There is a wonderful moment in Stephen Cope’s glorious book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self where he writes, ‘Hold the pose like you’re holding a baby.’ This one line, in a book jammed with wisdoms, has had a lingering effect in my own practice as well as in my practice of teaching yoga. It didn’t come like a bolt from the blue. It was more like the way of fairy dust, incrementally settling on the furniture, until before you know it, you are inhabiting a more numinous reality than before. Hold the pose like a baby perfectly expresses the kind of mental and emotional stance that allows us to truly progress in our yoga practice and, in equal measure, along the path of self-inquiry. It is a shining gem of a metaphor that can bring us into a more refined and joyful relationship with our practice and with ourselves.
When we hold the pose like a baby, we are gathering together a bunch of positively co-conspiring conditions that can lift our practice to a whole new level. This simple single phrase is a kind of Western mantra, a syntactic formula that delivers meaning on several levels at once; mental, emotional, physical and metaphysical. If this is sounding a bit far-fetched, let me show you what I mean.
So what does in mean to ‘hold the pose like a baby’?
Imagine holding a baby in your arms. Really imagine it, not just visually. Feel the weight on your chest. What is the sensory input? What feelings does this act pull out of you? Even if you’re not a massive baby fan; even if you’re worrying about it dribbling on you (or worse), you will probably feel immediately protective — a sense of responsibility to keep this tiny fragile creature safe from harm. You will likely feel some goodwill towards it, so vulnerable and new to the world, remembering that this was once how you yourself were. You might feel a sense of friendliness, affection — even love. You will naturally give to this baby the lion’s share of your attention, without conscious effort. And as a result of this increased attentiveness, you will be responsive to the baby’s needs, adjusting your hold, tightness, looseness, and so on; adapting to changing conditions. From the ground of all of these conditions, the better parts of your nature will emerge like a shoot emerges from prepared and watered soil. All of these qualities that holding this baby engenders in you; attention, care, friendliness and responsiveness, will envelop you in a sense of immediacy and presence — in a more direct and less filtered experience of the moment. Holding a baby, in short, brings out the best in us, if only for a brief time.
attention, protection, friendliness, responsiveness
So when we hold the pose like a baby, we hold the pose with the best of our attention; we hold the pose with a sense of friendly protection and a responsiveness to the moment; a little extension here, and little relaxation there, not too tight, not too loose, and so on. When we bring this metaphor to bear in our practice, our relationship between our body and the poses themselves completely transforms. We are kinder to ourselves, we are less likely to hurt ourselves, we become more creative, more open and curious, more receptive, and more attentive. Even our breath becomes finer, just as it does when we hold a baby and we begin to match our breath with the subtler baby’s breath. We begin to notice subtle changes, and discover techniques and methods to enter poses that had eluded us in the past. We will progress in ways we never expected. Not from pushing ourselves harder from the pressure of some internalized voice of judgement, but from holding ourselves more lightly with an attitude of friendliness and joyful responsibility.
How not to hold a pose/baby
It can be very edifying to examine the attitudes that we don’t want to dominate when holding a baby, since it’s not a given that we will be inspired to express the best in ourselves every time we practice. We can then examine the same attitudes in relation to our asanas. In examining these negative qualities through the metaphor of holding a baby, we can really see how they impact not only our yoga practice but many other aspects of our life, and how we can cultivate their opposite.
Inattentiveness: I’m holding a baby but my mind is wandering
Result in practice: General unsteadiness; inability to remain present in the pose and tendency to lose track of the posture.
Judgement/Expectation: I’m carrying this baby all wrong and if it cries I’m a terrible person.
Result in practice: An inability to identify and thus rejoice in progress causing a lack of vitality and joy. A tendency to take set-backs personally and to become easily discouraged.
Arrogance: I’ve held thousands of babies. I have nothing more to learn.
Result in practice: An inability to receive or absorb new information.
Recklessness: I could throw this baby up in the air and catch it in one hand.
Result in yoga: Not adequately preparing for poses, resulting in a greater chance of injury.
Pessimism: I’ll never be able to hold a baby properly. I don’t have the ability.
Result in practice: Lack of trust in one’s potential causes a lack of confidence that manifests in half-hearted and mediocre effort.
Impatience: When am I going to be able to put down this baby?
Result in practice: Loss of balance, focus and dissipation of energy.
We can all recognize some of the attitudes in this list when it comes to our yoga practice. We’re all human, after all. What is really encouraging is that in our asanas, we can turn all this around simply by asking two simple questions: what does that pose baby need from me? How can I respond to it?
We can take all of this far beyond the boundaries of the yoga mat into how we hold opinions, for example. Opinions, even well-conceived ones, are nothing more than mental postures. The Buddha warned against attachment to views and advised that these were the most difficult attachments for us to let go of. Even recognizing opinions as attachments is difficult, since we tend to identify with our ‘views’ so closely, almost as if they define us. If we can hold our opinions as gently and as gracefully as we hold a baby, the ground we walk upon will become a much friendlier place. That’s a big ask, but we can begin with the pose — we can hold the pose like a baby — and go from there.