During teacher training at the Iyengar Institute of New York, senior teacher James Murphy once said simply, “If you want to understand an asana, do it for as long as possible. If you can’t do that, then repeat it as many times as possible”. When I mentioned to him that Raya U.D. basically said the same thing when I studied in Pune, James smiled and laughed, “I’ve been right all along!” But all levity aside, the idea of really focusing on a pose that is an obstacle for us is something that I’ve found to be very helpful. I think we often take a more measured route towards a difficult pose, instead of really trying to understand why a pose is so hard or unattainable. The sequences we are taught are well-rounded experiences with clear beginnings and endings – but practice is rarely like that. In fact, I think that if we hold ourselves to the standard of those carefully-crafted sequences all the time, we miss out on the real sloppiness that often takes us somewhere important.
To be fair, it might be unrealistic to simply start with a hard pose and then keep repeating it. But you might pare that hard pose down to a few of it’s more preliminary companions. Don’t like Urdva Prasarita Ekapasasana? How is that Parsvottanasana coming along? Maybe add in a supported Virabadrasana 3 (arms to a chair or ledge), and you’ve got some work. If you just do these poses once or twice on each side, you aren’t likely to penetrate those difficult parts. Now in class, the idea of doing a vignette like this over and over might… make you a very unpopular teacher. But one starts to see, to really ‘break through’ and transform those difficult poses, we need to stay and marinate for a while.