A student asked me recently what was more important, staying in the posture or trying to keep going further even though she couldn't stay in the posture, specifically, keeping her balance. This is an important question, one that many students have, probably because as teachers we have different philosophies and depending on who you ask, you will typically get one of two responses. The typical main responses to this type of question are one, "challenge yourself to not fall out" and two, "if you fall out, get back in and keep trying"; or some version of these. Neither is right or wrong in my opinion, it just depends perhaps on where you are in your practice and what your goals are for your practice.
Here's my interpretation of what both of these mean and why both are good things to practice.
Challenge yourself to not fallout- don't allow yourself to fallout.
This way of thinking was most vividly presented to me by Lynn Whitlow during a workshop. She said something to the effect of "Choose to not fall out." and then did this thing with her mouth to imply "just do it". It stuck with me, I try it every class. Some might think this is complacency, it isn't. it isn't about "hanging out" in the posture and not improving, it is about drawing up every gumption, strength, determination, focus, etc to stay in the posture - as if your life depended on it.
So many times people think they will fallout/come out of a posture and they do. That is mind over the matter. Think in your mind you will stay in the posture, and then struggle, try, breathe and stay in the posture.
It isn't all about mind over the matter though, sometimes it is the body. If you are in tune with your body, really seeing the self while in class, you often know why you weren't able to stay in the posture; either you moved your weight and didn't compensate right and became off balance, or you got a cramp, or you let your hand slip, or you stopped breathing, or something else. This is where I believe this philosophy works best, in those exact moments when you are about to give into whatever is it and about to come out of the posture, simply don't allow it to happen. Don't let the body fail.
I remember one time in and advanced class Susan Anderson explaining mountain pose and how it looks like people are perfectly still in the posture when in fact their muscles are contraction and relaxing as they necessary to keep balancing on the knees. I try and remember this when I am in class and really pay attention to the muscles in my body, which ones are working and how they are working together, some stretching, some contracting, some relaxed, all to keep me balanced.
Challenging yourself in this way changes your practice. I believe it provides more focus and more benefit. Yes, we say you get benefit from just being in the room, however, you get MORE benefit IN the posture. Working to not fall out of a posture builds physical strength and flexibility and improves your mental determination. When the going gets tough in life, what do you do? Struggle for 90 minutes and your ability to handle the "tough" outside of the room improves greatly.
This isn't easy and it isn't for everyone. Sometimes you do need a break and need to come out of a posture. Allow yourself that choice from time to time. Don't let the ego take over where you are trying to do more than you can because of some ego trip, desire to compete with yourself or someone next to you, or with some expectation of how your class would be. Be smart, just don't give up on yourself.
Continue to try to go further each time, if you fall out, get back in and keep trying.
So sometimes "don't fall out" becomes "hang out" and people stop trying to improve and they just stick a posture the whole time in a position that is easy and not challenging the body. That is not the purpose, if confused, reread above.
Sometimes a person might need the second option; if you fall out, get back in. Revolutionary? Perhaps not, but it is often a forgotten mantra. How many times have you fallen out or come out of a posture and just waited for the posture to be over, never trying a second, third,or fourth time? It's hard to get back in; you typically have exerted all your energy in the first attempt and any energy you had left was expended as you came out of the posture, mentally beat up yourself for coming out, fidgeted with your towel, chuggged some water, and maybe reached down to grab that hand towel to wipe off your sweat. Getting back in seems worse than......hmmm .......worse than....let me think...a poke in the eye?!
The class is 90 minutes of struggle, no one said it would be easy, no one said you would enjoy every minute of class.....you have to struggle to get out of your comfort zone, change your perception of what you think you can do and mostly, let go of control.
If you fall out, keep trying, get back in no matter how tired you are, no matter how hard it seems, no matter what your mind is telling you your capabilities are....give 100%. Pay attention to your body, just don't let self doubt, ego and personal judgment dictate what benefit you get out of class.
Consider "falling out" as an opportunity to understand the body, its limitations and its abilities, on your journey to improving your health. Every time you fall out of a posture, learn from it, notice why that happened and improve the next time. One day, as we say in class, eventually in the future, you will find the balance, strength, flexibility to stay in the posture. And why do you care about staying in the posture? Because through the postures, the practice of yoga, one can find unlimited health benefits. Improving your health, whatever that means for you, is yoga.
I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying. ~Michael Jordan
Failure is the key to success; each teaches us something.~Morihei Ueshiba
Just for fun: The pictures below are of my standing bow over the last 5+ years, maybe after another 5 years of determination I will be able to lock out my knee!