If we are working vigorously in yoga practice, then we need to ask ourselves: why we are working hard and what are we working towards?
Working hard to push into an alluring fancy pose that is not safely accessible is obviously ridiculous and misguided, and has lost site of the true goals of yoga.
But responsible, healthy exertion aimed in the right direction is an essential part of practice.
Many of us know that we need deep relaxation in our lives and bodies. But what is the best way to achieve relaxation? It might not be to simply behave in a “low effort” manner or just “lay around.” What is the method and what is the goal? If the result that we want is profound relaxation, does that mean that the method to get there is to “just relax?” If we could “just relax” on demand, then we might not desire the goal so much.
Sometimes, in order to reach the goal of relaxation in mind and body, we need to exert energy in order to receive benefit. But the exertion must have a clear purpose and trajectory.
It might mean exerting effort in relaxation-inducing meditations, like mind-training practice or a pranayama sequence that requires a lot of focus and concentration. A fellow yoga teacher once said so beautifully, “Restorative doesn’t mean easy as in low effort, it refers to a quality of energetic movement in the body that is experienced as nourishing.”
Let’s consider people who do yoga asana in a way that feels “relaxing” or “easy-going” to them in the process. Maybe they work hard in their life, and they want a chance to do something that feels good and doesn’t require too much effort. There is definitely some value in this—we have an over-working culture that hardly values “not-doing” and empty time.
While yoga practice certainly contains incredible tools for un-doing, letting go, unwinding and shifting neurotic patterns of over-working, we have to be careful that we don’t allow yoga practice to be a place and time for “checking out.”
Even the “un-doing” in yoga practice requires awareness and some exertion.
What we need to consider is the quality of exertion. As practitioners, can we find a way to refine the pace, depth, and tone of our exertion so that we can work vigorously or let go and un-wind mindfully and effectively?
When someone practices an asana in the way that his/her body “most easily” does it, or in the way that is “most relaxing and natural,” he/she risks doing the asana from the flexibility that is already present in the body and from the strength that is already present.
If people do movements that reinforce flexibility and strength where it is already there, this will bring a person literally further and further away from balance in their bodies.
There is an invaluable transformative phenomenon that occurs when people learn how to stretch, lengthen and breathe where their body doesn’t easily stretch, lengthen and breathe.
Working vigorously in an intelligent and informed manner that has clear and useful intentions can create profound relaxation and rejuvenation in the person afterwards, even if the process is arduous.
For a beginner who is tight and contracted everywhere, perhaps any kind of stretching would benefit. But as our bodies start to open, more sophisticated direction is needed. During asana, it can be very easy for a person to sink into where his/her body bends easily; this often happens simply if the person doesn’t know how to do it otherwise. The body will often find a way to shift or swing or adjust slightly in one direction or another to avoid the stretch through the fascial lines that are especially clogged, stuck or immobile.
It takes quite a lot of exertion, concentration and education to break free in the really stuck places, stabilize hyper-flexible areas, relax relatively overactive muscles and wake up dormant muscles, all as needed to cultivate a more balanced structure and harmonious body mechanics.
Working in this way restores the most natural and balanced body-state that gets buried under disorder. We can return to or evolve towards ourselves without the tension and stress and trauma that have caused patterns of imbalance.
In a sense, we work against what feels natural initially in order to restore and resurrect an even deeper layer of naturalness that’s been concealed and inaccessible.
Last year in a NYC vinyasa class I had a moment of insight when I looked around the room during trikonasana (there was little detailed instruction coming from the teacher). Every student was doing the pose physiologically completely differently. Some people were bending from the hip, some were bending from the spine laterally, some had quadriceps engaged, some didn’t, some were in spinal extension in the thoracic, some in spinal flexion, some had weight on the inner edges of the feet and some the outer, some were actively rotating their femurs in different directions and some were not.
I realized that everyone was doing the pose in the way that their body “easily went”—they were doing the pose in their own patterns. Interestingly, some people still appeared to be working quite hard—and I wondered, towards what?
I believe each pose has it’s own physiological essences—when we practice asanas we use the pose’s own inherent, essential gifts to guide our alignment-in-action: if we work in the context of that physiological essence, then the poses will reveal our imbalances and help us transcend them.
For example, the physiological essences of tadasana (aka samastithi) is an integration of the embodiment of symmetry, grounded-ness, erectness, steadiness and readiness. If we tether ourselves to these universal principles of the pose, then we have something meaningful and yogicly-accurate to work towards, no matter our versatile starting places.
The essences/inherent gifts of poses are both tangible and infinitely mysterious.
Tadasana will teach us about where we are lacking in symmetry, grounded-ness, erectness, steadiness and readiness; working to cultivate these qualities will bring us in contact with our tactile, bodily patterns, energetic patterns and mental patterns that need work.
Tadasana or any pose will also teach us about our courage and ability to observe ourselves with kindness, to exert with finess and our incredible capacity to transform ourselves. In this way, the poses themselves are great teachers.
When I work with people to become aware of their constitutions, to not automatically move how they move easily—but rather, to cultivate better structural alignment and harmonious muscle patterns through the vehicle of asana, it is very difficult and uncomfortable and hard work, but it is very safe work.
In fact, it is unsafe not to do it.
And the fruits are so clear: preventing injury, body resilience, diminishing of pain patterns, mobilizing previously stuck tissues and renewed, transformative energy flow.
In this way, practice is truly a road towards evoking our potential, physically and beyond.
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Assistant Ed. Caroline Scherer