Friday, April 30, 2010

Sense and Sensibility of Effort

I was teaching a private lesson this week and my student commented that once he really understood the alignments of Mountain Pose, it felt like the effort needed to sustain the posture decreased.  This comment made me reflect on the way my yoga practice evolved.

When I started yoga, I put all my effort into each pose - especially the standing poses.  This was an important stage of learning: how to engage my muscles fully, how to overcome sluggishness and blockages in my nervous system.  It was very satisfying to feel so much power flowing through me.  I came to think that doing a pose correctly meant having the feeling of vigorous effort.

But as my body opened and my sensitivity to alignment grew, I no longer needed such great force to create the postures.  I could be more discerning about which muscles to engage and which to release.  I could align my bones more efficiently.  Yet I still carried the expectation that when I was doing a pose "right" that it should feel really intense.  So I pushed farther and farther in the poses, seeking the same feeling of effort as when I first began.

It was at my Kripalu teacher training where I realized that ever-greater effort was unnecessary; in fact, it can be an impediment, and in the long run it can lead to injury.  One purposes of Kripalu yoga is to attune to prana - the life-force of the body.  I found that if I was always pushing deeper into a pose, the sensations would overwhelm my awareness and drown out the more subtle experiences of prana.  In the course of twice-daily practice, I also realized that day after day of intense effort was not sustainable if I wanted to keep my body happy.

These days, I enjoy a vigorous practice every now and then, just as I enjoy an occasional action movie or gourmet meal. Most of the time, I use postures to balance my body and prepare for my meditation practice.

Patanjali's classic definition of yoga posture is "steady and comfortable".  The effort we make in postures is not an end in itself, but a means to create the stability and ease which open us to the more subtle realms of pranayama and meditation.  I'm afraid that much modern yoga misses this point, and the "yogic high" has become another addiction that requires ever-greater doses (of vinyasas, of difficulty, of heat) to sustain.  However,  of all the addictions available to the modern consumer, yoga is a pretty good one to have...

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