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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yoga is not relaxing

A couple of weeks ago, I joined the Asana Junkies practice group with one of my favorite yoga teachers and writers, Christina Sell.  Every week, Christina gives us a new sequence, and hosts a webinar to discuss our experience with practicing that sequence and provides an open forum for discussion.

Dudes, these sequences are hard. 

Like, really hard.

Not because they involve crazy advanced poses, but because they challenge your stamina and willpower by asking you to hold postures for a really long-ass time.  Just to give you an idea, the first week's sequence started out with a 5-minute headstand, four 1-minute handstands, and there are ten backbends.  Ten.  Five urdhva dhanurasanas and five dwi pada viparitta dandasanas, one minute each.

Urdhva Dhanurasana

dwi pada viparitta dhandasana
( I'm working it with bent legs similar to Urdhva. 
None of this straight legs nonsense)

While attempting to practice this sequence, I learned a number of things:
  • What I think is one minute, is actually about 20 seconds
  • The above statement is especially true in pavritta trikonasana
  • I cannot do four 1-minute handstands in a row
  • But, I can rock a 5 minute headstand
  • Pinca Mayurasana is still really, really hard
Most importantly, though, I learned what happens when you push through the point when you would normally give up.  And then you push through it again.  And again.  And over and over for 2 hours.  The thing is, if you stay in the pose long enough there's sometimes this moment of transformation, like breaking through a wall, and you discover a whole new depth to a pose you thought you already knew.

In a related story, I feel like there's this myth that doing yoga is basically stretching while listening to relaxing music and feeling blissed out.  I know this misconception exists, because while leaving class I have occasionally heard gripes such as "Um, that was NOT relaxing"  - the implication being that hey, I thought yoga was all peaceful but that was REALLY HARD and I kind of just wanted to do tree pose and you made me do all of this difficult shit and now I am PISSED.

I'm not sure how this myth got started exactly, because on what planet is this supposed to be relaxing:

Sure, BKS Iyengar...sure.

I think it might have something to do with the numerous articles asserting that yoga is some miracle cure that will magically relieve stress and anxiety, quiet your mind, and focus your energy.

[quick aside - for the next couple of paragraphs I'm going to use the word "Yoga" when what I really mean is Asana.  I think when most people think of Yoga, they think of Asana practice and I realize the two are not interchangable but that's how we're going to roll for a few minutes]

Yoga does do these things - not because it is inherently relaxing, but because it is inherently stressful.  Balancing upside down on your head is not relaxing.  Twisting into a pretzel is not relaxing.  The mental benefits are derived from working to stay calm and centered while in these difficult positions. 

Think about it.  It doesn't make sense to think that we could learn to manage stress by staying relaxed in a comfortable situation. In order to grow in our capacity to stay grounded in stressful situations, we have to practice...staying grounded in stressful situations.

I recently came across this Psychology Today article, which explains how we form new neural pathways by re-training our brain.  The fight or flight response is somewhat innate, but it can be changed by the repeated action of a new response.  Learning to breathe deeply and quiet your mind while sitting on your couch watching The Bachelor is very different than learning to breathe deeply and quiet your mind while you are twisted into a pretzel and hovering over the floor.

A few weeks ago, I heard a story on NPR about the different ways in which Asian and U.S. cultures approach the experience of struggle and challenge.  In the U.S., we see struggle as a sign of low intelligence, and assume that being smart means you will "get it" right away.  In Asian cultures, struggling is seen as a sign of mental fortitutde.
"In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle."
When my husband comes home after a day of work with yet another story of a student who didn't hand in his or her work because they "couldn't do it," my immediate reaction is usually "bah, kids these days don't understand responsibility, no work ethic blah blah blah..."

But what if what we're seeing isn't laziness or lack of accountability, but instead the natural result of a culture that has stopped teaching our children that it's OK to struggle?  That writes people off if they do not immediately grasp a concept or produce a deliverable the right way?  I've seen this happen both at school and at work, and it is so unfortunate, because the people who have to work the hardest to get where they need to be, often end up being just as good if not better than those who 'get it' right away. 

Not to generalize (ok, that was a lie I am totally generalizing), but we are a nation that looks for easy fixes to our problems.  Exercise that doesn't make you tired, diets where you can eat whatever you want, and I think it's given us the impression that nothing should be hard and if it is, you're just not good at it or you're doing it wrong.

Just to bring everything full circle, yoga can teach us how to struggle skillfully.  It puts us in a place that is not comfortable, and then challenges us to work through that feeling.  By repeating this process, we can literally re-wire our brain to respond differently under stress.

Yes, you can absolutely go to a very meditative place while practicing asana - I can and often do. But the path to getting to that place is not always smooth, and you can't expect to get there every single time. Sometimes you feel blissful, and sometimes you are yelling expliatives at Elena Brower during a Yogaglo webcast while she makes you hold ardha chandrasana for a thousand years. Such is life.

Yoga is not not a magical cure-all. Just like any effort that fosters growth and transformation, it is not easy.  It's not supposed to be easy. The poses are just poses - if you want yoga to change your life, you have to do the work.


  1. are wayyyyy more practiced in yoga than i haha. i am excited if i can do a shoulder stand for 30s! i wish we took a more eastern approach to struggle! truly, it would prob make me less anxious in general. and now...i am inspired to do more yoga! so i can 'struggle skillfully' which makes me sound very smart as well ;)

  2. Ooh, I like this post a lot. That's a really interesting point - we do kind of look at struggle as a bad thing in our culture. It's funny how you take certain things as a given aspect of the human condition, without realizing it might be culturally specific. Food for thought.

    Also, damn, I can't believe you can hold a 5 minute headstand!

    1. Honestly, I kind of couldn't believe it either! I usually do 1-2 minutes, I think the longest I've ever done was 4 and it seemed very, very long. But I set up my timer to ding at 1-minute intervals, and it was really helpful as a gague of where I was and how long I had left. Those one-minute handstands were really humbling though - even at the wall I couldn't do all 4!

      I love how you worded that - taking things as a given aspect of the human condition, even though it is culturally specific. I'm sure it happens way more than anyone realizes.

  3. I love yoga, but am no where near the level you are! I hope to one day be more practiced. I love your blog and am so glad our paths crossed! I nominated you for a Liebster Award. Check it out...

  4. This is an interesting idea. I've felt this way even with very moderate yoga before, making peace with the struggle and letting it just be hard and not caring if I "achieve" some kind of perfection. You're a badass!

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  7. These poses are truly very hard. I will try it and hope to do these easily according to routine that you have shared here. Great ideas!!!


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