Let’s have a chat about the wacky poses we often see in yoga (and in memes making fun of yoga). Bound twists, arm balances, upside-down and sideways—I thought yoga was about de-stressing and zoning out!

Actually, yoga is rarely about zoning out, even though that might happen now and again during shavasana. What’s happening on the mat is zoning IN, as in completely inhabiting the entire continuum of the self (body, mind, soul, spirit.)

And de-stressing? That takes on many forms. We can’t always default to red wine or dark chocolate or deep fried pickles. (Well, we can, but on down the line, we’ll be adding new layers of stress to our already overwrought bodies.)

One of the most effective ways of removing stress is physical exercise. Moving the body, which increases circulation of oxygenated blood throughout, helps clear the bloodstream of stress hormones. Sometimes our stress levels call for the heart-thumping push of a vinyasa practice. Other times we need to still the buzzing of the mind with a focused Yin class.

Three reasons pretzel poses are part of the yogic equation:

1. Purely physical: Increased control and mobility. Confession time: the first time I got myself up into crow and was able to hold it, I got a real sense of glee. (Yes, my ego gobbled that tasty morsel right up.) Never in my youth was I able to do an effective handstand and there I was holding bakasana. We so often associate aging with being able to do less with our bodies than we did in youth. Exploring pretzel-y possibilities, we learn that there are ways in which we might be able to do more than we did as bendy adolescents.

2. Mental: Developing a physical intelligence. We don’t just launch ourselves into astavakrasana (8-angle pose) or hanumanasana (full splits) the first time we enter a yoga studio. We learn what muscles need strengthening, what areas need opening. We learn proper alignment–what proper alignment is and what it feels like. We begin to determine the difference between the sensation of sensibly overloading the muscles and potentially dangerous pain. It’s the physiological Tao, the middle way between extremes, and it’s up to the mind to keep us on that path.

The breath is key here, because it signals when we go too far.

If we move into side-crow and can’t exhale in the pose, we need to explore a milder option. By coming at the asana with the goal of sticking to our personal Tao—rather than to the desire of looking like the cover of a fitness magazine—we get better acquainted with this physical manifestation of ourselves and how it morphs over time. Learning to navigate the middle route in the various poses keeps us safe and healthy.

3. Integration: The mat is our laboratory for the real world. The real world throws all sorts of chaos at us, and we expect to negotiate the distractions in order to live an authentic life, a life that expresses our true selves.

Our true selves are not constrained by deadlines. Our true selves are not dictated by frenzied schedules. Our true selves are not caught up the flurry of emotions (frustration, anxiety) that arises to try to deal with all of it. Within us, in the midst of the flurry, there is a still, quiet place. No, really, it’s there. Despite how we’ve lived our lives up to now, it’s there and we can inhabit it. It is the seat of our essential selves. From that place of calm, we are able to know and express what is needed. From that place, we can make wise decisions. Problem is, when we’re caught up in the whirlwind—and for some of us, that’s the default—the calm place seems impossible to access.

Here’s where yoga comes in: on the mat, we put ourselves into a physical whirlwind, a chaos that we have control over since we can come out of it at any time. In the midst of that chaos, we’re told to focus on the breath. Consciously slowing down the breath cues our parasympathetic nervous system to relax, so even if we’re not initially feeling calm, we can “trick” ourselves into calming down anyway. Moreover, stress often arises from worries about the past and/or anxieties about the future, while focus on the breath keeps us in the present. On the mat, we train ourselves to slow down and come into the present so that we can honestly assess our edge in any given pose. We, then, come from a place of wisdom (Am I pushing too much? Are my fears holding me back?) and a place of kindness (I’m okay right where I am.)

How does that work with pretzel poses? For some, uttanasana is chaos enough. The moment we start to fold over straight legs, our body is sending out alarm bells of discomfort. As we progress in our practice, we can settle into uttanasana. So, we have to go somewhere else to call up the whirlwind, maybe svarga dvijasana (bird of paradise pose).

There is always somewhere else to go in yoga, to go deeper, to hold longer, to reach higher. There is no final destination, and so the limits are constantly shifting.

In my own life, pretzel poses have helped me navigate my daughter’s toddler phase. Holding a challenging pose is analogous to being caught up in the middle of my daughter’s meltdown. Talk about a tornado.

Since I was a child, I’ve reacted to family disharmony like a snail reacting to an antennae poke: No! Make it stop! Hide! Toddler meltdowns might as well have been salt poured directing onto the slug-body of my emotional self. My intellect knew it wasn’t a crisis, but the trigger got pulled every time. Now, there is nothing shameful about going into crisis mode. The aim is to bring ourselves back to calm through the clarion blast of emotions, getting there more quickly and smoothly the more we practice it.

With my daughter, I stayed close and started with yogic breath (the intentional three-part belly breathing). At first it was torture. Short-circuiting the flight-response of closing myself in a different room or the ingrained fight-response of yelling at her to be quiet was a greater hurdle than eka pada koundinyasana. I’ve even resorted to going into firefly or headstand while she raged next to me. If it didn’t always bring me right to focus, it sometimes distracted her from her howls.

As we work the physical, we work the mental. As the body works harder, so too does the mind in order to maintain the “repose in the pose.” Ultimately we work to bring that habit of mind (with its wisdom, patience, and kindness) out into the world.

About: Nancy Chenier gets outside whenever possible. She started Yoga in the Park in a suburb of Vancouver as part of a commitment to bring yoga to people who might not otherwise have access to it. She teaches yoga, but if Canada’s too far of a commute, she can be found blogging at www.yogajourney108.com and vlogging at https://www.youtube.com/user/yogajourneys.