October 28-November 1, 2021
“Yoga is stressful.”
“Yoga is stressful?”
“At least the way that you do it!” -a piece of my inner dialogue during my asana practice this morning
A little later, I read this tidbit: “I tell students who are studying to be teachers, ‘Don’t be a yoga teacher unless you are willing to create pain.’”-Judith Lassiter, Living Your Yoga, p.53
After that little piece of inner dialogue this morning, I laughed out loud about it for a moment while at the same time taking it completely seriously. For the rest of my asana practice, I took the opportunity and encouraged myself to check in during each pose, “Is this stressful?” I found that the answer was universally, “no.” So I looked deeper and found out the part of me that is resistant to doing the challenging inner work in general, is actually resistant to meeting the edge, learning and growing. I imagine that most people have that part in there somewhere.
A large part of myself was (and is) in agreement with the observation that “the way that I do Yoga is a little stressful,” meaning simply that it’s challenging. This part of myself also completely supports continuing this mode of practice. One of the tenets of the Yoga moral philosophy is “tapas:—which is, interestingly, the first spiritual, Sanskrit name I was given, in 1988. Tapas literally means “to cook” or “to heat” and is variously translated as “discipline, willingness to do what is necessary to reach a goal, willingness and ability to withstand discomfort.” Things along the lines that point to the fact that to reach any meaningful goal, it’s going to take some work, some consistent and conscious effort. In the process, some amount of discomfort will arise on some level, and discomfort is not a reason to stop our effort toward that goal. Can you relate?
So yes, the way that I practice Yoga involves some effort and challenge. Judith Lassiter, who wrote “The Book” on Restorative Yoga, says after her quote above, “I ask people to try challenging things. Even in the most gentle of classes, I call upon my students to be willing to move into physical, emotional and mental spaces that may be uncomfortable.” That’s how I practice, and I imagine you’ve experienced that in classes with me, or anywhere. However I often remind folks in classes, “your Yoga should not stress you out more than your life,” meaning that your practice on the mat, where you are in total control of what you are doing and what’s happening, should not be more stressful than your life. Outside the Yoga class you often have little to no control over what is happening, and frequently not even over your own reaction to What Is! In that, Life will, and should, be more challenging to us than our Yoga practice; it’s the testing or proving ground to see where we’re really at.
However, if we approach our practice time and our bodymind with awareness, love, care and respect; if we sensitively bring our body and mind to the edge of discomfort, come right up to that point where “it’s stressful” is just beginning, then the process on the mat is a stress-reducer, not a stress-builder (as maybe the rest of Life is). We “homeopathically” bring a manageable amount of “stress” into the system in order to release the stress that is built up as well as build our capacity to handle the stresses of life in a healthful way. If we do nothing—meaning, if we don’t have a practice that has this effect—then the stress just builds. Eventually it will come out, usually in an explosive manner. Did you notice? Or maybe just the people around you noticed. 🤔
(And no, things like drinking alcohol, doing drugs, watching Netflix or scrolling through FB, don’t count as “doing something” positive in this direction. Those are generally just numbing actions and are generally not healthful in the long run. That being said, arguments can be made in certain instances toward moderation of some of those things. Are you or anyone you know able to actually be moderate in those things? It IS possible.)
A natural question may arise that I often ask students in class while assisting them in poses: “How hard should you try?” I usually ask this as short-hand for what would probably be more accurately asked as, “I see that you are working very hard in the pose. How’s that going for you?” Since my usual observation in the moment is that hard work is happening and it’s looking very stress-inducing, resistance-building, uncomfortable and generally unhelpful toward actual easeful “forward” movement.
In a way, “How hard should you be working or trying in the pose?” is a trick question since one good answer is, “Work your ass off… but be completely aware and mentally calm about it.” Right before tapas in Patanjali’s list of Yoga morals is “santosha,” meaning contentment. We should not shy away from challenge which will only lead us to be more and more closed, but we also need to avoid what, for many of us, is our usual reaction to working our ass off: unaware, forceful, and often angry and resentful, driven-ness.
With all the challenges people in our world seem to be having with mental health and just staying functional, it seems important to just give a little reminder of these truths that you already know. Along with that, it seems helpful to give a friendly reminder to take care of yourself and make some time each day to de-stress in some way, not just numb out. Yoga is great, but there are lots of other good things: playing music, dancing, singing, gardening, most forms of exercise, cooking nourishing food, time with actual people (not just “screen” or “phone” time), meditation, prayer, spiritual study, intense laughing, crying whether intense or not but preferably intense…. The list goes on.
I’m sending Love and you all are in my prayers. Thanksgiving starts the “I love you” practice again… did we ever really stop it?