Yoga is the art of self-transformation. To transform yourself requires facing up to your limits, again and again, with earnest efforts to move yourself further along. Is this easy? In my last post I answered this question, in a nutshell, with “no, but it’s worth it.”
The good news is that it doesn’t have to feel so hard, either. There are many ways to cultivate a more easeful yoga practice.
The Yoga Sutras speak of “effortless effort.” When you’re having trouble in a pose, this may seem like an impossibility. But the Sutras also speak of another state: sthira sukham asanam. Sthira means firm, fixed or steady. Sukham means happiness or delight. “Steadiness” and “lightness” are very achievable feelings. Here are 10 ways you can cultivate them in your yoga practice.
Still the Eyes
Thoughts follow the gaze. If your eyes move around while you practice, so will your thoughts. If you discipline your eye movements during yoga it will be easier for your mind to concentrate. Beware of closing your eyes too often – this can lull you into a dull state (which feels like relaxation or absorption when really it’s a sign that your mind is trying to “check out”). For the most part, keep your eyes open, steady, and unwavering in order to stay fully present to what you are doing.
Respect the Breath
Your cells know what they need in terms of aeration, and they will ask for it. Let them have it. In Light on Yoga, there are often instructions that describe how the breath will come in a specific pose. This is determined by the nature of each pose itself.
Whether fast or slow, shallow or deep, let your breath come and go freely through the nose, without constraint. If you try to prolong or control the flow of breath during asana practice, that can put strain on the nerves and make it more difficult to stay in the pose. The muscles, too, will get tired faster. Why not make it easier on yourself by letting the pose reveal to you the right pace, depth, and quality of the breath? If you want to practice breath control (pranayama), best to do it in a separate practice. (See #9.)
Move with the Breath
Some movements are best done on an inhalation, others on an exhalation. Its easier to get into poses when you work with the breath in this way. Time your movements so they are synchronized with the breath in or the breath out. This will take you deeper – both into the pose and into the meditative state.
Once you have moved with that inhalation or exhalation breath, resume “normal” (a.k.a. unconstrained) breathing as you remain in the pose. You may repeat that synchronized breath-movement action several times in order to go deeper, with normal breathing in between as you work to maintain what you have gained.
Respect the Stages
Sometimes the best way to move forward is to back up. I remember I used to exasperate my teacher Gloria when I was in my 20s. “Don’t get ahead of me,” she would say. At the time, I couldn’t see the point. Why work in a preliminary stage of the pose when I could go all the way in on the first try?
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the truth of her teaching that “every picture in Light on Yoga is a stage that should be practiced.” Here’s why: The quality of attention and care given to the initial and middle stages of a pose will affect the quality of the final pose no matter where you end up. Rushing through the stages to get to the final pose will only make you feel like rushing to get back out of it once you’re there. Having skipped over something important, it won’t feel quite right. Go step by step. Abide at the stage where you can challenge yourself with steadiness and lightness, not strain. This will be much easier on you than trying to push yourself into a stage you are not ready for.
Trust Your Teacher
Our tendency to want to stay in our comfort zone competes with our tendency to want to go further. How do we know where the balance should be? This knowing is developed and refined by the practice itself, but good guidance can make a world of difference (for seasoned practitioners as well as beginners).
A skilled teacher can look at you and know – because they have experienced many times what you are doing at that moment – whether it’s time for you to go further or back up. They can bring in the right prop(s) at the right time to help you do the pose without struggle or strain. If you have established a relationship with a teacher you trust, rely on them to do their job. Trusting your teacher will help you feel safe and challenged with a calm disposition throughout, which facilitates the yogic state of inner quiet.
Salute your Stiffness
I was working in an advanced backbend recently when the thought occurred to me: I feel so stiff! I had to laugh, because looking at that pose from the outside it would appear that I’m a very flexible. It’s a matter of perspective. No matter how flexible you are, you’ll come to a point where your body will yield no further. This feeling registers as stiff.
Whenever you come to this point, be glad. Salute your stiffness, for you know that now you’ve come to the point where onward progress is possible. Pause. Stay with it. Breathe. Reflect. See if the feeling of stiffness grows less intense after a moment and you are able to proceed further – “even a hair’s breadth” as Mr. Iyengar has said. (*Note: Hypermobility of the joints is a different matter, in which case muscular resistance should be created. This is a separate topic.)
Stay Another Moment
In that moment when you feel eager to come out of the pose, wait. Stay another moment. Examine yourself. What is making you want to come out? Is it really true that your body can’t stay any longer or go any further? Or is your mind giving up first? Observe. Not only will this develop sensitivity and self-awareness, the extra time you spend in the pose will build up your endurance, which will make it easier when you practice it in the future.
Feel Weak to Get Strong
Don’t shy away from the poses that make you feel “weak.” The sensation of weakness, like stiffness, is relative and based on a perspective that can change over time. Your weak places are those that are underutilized relative to other parts of your body. Cherish them. Build them up. Spend time working on them and you will feel your strength (and, therefore, your sense of ease in the pose) growing over time.
“Pranayama is the hub round which the wheel of life revolves,” writes Mr. Iyengar in the Introduction to Light on Yoga. Pranayama (yoga breathing practice) regulates the flow of vital energy in the body that is generated by the practice of asanas; this in turn feeds back into the amount of energy you have to give your asana practice. Having more energy certainly makes it easier to practice asanas. But it’s more than that. The nuanced understanding you develop during your pranayama practice will carry over to your asana practice. As cellular intelligence rises, it becomes easier to practice asanas with feelings of grace and delight.
Consider Your Studentship
If you drop in to yoga here and there, the poses you find hard today won’t get any easier tomorrow. So ask yourself: Do I want instant gratification or lasting change? Am I going to attend sporadically and face the same struggles every time, or will I show up consistently and put in the effort that is required to see the kind of improvement I really want? Drop-in yoga culture is antithetical to progress. But if you come to the same class(es) every week and practice on your own when you can, even just 15-20 minutes at a time, you’ll notice that your challenging poses get easier and easier with time.
By now you may be thinking: Hey wait! Some of the things that make yoga easier actually involve working harder. Yes, it’s true. In that sense, yoga is just like anything that improves with practice: The more you do it, the easier it will get. Ultimately, it’s about building your capacity. With consistent, sincere effort over time, what once was difficult becomes easier or downright easy. How else would you know that it’s time to take on new challenges?
I wish you well.