The Softer Side of Practice
Ashtanga yoga is known for being a vigorous practice--certainly for new students, but also for those of us who have been doing it a while. The progressive nature of the series means that facing physical challenge will always be a part of what we do.
Thus, it’s easy to become focused on the physicality and sheer effort when we practice. As a former athlete and Bikram yogi—two arenas where you’re constantly told to give 110%—that’s certainly where my mind was through the majority of my first two years of practice. But several months ago, I started taking classes with Greg Nardi. The very first thing he pointed out to me was that I was chronically trying too hard. After that, I started paying more attention to the softer side of practice.
Patanjali’s yoga sutra 2.46 says: Sthira sukham asanam. Basically, in order to be effective, a posture must be both steady and comfortable. Certainly, it’s important to choose the correct muscular engagements for each asana, but there must be room for both steadiness and ease. You just can’t have both if you are straining and pulling and exhausting yourself. I was missing out on a critical element of yoga by my pattern of maximal effort.
In the months since Greg pointed this out to me, I’ve been learning to work smarter, not harder—at about 80% instead of 110. I’ve learned to take a moment during each posture—even the hard ones--to discover where I can relax and let go. Though I always found a degree of softness through focusing on my breath, I can now build upon that foundation to find more sukha (ease). The more I can give equal attention to the elements of both softness and strength, the more meditative my practice becomes.
Softening in some places frees up resources to make my asanas more effective. For instance, if I stop pulling from my arms when I forward fold, I have more strength to make the action happen from my pelvis. And here's where I can bring the lessons from the yoga room into daily life, because it's also true that when I let go of what's unnecessary in my life, I suddenly have more energy to give to what matters.
For example, I used to feel really hurt and worried if my husband and I had a squabble--I thought it was a much bigger deal than it actually is. But now, instead of fretting, I can consciously recognize that the little quarrels are not the end of the world, and direct my effort into things like showing love and appreciation and acts of kindness—places where energy is more effectively applied.
Another place I can relax and let go of unproductive effort: I can focus on being really present with my friends when I get to see them, instead of worrying about if too much time is going past between visits. Adult life can get the best of us, but isn't it always the case that no matter how much time and space, true friends always pick up where they left off?
There are infinite places I could learn to soften, and more effectively direct my energy--both in the yoga room, and in life. While I'm participating in both, I know I'll always be thrown challenges--er, opportunities--to practice the balance between effort and ease.