Your Yoga Practice: Stress vs. Success
More is better—at least that’s what most Americans are brought up to believe. If we try harder, work faster, and expend more energy, we’ll achieve better results, more success, and greater satisfaction.
I’ve bought into this notion just as much as anyone else. If I’m looking to take my game to the next level—whether I’m working a job in an office or my body at the gym—my tendency is to intensify my efforts. It only seems to make sense that more effort will produce better results. But according to Timothy McCall, MD, medical editor of Yoga Journal, author of Yoga as Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in internal medicine, our all-American, take-it-to-the-limit mindset can actually create more stress and fewer results, especially when it comes to the practice of yoga.
“We do a pose that’s theoretically supposed to calm the nervous system,” Timothy says, “but we keep ourselves in a state of stress when we over effort. In yoga, the harder you try, the less far you get.”
I’ve been there. Straining in a Warrior pose to bend my knee more than it wants to bend with the belief that a deeper bend will strengthen my practice and my muscles, I admittedly reach a point where the overexertion compromises my breathing, blocking any real benefits from the posture because I’m simply in too much pain.
Timothy suggests a different approach. Rather than inhaling and entering a pose quickly from memory, perhaps forcing it on the body, pay attention to the way I’m feeling right now. “Maybe your muscles are tighter today; maybe you’re more tired,” he explains. “Rather than dictate the pose from your brain, find the pose your body can give you today.”
According to Timothy, really good poses happen at the intermediate level—on the delicate balance between effort and ease. “You can’t over effort and breathe smoothly,” he notes. “Breath is the barometer of ease.”
It feels like Timothy’s suggestions on enhancing my yoga practice are applicable to the rest of my life. What age is teaching me is that working really hard doesn’t necessarily yield better results; in fact, more often than not, intense exertion increases my stress and wears me out. A certain amount of effort is required, of course, but do I really need to be grunting, groaning, and thoroughly exhausted in order to accomplish anything?
The next time I find myself in a yoga class or on a project, I’m going to come at it differently. I don’t mean I’m opting for laziness. I mean I’m going to breathe into the task, find my edge, ask my body (or my mind) if it can go further, and if it can’t on that day, I’m going to accept it, be with it, and breathe. Who knows where an attitude of receptivity over rigor could take me?
Portland Helmich is the creator, host, and producer of the Kripalu Perspectives podcast series. She has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.
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