Partner Yoga: A Different Take

This entry was posted on Feb 23, 2023 by Charlotte Bell.

My first experience with partner yoga happened early in my Iyengar training. In classes and workshops, students were often invited to pair off and help each other. For the most part, partnering with someone feels beneficial. If you score the right partner—someone whose hands are both sensitive and sure—you can sometimes experience greater freedom or stability in a pose.

But over the years, I’ve realized that not everyone loves partner yoga. (And to be honest, I like it only sparingly these days.) Partner yoga often invites lots of extraneous talk that can challenge concentration. It breaks up the flow of a class. Also, there are people who don’t enjoy being touched by people they don’t really know. And not everyone knows how to make an adjustment to someone else’s body in a non-coercive way. So, except in cases where all my students are familiar and comfortable with each other, I’ve abandoned using partner poses in my classes.

However, there is a way to practice partner yoga without all these drawbacks. We can actually partner with our own bodies.

Our Obedient Bodies

All day long, our bodies respond to our will. Most of the time we don’t even think about it. We have an impulse to stand up, and our body stands. When we want to walk, our body obliges. When we sit down to a meal, we eat and digest. And so on. Our bodies mostly obey whatever demands we place on them, automatically, and without forethought.

This happens in yoga practice as well. When we want to practice Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) for example, without much thought we:

  • Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
  • Widen our stance to approximately a leg’s length apart.
  • Rotate our feet and legs in one direction.
  • Extend our arms out at shoulder level.
  • Ground into our back foot.
  • Extend our torso laterally, out over our front leg.
  • Place our hand on our shin, or a Yoga Block.
  • Lengthen our torso as we hold and breathe.
  • Ground the back foot to help us lift back up to standing.

All of this requires mental intention and physical effort. While you’re in a pose, you might continue to ask more of your body in the form of pushing further, and we’re often encouraged to do so. But there’s another choice. Once you’ve made the gesture of moving into the pose, you can shift from the inner executive that directs your body‘s movements, to an inner witness.

Partner Yoga and the Inner Witness

The inner witness is our listening capacity. It’s the curious, receptive quality that wants to learn rather than to dictate. Once we’ve made the gesture of forming the body into the shape of an asana, we can shift our minds to that invisible witness. In this way, we are doing our body’s bidding rather than the other way around.

Here’s how I like to practice this:

  1. Set an intention to practice a particular pose. Before you move your body, note what thoughts, mental states or images arise for you. You can experiment with practicing a pose you like, or with a pose you’re not fond of. Try one of each, just for fun.
  2. Move into the pose with intention, feeling each movement from the inside.
  3. Stop at about 80 percent of what you might normally think of as your limit. At your absolute edge, there aren’t a whole lot of choices, and your body may well scream at you. When you stay inside your edge, your body is likely to communicate with you on a subtler level.
  4. Now, relax. Check in with the places in your body where you know you tend to hold tension—facial muscles, shoulders, throat, jaw, abdomen, etc. If you feel tension or resistance in these areas, invite them to begin to release.
  5. Can you breathe easily? If your breath feels shallow or quick, it’s likely that you’re struggling against your body in some way. How can you adjust your pose so that your breath is free and easy?
  6. Can you relax here? Of course, some of the more active poses, such as standing poses, backbends, balancing poses, will require some effort. But can you relax your breath, your mind and your attitude?
  7. As you relax into your pose, your body may signal that it wants to move further. If that’s the case, proceed gently, checking your breathing, your mind and your attitude.
  8. Listen for when your body is done with the pose. Years ago, Donna Farhi suggested that I come out of poses when my curiosity began to wane. That’s one indication. But of course, your body may be giving you signals—subtle or not so subtle—that it’s beginning to tire.
  9. Stay present as you leave the pose. Then pause in a neutral position to feel the aftereffects. If you’re standing, rest in Tadasana. If you’re sitting, you can rest in Dandasana (Staff Pose), or if you’re lying down, rest in Constructive Rest Pose.

Partner Yoga and Mastery of Asana

In the yoga sutras, Sutra 2.47 defines mastery of asana this way. “It is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” What’s suspiciously missing is the idea that performing crazy poses and pushing ourselves to the limit has anything to do with mastery. We can, instead, equate mastery of asana with the concept of partnering with the body.

We make the gesture to move into a pose. Then once we stabilize ourselves in the pose, we let go of our inner executive and turn toward the inner witness. We allow the body to tell us what it needs and wants. When we can relax into where we are, our minds can be “absorbed in the Infinite,” aka the ever-changing present moments of body sensations, thoughts and mental states.

Yoga is the union of body, mind and spirit. When we practice in a fractured way, the mind barking orders at the body, there’s no connection. It’s only when we relax into where we are and respect our body’s requests and wishes that we can experience the union that is unique to yoga. Make a partner of your body, and observe what unfolds.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

2 responses to “Partner Yoga: A Different Take”

  1. Avatar sophie devine says:

    Interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience with partner yoga and suggesting a way to practice it without drawbacks. I appreciate your emphasis on the inner witness and partnering with the body to achieve mastery of asana.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks! After 40-some years of practice, I’ve become much less enamored of partner yoga. It can be fun and helpful, but not everyone knows how to communicate with another body through touch. It can be difficult when the partner you draw makes aggressive adjustments. I love getting feedback, but I’m not so keen on working with partners these days.

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