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Balancing Act: Active and Passive Asanas

Posted by Alice Jennings on 4/16/2014

I have always been fascinated with the idea of healthy living. I love eating vegetarian and even raw or vegan nutritious foods. I tend to pass on the pizza. When it comes to exercise, however, I used to overdo it. On a typical Sunday, I would wake up for an early morning run, then drive to the gym for another hour of cardio, and finish up my not so stress-free day with a vigorous ashtanga class at 5. I used up almost all of my free time either eating or working out. For the sake of having a personal life, I decided to only do yoga three times a week and cut out the long drives to the gym and boring and sometimes painful runs.



Now I’m just a yogi. Let me rephrase: I am a yogini fully devoted to my practice. I’m not a runner, I don’t go to the gym. If I’m “exercising”, I’m on a yoga mat -- in my living room or in a studio. Yoga keeps my inborn mental health issues in check and decreases my stress levels. And all of this has made me a happier person. Yoga helps me stay grounded. The more that I practice, read ancient yogic texts and study yoga philosophy, the more I grow as a person. Change is unavoidable and can be intimidating to many people. Creatures of habit avoid trying new things. My most recent change has been from attending only super sweaty classes to the ones in which I try to just stay awake. I like hot yoga, vinyasa, and ashtanga, but the longer I live, breathe, and swear by yoga, I’ve come to realize that the slower, passive types of yoga are just as important as the flowing, sweaty, calorie-blasting active classes.


Passive yoga poses make up the majority of asanas in restorative or yin classes. What are passive asanas? It’s a concept that is easier to define once I explain what an active pose is. An active pose is any asana in which all or some of the muscles are engaged and stretching. Even child’s pose is typically active -- although we sink down and rest the bottom half of our bodies, the arms are pushed out and engaged as we flex them forward alongside the ears. Upward facing dog and down dog are active poses because we engage muscles in all parts of the body. Active asanas need to be balanced with counter movements. In complicated moves like revolved side angle pose, we must engage every muscle group and every part of the body actively and accurately or we are not in asana.



Passive asanas are yoga poses in which the body totally relaxes into the pose, supported by bolsters and other props. Instead of holding a pose, we sink into it. The muscles and body parts used in passive asana are softened and relaxed. Because of this, we can hold passive asanas much, much longer than active poses. Many passive poses are on the floor. The goal of passive asana is to target the deep connective tissue in between muscles, the fascia. This goal is reached by sinking the body into a pose for a longer time than active asana, and by moving the body closer to the bone in a passive position. Even plough pose can be a passive asana when we are propped up with bolsters and/or blankets and our muscles are relaxed. The benefits of each pose are reaped more effectively and noticeably when we hold that pose for a long time (up to 10-20 minutes, sometimes!). Passive asanas bring more meditation to a yoga class, and while you are holding lengthy passive poses, your instructor will most likely talk to you and guide you as if you were in meditation class or savasana.


Here are some benefits of a passive practice:


  • Calm/balance mind and body

  • Increased stamina and endurance

  • Instigation of myofascial release

  • Reduced stress, fear, anxiety, and depression

  • Better sleep quality

  • Balanced chakras = balanced physical and mental state


Just like we balance active poses in a vinyasa class by doing every pose twice -- one on each side, we balance our yoga practice by incorporating yin and restorative classes into our yoga regimen. Personally, yin yoga has helped me stay grounded and helped by actual balance in class -- something I have always struggled with. I never thought that laying on a pile of yoga props could help me later handle five minutes in tree pose, but it somehow does. How has incorporating passive asanas through yin yoga or restorative yoga helped your practice as a whole? What is your favorite passive pose?


Related Item:

1. Yoga Bolsters - Wide Selection!


By: Alice Jennings (G+)