Most of us come to yoga for a workout, to do our best and we want to feel like we've done something afterwards.
Levels of stress and anxiety are continuing to rise as we buy into that 'must always be improving' mindset. I'm not saying don't give a f**k, (a reference to a very good book by Mark Manson 'The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k.') but I am reflecting a truth we don't often accept; trying so hard doesn’t make us happy.
Life is of course, a balancing act, there are times to try hard; sometimes there is a deadline at work that quite simply has to be met even if that involves pulling an all nighter. But increasingly we’ve lost the ability to accurately decide when to try hard, and when not to.
Yoga is a break from the mindset that we need to be 'better' (whatever that means) which only serves to fuel the stress and anxiety feedback loops that keep us up at night. For most of us our yoga practice is the only window in a busy week for ourselves. Students often ask me how they can develop their practice, and my advice is actually to not try too hard. You can still do your best, without trying too hard. I'll let you digest that for a moment as it's counter to what we've been told...
That’s why I stay away from calling postures ‘progressions’ as that adds the element of advancement into the practice, when it has no place. One of the five Niyamas (positive duties) in the Yoga Sutras is santosha or contentment. And we find this when we find the middle ground between effort and relaxation. This is what I mean when I talk about not trying too hard.
For some the meditation is the most gruelling part of a class, for others it’s a hip opener or arm balance as sweat pours off them. I can see when students have understood my advice, as their practice looks like a dance rather than a wrestling match. They invite their body into their version of a posture.
A Buddhist story explains this concept quite nicely.
A musician once asked the Buddha how we should meditate.
The Buddha responded by asking ‘How do you tune an instrument?’
The musician answered ‘Not too tight, not too loose.’
How do you know when you’ve lost the middle ground in your asana practice?
Your breathing becomes short and uneven. Remember the slow, deep pranayama we do at the beginning of a class, that’s what we’re looking to maintain, even in a headstand. If you’re losing connection with your breath, back off a little bit.
Your face screws up. One of my favourite cues I heard in a class is to have a ‘Buddha face!’ If your brow has furrowed, you’re tense and trying too hard.
You start comparing yourself to other students. The ego has stepped in and we’ve forgotten an aim of yoga is to create new neural pathways in the brain and practice contentment.
You injure yourself. Pushing, forcing, straining will lead to your body giving you some loud and painful feedback. Try to play with your edge; that means having a sense of where your maximum would be, and always stay slightly behind that.
You find it hard to relax in meditation or Savasana. This shows you’re not just trying too hard in yoga, but possibly too hard in life too. Observe your breath and commit to the posture, nothing is more important than lying there practicing relaxation techniques.