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“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.