana or a bent knee variation. A common exit is into standing splits, or gently moving back into lunge/other Warrior poses.