One way of summing up what we do in āsana — and indeed in yoga practice as a whole — is tread the line between comfort and challenge. When we practice āsana, there are poses that are comfortable, uncomfortable, challenging, and some that either are or at least seem to be damn near impossible!
In this perspective, we can view all yoga poses as being somewhere on a continuum between “no problem” and “heck no!” (you can use stronger language if you prefer). This continuum is also subjective: one person’s “heck no” is another person’s “no problem” and vice versa.
To further complicate matters, our comfort zones aren’t solely rooted in physical ability — there is always a psycho-emotional component as well. Every single āsana, no matter how “hard” or “easy,” has the potential to bring us face-to-face with our relationships with comfort, discomfort, and challenge. Some are only comfortable when we’re challenged, while others avoid any challenge at all costs, where even the slightest movement or unfamiliar sensation causes stress and discomfort.
For many, this is also tied to our identity and feeling of self-worth: we want to be seen as strong, or capable, or silly, or stable, peaceful, at ease, energetic, stoic, controlled or easy-going, or any other trait or combination of traits that we feel identify us. And then, as if that weren’t enough, things can be further complicated by what others expect of us, or at the very least, what we think others expect.
So, even in a “simple” Tadāsana, we encounter all of this.
Some people will find standing still challenging because of physical issues: it may be painful to stand, or there may be balance issues. Others may find Tadāsana “boring” or too easy, and their challenge is to stay with the pose and find the nuance and subtlety. Still others may find it comfortable while staying present, but will either overwork, exhausting themselves and becoming rigid, or stand too casually, allowing various structural collapses.
In Tadāsana, it is not only the physical balance on two feet that we seek, but also the equanimity of mind and emotion while we’re there — it’s a balance of left and right, front and back, pushing down while reaching up, engaging with ease, being alert and calm, still but with the potential to move in any direction, experiencing the simplicity of the pose while acknowledging the complexity of our existence.
I use Tadāsana here as an example, because it was my post a couple weeks ago on foot placement in Tadāsana and the discussion that ensued on Facebook that inspired this post. In essence, my thesis was that once stability is found in Tadāsana with the feet apart, working with the feet gradually closer together and eventually touching eases the transition from standing on two legs to standing on one leg. I’ve seen that for many people, the transition from a wide base in a hip- (or even shoulder-) width stance Tadāsana to the considerably narrower base of a single foot is too great a leap for the vestibular system to manage, especially if there are already some balance issues for whatever reasons.
It’s also a good example, because despite its many challenges, Tadāsana (or even Supta Tadāsana) is an accessible pose for most people. Nearly every yoga class will usually include some form of Tadāsana at least once in the practice — except perhaps for Restorative and Yin — so it’s a pose that most practitioners are familiar with at every level, but it’s also one that can be easily overlooked.
One reason, perhaps, that it is often overlooked is because it is for many people “too easy” — after all, it’s just standing! For people who don’t have such a struggle balancing on two feet, Tadāsana can be kind of boring, making it sometimes more challenging to stay with it, to stay present. This can be especially true if you’re the kind of practitioner that likes to make things hard, just to keep them interesting. Perhaps you enjoy the physical challenge, but not the mental one.
In other words, the physical challenges yoga can present are your comfort zone. They keep you out of the places that are uncomfortable, where the mind can “wander” or often more accurately, where thoughts take you to uncomfortable places. Of course, you may have good reason to not want to spend your time on the mat navigating some of these habits of the mind: perhaps there’s painful stuff there, or maybe on a simpler level, you already spend enough time up in your head and need a bit of a break!
At the same time, part of yoga practice is about challenging those comfort zones. For some, that means progressively more complex poses that require greater physical demand (and usually greater mental focus, too). For others, that may mean reducing physical demands and beginning to explore the challenges of keeping the mind focused when there is less physical demand to focus on.
So should yoga be challenging? I’d say that it’s almost always challenging! To me, challenge in āsana is great — it’s part of the purpose of the practice: to challenge our comfort zones, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual.
Should yoga be a struggle? That’s a very different question. I’d have to say no on that, or at least that we should not seek out unnecessary struggle in āsana. There should always be a sense of ease in the poses, for without ease, the breath is compromised and the mind is agitated — after all, this is the meaning of shanti: ease.
For this week, here is your challenge: to find shanti in your practice.