Thoughts on Effort in Yoga

by on July 24, 2012 · 0 comments

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In western society it’s common to be taught that in life, hard work reaps reward. It starts with school work. Better grades reward us with opportunities at prestigious colleges leading to  a degree in a field that promises a rewarding career. To what extent does the universal maxim apply to the practice of yoga? New yoga students may quickly find they are at odds with the obvious fact that flexibility comes with hard work and the non-attachment that yoga teaches. Where is the balance? Where is the fulcrum placed for ensuring yogis do not push their self into being burned out on yoga or worse, injury?

I have contemplated this very thing for some time. Yoga is rewarding and the rewards are as vast. The rewards from yoga can come in physical form or be emotional and psychological in nature. The rewards can be transformational for one’s own being or inspirational for someone else. As with any activity/reward, humans become acclimated to the rewards offered and greater rewards are sought. The process that is responsible for urging us to take a greater risk for a greater reward is deeply ingrained in our being.  Often you will hear people speaking in negative connotation of reaching a plateau or peaking in their performance in yoga. This really is not all bad because as long as you are practicing, you are advancing. It may not feel like you are advancing fast enough to quench your thirst for advancement, and often this is the time when people begin to tune into what their ego desires. In the spirit of non-attachment and keeping the ego’s reigns secure, where does the appropriate balance of hard work and ease of yoga begin?

I too was very curious about how much effort I should put towards my practice. I can’t settle with the notion that I may not achieve a certain pose in this lifetime, so how hard can I safely push myself to achieve it?  A carefully devised plan to meet a certain status in yoga still transported my intention to a territory of major attachment. I began to ponder how I could find the balance between super hard work and zealous attachment.  What worked for me was taking the advice of a wise yogi who once said, “Practice earnestly, but don’t take your practice too seriously.” This statement resonated within my being for years and still does. He struck the proverbial chord with this statement and it’s long-lasting resonance carries the vibrations of my insights that I share.

When I practice, all of my effort in that moment goes towards being completely immersed in the moment and having my awareness tied to my breath. When I inhale during a pose, I am so focused on the breath, it’s as if my mind interprets it as a glass of cold water in the scorching desert. Each exhale is a release as if I have just reached the summit of a vertical climb and I can relax for a moment.  If I push myself so hard that my attention comes away from these feelings and my mind says, “OW! What was that?” or “I can’t do this” I ease out of the pose a bit, find the edge that merges alignment and strength with the intimacy of breath awareness.

I have learned the hard way, numerous times that if I push myself beyond this threshold, then I am simply inviting in more of the ‘crap’ that yoga aims to annihilate. Stressful states of mind are no fun, Injuries impede our abilities and invite pain and suffering. Self-defeating talk and insurmountable goals perpetuate ‘grasping’ at the desires we become attached to. In a vain attempt to attain hanumanasana before my body was ready for it, I really pushed myself beyond the safe limits of my practice. I reached a point in flexibility where the repair of my muscles could not keep up with the amount of stretching I was putting them through. I had to take a couple of weeks off from my practice to heal and ended up switching from vinyasa to restorative yoga for a few weeks.

The other aspect of working hard involves the quantity of yoga in one’s practice. If you do yoga daily, that’s fine. Three times a day is fine. Some teachers do yoga for hours each day. What is appropriate for you is where you should be. I have a full-time Job and a family. If I practice more than 90 minutes a day, I begin taking time away from my family. If I practice on the weekends, I have to do it early in the morning so I don’t sacrifice our family outings for yoga.  This aspect of hard work boils down to what is appropriate for you and how much you must sacrifice for your practice. It really is about balance.

I have reached plateaus in my practice where it was obvious that if I wanted to excel, then I really needed to up my time on the mat somehow. The challenge is augmenting my practice without sacrificing any other aspect of my life.  I quickly learned that any addition to facilitate a practice is going to help move you along. For example, spending 15 minutes each morning on some hip openers or shoulder openers. Or spend 15 minutes each morning in pigeon pose to maintain hip flexibility. I even made a commitment to practice a passive backbend with a block right before savasana in every class for a year which allowed more range of movement in my lower back.

Hard work does pay off, but the caveat is that the engagement must be applied appropriately.  Effort towards breath and awareness, respect of physical limits and practicing earnestly with grace has allowed me to reap the rewards of my yoga practice.

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