When I meet someone who is new to yoga and they learn that I am a teacher, they always say the same thing: "I went to a yoga class and it was really hard." While it's encouraging that so many people are trying yoga, that their early experiences always feel like "hard work" is unfortunate. Setting this precedent becomes the basis for many of the pitfalls that betide practitioners today.
First, it's worth considering why it is that so many yoga classes feel so hard. Some contend that it is just the nature of practice. I strongly disagree. I am convinced that I could take the exact same twenty-six poses in the Bikram system that are kicking everyone in their asses and do them in a way that does not feel so darn hard. Even more than the poses that teachers choose, which we'll get to later, the mindset with which the poses are approached is really the primary culprit.
Setting aside the overarching philosophical frameworks at work, the conventional attitude is that in order to progress in practice it is necessary to take your body past your perceived physical edge. Not taking your body past its physical edge is often seen as lazy or resistant. The practice is a way to challenge ourselves to do more, to reach fuller potential. And certainly, this mentality is proven effective in many pursuits. If you’re going to run marathons or perform gymnastic feats then some amount of no pain no gain is likely going to be required to accomplish that task. But if what we are after is functional body health, where our bodies can do what we need them to do in our lives with as little pain as possible, then a see-how-far-we-can-push the limits mentality is absolutely counterproductive.
A lot of the “hard” work that people are doing in yoga practice to be healthy is actually working against their functional body health.
Some amount of effort is usually required in order to keep a person healthy in modern times. It is the character of that work that is at question. Does it need to be “hard” work? Or could there be other models? There are benefits to be had and plenty of testimonials to support positive results from ever challenging the limits. But as most long-time practitioners eventually caution, being overly reckless or misguided with working your body in times of youth or health easily leads to unintended consequences and degenerative issues down the road. Whatever immediate gains that might come from our efforts must be weighed against the risk of injury and longer term outcomes.
There is also the matter of the poses that teachers are choosing to offer. It is commonplace that many students are left to their own devices as a class moves through challenging and risky sequences. Often teachers act as drill sergeants whose job it is to usher students through this difficult experience, sometimes with great humor and charisma. And even for teachers who do not adopt a “tough love” kind of sentiment and do their best to offer modifications, given the diversity of the students and the expectation to lead intricate sequences, there is often little more to provide than hopeful encouragement as folks struggle along.
If we make yoga practice into hard work that never ends and never succumbs, rather than a forgiving effort that is easily and readily enjoyed, we paint our experience of life in the same unyielding hue.
The ultimate effect of both the “hard work” mindset and ever-challenging forms is the lasting impression of things never being enough and there always being more to do. I grant that there are times when a process of healing can involve pain and difficulty and require concerted effort. I am not suggesting that yoga practice always feels like a bubble bath. In the course of addressing our bodies and minds, all sorts of deep and inner challenges are presented. But meeting the challenges that arise naturally in yoga practice is not the same thing as imposing extraneous physical challenges on students because it is thought to be impressive or inspirational.
The choice is between a practice that is pushing the limits and feels really hard, like a steep mountain that you’re forever climbing but never quite getting to the top of, or a practice that works within the limits and feels like a relief, as though to say: “Thank God.” In both practice and life, the work does not need to be unnecessarily hard. Efforts in practice translate into our behaviors in a myriad of ways and, more often than not, temperance is warranted.
Yes, I sometimes feel challenged by the life that is before me, sometimes I am overwhelmed. But being overly forceful with my body, or in life, has proven to be unhelpful in meeting the burdens that life bestows. I do not need to push my body hard in order to be well and the efforts I make to meet the challenges that arise do not need to be a struggle.