The Secret of an advanced practice

How do you know when to push harder and when to back off? For many years, I pushed myself way too hard in yoga. I was looking for something, I guess. Have you ever felt compelled to just shove a dozen cookies in your mouth? Like you’re depleted, malnourished, and if you eat all of the cookies, it will fill the void? (spoiler, IT DOESN’T) But it’s like you know you’re missing something. I used to practice yoga like that. Like if I held high lunge for five minutes or if I did every suggested arm balance or perfected my float back, that was what would fill the void. The perfect yoga practice, at any cost.

But perfect isn’t actually what we need. It took me a long time to really understand that, probably 11 or 12 years of practice and at that point I was already teaching full-time. Back when I was 18 or 19, at the beginning of my practice, I remember my teacher saying that the sign of a truly advanced practitioner was that they know when to push harder and when to back off, that they could be honest with themselves. I heard her say this enough times that even with my pretty lousy memory I remember it perfectly, but at the time I could only *hear* that I needed to push harder. I found so much solace and relief and sweetness in my practice, both because of and despite this. When I started teaching, I pushed my students in the same way, I considered it tapas as a means to achieve pratyahara. And it works! But at what cost? Intense people will find yoga and push themselves, but more isn’t always better (less also isn’t always better).

Sure it’s very individualized, but it seems like in any given activity, a practitioner would fit into either of those categories, folks who push too hard or those who need to push harder. In a yoga class, do you drop to your knees too soon in plank? Do you stop for breaks? Come out early? Skip a round of flow and stay in child’s pose? These things are all ways you could be listening to your body, taking breaks and coming to your knees might be totally necessary sometimes. But is it your first impulse to do them? And are you absolutely sure you need to? When you’re in chair and the teacher says, “Sit three inches deeper.” Do you groan and say to yourself, “It’s already hard enough?” There’s lots to be learned on the side of struggle, from tapas and “burning enthusiasm”.

So then there’s the other side, right? When you’re in like prayer twist, and the teacher’s like, “If it’s in your practice to do side crow, go there now.” And you go there EVERY TIME. Or you’re in a bind and the teacher suggests you could get into bird of paradise, and you push and push and force yourself into it while your hamstrings strain and your heart nearly explodes. So a yoga pose is just the vehicle to get you to work on all of these other things, breath, stillness, patience, honesty, nonviolence, etc. Right? You with me? You start with easy poses, and you learn to be there and be still and breath deeply and completely and find sweetness and contentment and figure out how to soften things and strengthen things at the same time. Then only when those easier poses get too easy and you’re no longer having to practice all that stuff while you hold them, THAT’S when you progress to harder poses. If you’re straining and gasping and pushing and pushing you’re not getting much benefit besides discomfort.

Sthira Sukha, you’ve got to find something to soften and something to strengthen, notice where you’re struggling and think about what you can change to ease it (whether it’s your mind or your breath or your body). There it is you guys, that’s the secret. It’s balance. It’s the awareness to know when you need to push harder and when you need to back off, and ability to be honest with yourself about it, and then being ok with it, whatever the answer was. Finding strength and sweetness, finding challenge but also patience and contentment and honesty and breath and gaze and softness all at once.

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