“Is it easy?” he asked.
And there I was, caught between the truth and what the prospective student wanted to hear.
I reached for the most diplomatic answer I could find that was still honest.
“Iyengar Yoga is challenging, but there will always be something that you can do,” I said.
He seemed satisfied with that answer, and he stayed for class. When it came to a pose that he could not do, I gave him something that he could. Relatively speaking, it was easy. Rightly so for a first-timer.
But his question dogged me all week long. Mainly because my gut reaction was something closer to heck no dude, this isn’t easy for any of us.
Of course I couldn’t say that to the student coming to class for the first time. I had to encourage him. So I did. But the question got under my skin enough to write this post. There is a deeper truth to express and it is this: Yoga is a path of transformation, and transformation doesn’t come easy.
Sharp like a razor's edge, the sages say,
Is the path, difficult to traverse.
— Katha Upanishad 1.3.14, trans. Eknath Easwaran
Yoga transforms the health, strength, and mobility of your body – and that’s just for starters. Give it earnest effort over time and you can witness it transform your relationship to your thoughts and emotions, the way you relate to the wider world, and even your understanding of who you are deep down.
This requires considerable effort. Consistently. Continuously. Over a long period of time (Sutra I.14). There are obstacles and causes of distraction (13 of them) that require adherence to single-minded effort to overcome (Sutras I.30-32). All of this is bad news for anyone who’s looking for convenient and carefree.
The good news is that it’s worth it. Yoga is incredibly well suited to modern life. It reduces stress, anxiety, frustration and discontentment. The physical practice helps immeasurably with the demands placed on our bodies by our day-to-day work. Yoga helps us find feelings of peace, personal power, and contentment in a troubled world. And it feels amazing.
Yet in many ways, the path of Yoga conflicts with contemporary realities and prevailing cultural attitudes. Our lives are busy. There’s never enough time. We want peace, but it’s hard concentrate. We want results and we don’t want them to take long to appear. We want to harvest the rewards without all that arduous tilling of the soil. We want to drop in. We want easy.
In that case, might as well go for a walk, or a dance, or a bike ride (or, this being Hawaii, a dip in the ocean!). Those activities are fun and worthwhile. They are easy. Life is hard enough, you might say, and you would not be wrong.
But if you’ve come to Yoga specifically, chances are you’re looking for something more than an undemanding form of exercise. It behooves you to ask yourself what that is. Why do you come to Yoga? What do you hope to get out of it? (I’d love to hear you answers!) Maybe you’re looking for ways to quiet the busy mind, which requires earnest effort as it is not easy to do. Perhaps you want to expand your range of motion, which requires something quite different from remaining comfortably within it (namely, hard work). Same goes for strength and flexibility. Maybe you seek a feeling of connection with something greater, which requires letting your identity take a back seat so your quiet mind and your open heart can be receptive to firsthand experience of a spiritual solace that defies description.
All of these aims point you toward the path of transformation. You want to change. You want to improve, refine, build, create, or experience something different from the way your body or your mind habitually functions. And this brings us back to the fact that it requires something more of you.
Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practice.
— B.K.S. Iyengar
You can’t stay the same and change at the same time.
— Manouso Manos
Practice, in a nutshell, is the process of discovering your own capacity and then working to find your way beyond it. It’s mapping your strengths and your shortcomings faithfully and honestly, without beating yourself up about it, and then working sincerely to improve whatever it is that you find. It’s making those efforts again and again and again. That is how you transform. The results will be proportionate to what you put in.
Yoga is a disciplined subject - a casual attempt only gains casual results.
— B.K.S. Iyengar
If you persist you will find that Yoga, despite its difficulties, is delightful. Yes, it will challenge you to face up to your body’s problems, and that can be hard. Facing them gives you the strength, courage and optimism to face up to problems in your life as well. Yes, there are poses that will be hard for you. Practicing them will turn them into trusted friends that you reach for when you need to feel better. Yes, it’s hard to turn down the mind and tune into the subtle interplay of muscles, joints, tissues, organs, breath, etc. When you do it, though, you’ll become deeply friendly with all parts of yourself, and in the process you may even begin to love and appreciate yourself some more. I know I have. In that sense, Yoga is of immeasurable value.
At the end of the day, each person has their own, valid, choice to make about what path to take. I support you in taking the path that will bring you to wherever you want to go. Should you choose to walk along the path of Yoga, easy does not even begin to describe it. Rewarding, challenging, ever-changing, always new, and immensely gratifying are some of the things that come to mind from my perspective. I invite you to find your own. I wish you well on the journey, and I leave you with this bit of encouragement from ancient times:
On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.
— Bhagavad Gita 2.40, trans. Eknath Easwaran.