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“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.” ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
When life is moving along swimmingly, being steady and comfortable seems attainable—even easy.
When our jobs, relationships, finances, or heaven forbid, all the above go haywire, it’s probably not so steady there, sweet pea.
We all know these moments. For me, mine came a few years back when it was an all of the above equation. Things did not go as planned (um, do they ever?) for the yoga studio my husband and I built. We were successful and going strong for five years, and yet, could not sustain the politics of a small
My biggest fear was losing this place—my dream, my heart. And I did.
It was a slow, painful process. While this wreaked havoc on our finances and our marriage, the worst part was the emotional side. It felt like we were going through a nasty divorce and would never see our kids again. Yes, dramatic, like a soap opera that takes us on the emotional roller coaster of life.
But here’s the biggest thing. I am forever grateful that it happened. Yup, that’s what I said.
I would never have learned so many valuable life lessons if it did not happen. I am better and wiser for it.
The one little thing I would change was my own internal suffering over the whole debacle. My most feared nightmare was coming true and it was hellish, but the inner torment I put myself through was much worse. This is where all the self-sabotage seeped in.
“If I were a better teacher, this would not have happened.”
“If I would have trusted my gut, this could have been avoided.”
“Who did I think I was opening a studio?”
And on and on it went. My poor husband, my friends. I was pretty twisted up and many of my relationships suffered. I was not “embracing the glorious mess that I was,” as Elizabeth Gilbert said.
No, I cannot change the nightmare of the past. But I can change my response and outlook around it.
This is where being effortless in the effort comes in. Friends, it is a choice. And granted, a hard one when we are in the thick of the sh*t, but a choice nevertheless.
What do you mean? Effortless effort is a paradox!
The dictionary says effort is defined as: a vigorous or determined attempt, the result of an attempt, strenuous physical or mental exertion. The synonyms are: exertion, force, power, energy, work, muscle, application, labor, the sweat of one’s brow, striving, endeavor, toil, struggle, slog, strain, stress, trouble, bother.
And effortless is defined as: requiring no physical or mental exertion, achieved with admirable ease. The synonyms: flowing, fluid, fluent, smooth, graceful, elegant, natural, leisurely, easy.
I don’t know about you, but being fluid and graceful sound a lot better than struggle and slog. The key here friends, is that effortless is an adjective while effort is a noun. Yes. That means we get to decide what kind of effort we put out there on the mat of life. And yes, effort is required for transformation or growth of any kind.
Now that we have defined the terms, how does this translate onto our yoga mat and, more importantly, into our lives? The better question might be, how does it not.
In my book, as a yoga student first and always, and a teacher second, life and yoga are the same game. How we act on the mat is a pretty good sign of how we will act off of it.
As much as we might not like to connect these ideas together, I dare say it’s true. Perhaps this is an eye-opener, or maybe it’s an idea you reject completely. No. F*cking. Way. Nope. Not me.
I said this once to a newish friend/student and well, let’s just say they pretty much steered clear of me and my classes. Sigh. I agree. It can be scary to face ourselves. When we see our yoga teachers or fellow students in a difficult pose like Pincha mayurasana (Forearm handstand) and they seem like they are floating in air as if filled with helium and looking effortless, don’t assume it is. Most likely, it is taking a whole car load of internal drive and experience.
And how can we learn to live in our skin in the moments we want to run off screaming and soothe ourselves with chocolate and cold white wine? Can we steady and comfort ourselves when our effort starts to become a slog?
The jewel of “sthira sukham asanam,” from the Yoga Sutras, means to teach us that every asana (pose) be steady and comfortable—sthira and sukha. “Sthira” means steady, stable, grounded, and strong, while “sukha” means comfortable, easy (or easeful), and peaceful. The paradox is that this is not easy. This is where the true discipline in practice, on and off the mat, kicks in and we must discover how we can make the effort to learn, grow, and evolve while maintaining a sense of ease and remaining effortless.
So what happens when we are on our yoga mat? We get into a chill mood with some sweet lighting and soft music. Maybe the instructor leads us in with a few rounds of calming breath, perhaps an intention starts to form, and we might love ourselves a little more in those quiet moments. But then things shift. They always do.
We start to flow a little bit more, maybe we get a little lost in the sequence while building momentum to a more challenging pose like Parsva bakasana (Side crow) and the so-called calm goes right out the window. Our breath gets caught, our jaw locks down, our forehead scrunches, and our faces have a look that might scare someone in a dark parking lot.
Does this kind of stress sound familiar? When we fight with our beloved over who’s turn it is to scoop the cat poop? Or do the same physical and mental reactions occur with that phone call from our boss about that looming deadline? Yoga. Life. Same game.
This is why we call it practice, not perfect. There is no endpoint. And no, it’s not a contest or a competition. Life is hard a lot of the time. I wish I could say it wasn’t. But do we have to become hard in the process? Or can the challenge of being lost, not knowing, or whatever scary horror story we have conjured up in our over-imaginative minds be the place to practice. To play. To be steady—comfortable.
Perhaps the next time life is kicking us in the head or we’re on our yoga mat practicing what seems like an impossible pose, we can can apply these simple techniques:
1. Notice the breath. This comes first! Is it choppy? Uneven? Held? The most important part is to catch ourselves in our habitual responses to challenges and uncomfortable situations.
Nervous before a big meeting or presentation? Lost on how to balance in Vrksasana (Tree pose)? Try inhaling the breath for 4-5 counts and exhaling equally for 4-5 counts. Maintain this for at least 10 full cycles and continue this with steady, even breathing as you move. This will help ease the heart and slow down the mind’s need to fight or take flight. Taking a Child’s pose or hitting the pause button for a moment in the day to breathe is advanced yoga and life.
2. Whether on the yoga mat or out in the noise of the day, check your jaw. Is it on lock down? Are the shoulders up to the ears like earrings from 1985? How about the belly? Clenching or being rigid in these areas, among others, are signs of more strain.
Can we catch the moment we start to create strain instead of space? Try softening places, like between the eyes, for immediate relief. Soften direct points in the body that feel tense.
3. Remember that challenges, and effort, are necessary for growth. If everything were easy, would we gain any wisdom? And sure, I agree, easy sounds nice. But after a while, how would we measure happiness and what would our ability be to evolve?
If we really think back on a difficult part of our lives, can we see we most likely learned something from it? Practice, not perfect. Let yourself step out and do something that’s outside the comfort zone. Got an idea for work that requires thinking outside the box? Practice the first two steps again, and then move forward.
Something unexpected happening like losing a job or a relationship? Repeat the above and remember, sometimes what we think is a storm is trying to be a blessing. Let the effort be without internal struggle and know that everything will shift with time.
Yes, it’s all hard. But we do not have to become hard along with it.
I did not do these things while lost in my inner turmoil. While I do believe it is important to acknowledge one’s feelings, I tore myself to pieces and blamed myself. It’s the easy way out and keeps us stuck in the mud. With continued practice, I am happy to say that these three simple practices have been powerful beyond measure in my life—on and off the mat.
Is it comfortable? A lot of times, no. But then I remind myself that it’s up to me to be okay when things are not okay, to be comfortable when things are not comfortable, and to be imperfect when things are not perfect. We get to choose grace with effortless effort.