“Working hard or hardly working?”
This was one of my dad’s favorite jokes when we were growing up. As with all jokes, it was “extra” funny (for him) when he asked it at precisely the moment I’d paused from my interminable math homework to daydream about the cute boy in my math class. Whenever that happened, I’d feel like stomping and whining in protest, “ I WAS working hard and now I’m taking a break! Aren’t breaks a part of working hard??”
My dad would have responded to my whine with a firm, no-nonsense, ”Not in my book.” Yet, it turns out that I was onto something. According to a friend who is a self-described “productivity geek,” studies show that you’re most productive if you break tasks into 25-45 minute increments then take a break to do something completely “other” for 5-10 minutes before getting back to the job at hand. How I wish I’d that fact in my arsenal when my dad caught my daydreaming!
That being said, I am very much my father’s daughter. These days, if let to my own devices, I can be a little relentless when it comes to huge projects. I have a really hard time stopping before I’ve finished what I’ve started – even if what I started should by all rights take 6 weeks or even 6 months! Work left undone or items left on my “To Do List” make me feel twitchy. It seems that I lost a little of my adolescent “wisdom” along the way. I have actually had to learn to take breaks and to pace myself.
Yoga has helped with this.
No, yoga hasn’t taught me to take an actual break in the middle of a class. What yoga has taught me is to stay aware of my efficiency and productivity levels and to modify what I’m doing accordingly. Each posture asks a lot of us – especially when we’re learning. It is up to us to keep track of our energy. It is also up to us to keep track of our state of mind. Am I feeling fatigued? If so, I may need to back off the intensity a bit for a couple of postures. Am I feeling scattered or distracted? This may not be a good moment to challenge myself with a new posture.
This type of assessment and reflection is on-going as I practice. In an ironic twist, it’s really hard work to work less hard. It’s challenging to surrender to a scattered state of mind and retreat to familiar territory where you can better focus and breathe. It can be hard to admit to fatigue. It can be difficult to acknowledge that today isn’t the day you’re finally going to nail handstand (or whatever you’re working on). It takes clear-eyed honesty. And it takes faith in the fact that tomorrow is another day when you can (and will!) try again.
Yoga has also taught me that there is more than one way to work hard. Another thing my dad taught me was that anything worth doing is worth doing 100%. I brought this mindset with me to my yoga mat. When I started practicing yoga, I worked as hard as I could in each and every posture. For a while, it was because every posture was impossibly hard for me. But after a while it was because I didn’t know there was any other way to practice yoga.
Imagine my surprise when a teacher I respect actually said to me, “Stop working so hard. Yoga is supposed to be fun! If it’s not, you’ll quit and we can’t have that.” (Actually, when she said this, I got a little ticked off because, in my mind being a hard worker was one of my greatest strengths.) It took many weeks for me to realize the wisdom of her comment which had initially seemed so flippant.
She was not suggesting that I lollygag or daydream in my postures. Instead, she was inviting me to come to understand the literal definition of the Sanskrit word for posture. Asana according to one of yoga’s seminal texts, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are to be steady and comfortable. (YS 2:46) Patanjali actually goes on to say the posture is mastered when “all effort is relaxed.” (YS 2:47) When I (or any of us) are working too hard, there is no comfort in the posture, there is no hint of relaxation. It’s all work and no play.
As I fiddled around with her invitation, I discovered that I could customize my practice to my specific needs on any given day. On an unsettled day, I can focus on my breathing to center me. On a hyper or happy day, I can focus on my postures to burn off my “crazies” so I leave my mat more grounded for the rest of the day. On a tired day, I can make my awareness my focus, leaving me restored and rejuvenated as I roll my mat back up.
In addition to being surprised to find there are other ways to practice than the full-tilt, relentless way I had been going about it (much the way I tend to go about anything in life that is hard to do), I was surprised to find that none of these new ways of working hard felt at all like “hardly working.” In fact, all three types of practice require me to work hard. It is just a steadier, more comfortable way of working hard than I ever knew was possible.
Which brings me back to my opening question – are we (*gasp*) “hardly working” when we are being mindful and taking care of ourselves? When we take a periodic break? When we pause to reflect on how we’re feeling before we ramp things up or downshift into a lower gear? Good news! No. In fact, yoga here again proves to be a metaphor for life. There are at least as many ways to work hard off the mat as there are on. They all require us to give fully of ourselves, but none require us to drain ourselves.
To borrow from my teacher’s words (and, like her, I do not mean to sound flip) life, like yoga, is supposed to be at least in part fun! If it’s not, you run the risk of feeling like quitting. And we can’t have that.
“All in.” To be totally committed to something. – Urban Dictionary
You wouldn’t think a commitment would be a visible thing, but when someone (or something) is “all in,” you can actually see it.
While I see the difference between students who are “all in” and students who aren’t in yoga postures all the time, today life gifted me with an even more powerful illustration of the power, beauty and joy that manifest when someone (or something) is totally committed to what they are doing.
I just came in from taking my dogs for their daily sprint through the woods near our home. They are a sight to behold dashing gracefully through undergrowth, around trees, up hills and down, and (most awesome for me) across the creek. The dogs run without reservation. They run with total abandon. They run with joy. They run with a brazen confidence that I would love to share. When the ground drops away into a gully, they leap without hesitation and land at full tilt to continue their dash. While, for me, a fallen tree across the trail means I have to slow down to figure out a way over. For them, though they cannot see to the other side, that same tree is not an obstacle at all, but an occasion for a gorgeous, wild leap.
The creek presents the most challenging obstacle in the woods for me. My usual fast clip slows to a crawl. Actually, it sometimes slows to a dead stop when I’m crossing the water. Not my dogs, though. Whether they are bounding into or out of the creek, they in no way resemble me cautiously picking my way from rock to rock. They are full of confidence and faith that something will be there (a rock, a log, a spot of mud) for their foot to land on when they need it.
Now, I know most of you haven’t crossed a creek with my speed-loving dogs, but I suspect you’ve all witnessed this raw grace of being “all in.” Think of the squirrels in the trees in your local park. The way they dash madly along the thinnest of branches takes the breath away. In a feat of pure faith, as they reach the very end of the branch they’re on, without pausing, they leap into the air and land on another tiny branch still running at full speed. Or think of monkeys swinging from limb to limb at the zoo.
Do the carefree flights of my dogs, those squirrels and monkeys always end in an easy-peasy landing? No. My dogs take a tumble every now and then, but it barely slows them down. I’ve seen squirrels miss the next branch, and grapple ferociously for a grip on whatever they can grab as they hurtle through the air. While that moment of free fall would certainly leave me breathless, if not paralyzed with panic, I’ve never seen a squirrel pause gratefully once it lands on its Plan B branch. Instead, they keep right on zipping along.
It is true that I have never witnessed a swinging monkey miss a branch, but I actually have watched a mother monkey coaxing her baby to let go and swing to the next branch. This must mean that monkeys (at least the baby ones) are plagued with at least a little of the “common sense” that slows me down. The difference between me and the monkeys (at least one difference) is that, for them, a slip up does not translate into a reason to hold back, to exercise a little caution or to slam on the brakes next time. Like my dogs, they are “all in“ again immediately, swinging from branch to branch with abandon.
What is it that holds me back? It’s my brain. My body freezes up as it revs up into spirals of strategizing. Until today, I thought all of my plotting and planning revealed what a smart human I am. Today, as I watched my dogs careen gleefully through the woods, the thought crossed my mind that thinking was inhibiting some of my joy. The planning I do to stay safe is preventing me from being “all in.”
There’s a country song (No Such Thing As A Broken Heart by Old Dominion) that I like that speaks to this.
“You gotta treat your life like you’re jumping off a rope swing maybe, ’cause the whole thing is really just a shot in the dark. You gotta love like there’s no such thing as a broken heart.”
We’re all going to stumble and have near misses. We’re all going to get hurt. This is simply a part of life. While not pleasant, these missteps do leave us wiser (if at times a little wetter). They can also leave us with more faith in ourselves and our abilities. They can also leave us with more faith in life in general – in other words, faith that one bad ending of a fun thing doesn’t mean the fun thing will always end badly.
What does guarantee a bad ending (or at least a sloppy one) is not being “all in.” Let’s return the visual of me picking my way glacially from rock to rock across the creek. At this pace, I’m not “all in” with regards to my goal of reaching the other side. What I’m “all in” to is not slipping off each rock. Do you see? That’s why I’m so often stuck on a rock in the middle of a creek!
To borrow from Old Dominion, I’ve “gotta cross like there’s no such thing as a wet sneaker!” I’ve gotta cross that creek the way squirrels and monkeys leap from branch to branch. I’ve gotta learn to cross that creek the way my dogs do – with joyful abandon, not thinking for an instant that I won’t be happily zipping along on the other side. So today I tried speed. And I learned that hopping from rock to rock across a creek is easier and way more fun when I move quickly and without hesitation. (I also learned that I can happily zip along on the other side even when one sneaker is a tiny bit wet.)
Take a look around your life (or even around your yoga mat). Notice a time when you’re not “all in.” In other words, when you’re holding back. Without giving it too much thought, see how it feels to change gears and pour yourself into what you’re doing 100%. I’m pretty sure this is the way we’re meant to feel all the time. Enjoy!
“Hitting my stride: to achieve a regular or steady pace or course; to reach the point or level at which one functions most competently or consistently.” – Dictionary.com
I could easily add a third aspect to the above definition. Hitting my stride: what I haven’t quite done (yet).
It’s mid-September and everything still feels new, so I’m cutting myself a little slack. Plus, I still need to get one of my kids off to school, so I get a little more slack. Plus, I have added a new “tile” to my mosaic of part-time jobs that is my full-time job, so I get even a little more slack.
I still feel like I’m chasing myself most days. I still don’t know exactly what to expect each week – what days are jammed so full it might be a good idea to get Panera for dinner and what days I can walk the dogs. I’m still uncertain about when the “back office” stuff of life happens. My daughter’s schedule is surprising me as often as my own (usually predictable) schedule is, so some days have a little more adrenaline coursing through them than I’d like.
In short, I haven’t achieved a “regular or steady pace” nor am I functioning “most competently or consistently.”
But I have faith that I will hit my stride. Actually, in addition to faith, experience allows me to KNOW that I will. Probably within a week or two, to be precise.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we always had the wisdom of experience to reassure us that within (say) 14 days we will have worked out the kinks, hit our stride and once again be cruising smoothly through life? That would take the sting out of the awkward first weeks of anything and everything. Those weeks when we’re climbing the learning curve – feeling lost, confused, exploding with a bazillion questions and basically being mildly to severely ineffective.
Practicing yoga actually gives us exactly this wisdom of experience. While it won’t give us a hard deadline for when we can expect to hit our stride, it does reassure us that, no matter what new skill we’re navigating, eventually, it will be old hat.
I’m teaching a brand new group of students right now. While some of them have tried yoga, none have ever developed a steady, consistent practice. And none of them have ever tried Ashtanga yoga. Everything we do in class (postures, breathing, chanting), therefore, is brand new to them. Yet I can see them gaining confidence. I can feel them settling into the rhythm of the practice. I can sense a calmer, more settled energy in the classroom. They may not know it, but they are hitting their stride.
Within two weeks, they will feel competent enough on their mats that having a new posture to learn will feel exciting rather than overwhelming. They will have practiced consistently enough for long enough that the nature of their questions will change. Their understanding of what they’re doing on their mats will be more nuanced. Rather than asking about the alignment of their feet or whether they should reach up or out, they will begin to wonder about whether they’re wrapping their arm around their back on an inhale or an exhale, or where they should gaze in a posture.
I know this because I’ve taught many, many groups of new students. I have the wisdom of experience.
Yet, I believe that, at a certain level, my students know it too. I believe that they can feel their confidence building as we move through our opening sun salutations in each class. I believe that they feel the new smoothness and efficiency of their movements. And I believe that their (fairly quickly earned) newfound proficiency in sun salutations is as much a mental and emotional gift as it is a physical one. Knowing that they hit their stride with this new feat in just six classes will assure them that they can and will learn the whole series. Better yet, it will give them the peace of mind to allow them to enjoy learning what they don’t know as much as they enjoy practicing what they do.
That bears repeating: hitting your stride allows you to enjoy learning what you don’t know as much as you enjoy practicing what you already do know.
Life very rarely send you the same experiences day in and day out. (If it did, you would be so bored.) The thrill of living comes from learning, stretching and growing. Which is easiest to embrace with wide open arms and a wide open heart when you have hit your stride.
Have faith that you will. Better yet, know that you will. (I’m talking to me, too.)
“Practice and all is coming.” – Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Whether you’ve been practicing yoga for a week, a month or a decade, I suspect you’ve run into aches or pains. I’m not talking about the sharp pain of an injury. The sensations I’m referring to are less extreme than that, but can be disconcerting nonetheless.
Perhaps the backs of your legs felt sore in your forward folds or even in your bed later that night. Maybe your arms felt quivery and weak by your fourth low push-up. Or you had trouble getting the shampoo to your head the next morning. I have a friend who says that, for the first year of her practice, even the hairs on her head would hurt after she rolled up her mat. I remember poking at my chest and marveling that what I’d thought was just ribs covered with skin turned out to be actual muscles I never knew I had – and they hurt!
These aches and pains are a side-effect of change. And change is what yoga is all about. Yoga meets us where we are – tight or flexible, strong or weak, brave or fearful, confident or uncertain – and, inch by inch, changes us. Practicing yoga doesn’t guarantee that you’ll one day be able to slip your leg behind your head or even sit cross-legged on the floor comfortably playing Candy Land with your kids for hours. Practicing yoga doesn’t guarantee that you won’t lose your patience when the dog needs to go out for the fifth time in an hour or that your attention won’t wander during your upcoming all-day staff retreat.
These things might happen. But they might not. The one thing yoga does guarantee is that you will change. You will see many of these changes in your body. If you’re paying attention, you will see at least as many changes in the ways you are thinking, feeling and behaving. And you’ll probably notice that many of these changes hurt.
A yoga practice teaches us to be patient yet persistent with these growing pains. It also teaches us to be keenly observant so we can determine when a pain is OK to tolerate and when it’s one we need to avoid. For instance, the pain of tight muscles opening in a forward fold or a backbend is safe to breathe through. Other pain, like an uncomfortable wrist in a backbend, requires that we adapt the posture to where we are right now (waiting for our shoulders to open and our strength to develop) until our body changes enough to be ready for more.
What the aches and pains of yoga are really teaching us is how to better navigate changes in life.
Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed by stress as you start your new job. Maybe you’ve just relocated and are feeling lost and alone despite your initial excitement about your new home. Perhaps you find yourself suddenly single or suddenly coupled and struggling with the shifts in the rhythms of your days. Maybe you are feeling torn to pieces as you contemplate saying goodbye to your parents when they drop you off at college. Or maybe you are the parent suddenly navigating a quiet, clean home like you haven’t had for 18 years.
Change can hurt off the mat as well.
As we navigate these changes, we put into practice what we’ve learned on our mats. We give ourselves permission to be gentle. We dig deep for patience. We dig even deeper for the persistence to stick with whatever it is, even when it’s really hard. Most importantly, we remember how great it feels – strong, confident, powerful – to have transformed. All of the practice we do on our mats leaves us with the optimism to believe – from the (sometimes sore) hairs on our heads to the tips of our (often exhausted) toes – that while change can hurt, it almost always leaves us better than it found us.
Which is what makes growing pains worthwhile.
“I know this transformation is painful, but you’re not falling apart; you’re just falling into something different, with a new capacity to be beautiful.” – William C. Hannan
“New Month. New Beginning. New Mindset. New Focus. New Start. New Intention. New Results.”
The end of summer has always felt like the end of the year to me. The preceding weeks of longer days lived at a slower pace leave us refreshed and restored. We have rested, taken a break from our regularly scheduled life, perhaps eaten better, and hopefully had a little extra fun. Thanks to this, we reach the end of August reinvigorated and ready to jump into the fall with energy and enthusiasm.
As much as the end of August feels like year’s end, September feels like a tremendous beginning. For those of us who grew up here in the US, September brings the first day of a new school year. As a mother, this time of year is still all about “back to school.” September has its traditions at our house all tied to the new year. School shopping. A last burst of effort on summer reading that has been ignored for much of the summer. The annual “big clean” – closets, bookshelves, backpacks, and so on. All designed to get us ready for the “Big Day” and beyond.
Even as a professional with no children, “back to school” energy shifted me into a higher gear. September always felt like the “right” time to clean up my desk, get organized, and to hold team meetings to get us pumped up for the busy season ahead. More often than not, it was at this time of year that we would begin work on big, new projects that had been on hold until everyone was back from their vacations.
As a yoga instructor, this time of year is rich with new students embarking on the beginnings of their yoga journey. Like children and young adults embarking on a new school year, or a professional taking the first steps in a massive new project, these new yoga students feel a mix of excitement and nerves. Whether developing a yoga practice is a long-held goal or an idea that flashed into mind yesterday, beginning students tend to show up with an excited smile and a heightened energy.
Also like the kids and professionals mentioned above, new yoga students’ excitement tends to be mixed with some trepidation. Beginnings are, as a matter of course, a step into the unknown. As happy as a student may be to embark on a new beginning, it is typical for them to also feel some hesitation and a sense of doubt. Some worry about not being able to do a posture. Others about not being strong enough. Still others about not being bendy enough.
And they may find that they are not strong or bendy or coordinated. They might discover other struggles or weaknesses they haven’t even thought about worrying about. But it won’t matter.
It won’t matter.
In fact, whatever challenges they must face within their new beginning – the struggle will be good for them. The same is true for you.
One of my favorite yoga authors, Rolf Gates, says it beautifully. “The obstacles on the path are the path. Every time we stretch beyond our resistance and our fear, we make the choice for life. And every time we choose life, we find that fear loses its grip on us. We all know more than we think we do, and we are stronger than we believe ourselves to be. We come to our [yoga] mats, and to our lives, to learn by going where we have to go.” (Meditations from the Mat, p. 28)
If our mission in life is to stretch ourselves, to grow and to change, then challenges and obstacles are the stuff of life. Nothing has taught me this lesson more viscerally or more vividly than my yoga practice. On my mat I have learned that it is possible to set aside fear and worry and simply try. Yoga teaches that failure – even a spectacular failure that leaves you flat on your back – is nothing more than the opportunity to try again. Do so, and I guarantee you that one day you will surprise yourself and do whatever it is you’re learning to do!
Life, it turns out, isn’t much different than yoga. Your path will at times seem paved with challenges and obstacles. Your path will almost always be leading you into the unknown. Take a deep breath. Choose to stretch beyond your fear or worry. As you do, you will be choosing to grow into your life and into your potential. Which is exactly what you’re meant to do.
As you head out into whatever new beginning September holds for you, take a deep breath and remember that the obstacles, challenges and struggles along the way are your path. As you walk it, you’re becoming the person you’re meant to be.