Yoga Practice - A Dance of Effort & Ease
Updated: Aug 27, 2021
Every burnout story that I have encountered through friends, family, clients, those who have cared to share their story as a part of my research - is a story of over-effort and not enough ease. And every burnout recovery story is about finding ways to add more ease into the daily grind.
People may not often use the word 'burnout' when describing how they feel, but it is evident in the ways they talk about their current situation:
"I am constantly feeling depleted — even the simplest and previously enjoyable tasks give me anxiety."
"I leave my days feeling like I had chased my tail all day and don’t have much to show for it".
"I wasn't feeling like myself, but it wasn't until my colleagues started asking if I was okay that I took a good, hard look in the mirror"
"I woke up with panic attacks in the middle of the night. I couldn't find motivation to do anything."
"I know I can't carry on living like this – for this is not living"
Burnout is intense exhaustion: physical and emotional exhaustion; cynicism and detachment, or feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. It could overlap with depression but it is not depression. Recovering from burnout or trying to minimise potential burnout possibilities is about finding a sense ease into our daily flows, especially when things are hard, rough, unavoidable and essential.
On the blog today, I talk about
Why learning to create a balance between effort and ease is essential for skilful living
How yoga practice involving effort and ease benefits your daily life
Guidelines to create effort and ease at the same time when doing yoga
My goal is to help you get clear about the ways in which your own hustle and busy-ness is causing you more harm than good, so you take the necessary action required. Also, by following the guidelines on how to progress on the mat, you'll find more ease and joy when met with resistance - both on and off the mat.
So let's get right into it..
Why learning to creating a balance between effort and ease is ESSENTIAL for the survival of our species and to also feel joy.
The necessity of finding this elusive balance in your personality, actions and on the yoga mat can be traced back to a human cell.
A cell’s membrane needs to be permeable to allow nutrients to enter and waste to exit, but if it is too permeable, the cell loses integrity causing it to either explode from the pressures within or implode from pressures without. If it is too firm _____–––___and hard, than there will be destruction through starvation or toxicity.
Similarly, your personality needs to be easygoing in order to adapt effectively sans anxiety but if you are become too adaptable and don't set healthy boundaries at work and in relationships, there is resentment and a loss of personal agency. Or then, if you are too 'controlling' about how things should be and struggle with reality as is (when it's beyond your control) then don't be surprised to find yourself anxiety prone. When it comes to actions, we all know what sustained over-effort without adequate ease does to our bodies and minds. On the other hand, if there is too much ease without adequate hard work, we can pretty much give up on our dreams.
On your yoga mat, the ability to refocus your attention inward depends on the quality of effort you bring to the asana. If you try too hard, the posture becomes rigid, blocking the flow of energy (prana); too sloppy without the discipline of right alignment and containment, the pose falls apart and energy spills, compromising the structural integrity of the body. In both cases, the mind divorced from the experience of being embodied in the pose wanders away - what am I cooking for dinner tonight? Am I doing this well or better then the next guy? How am I looking in this pose - is my body getting better? and so on..Strength without flexibility leads to blocked energy flow or even injury and flexibility without strength leads to instability.
Simply put, the principle that balances permeability is stability and visa versa. All living things need balance containment and permeability, rigidity and plasticity, persistence and adaptability, space and boundaries, effort and ease - at the same time - both on and off the mat.
We need to find ways to create effort and ease simultaneously in our personalities, our actions and on the yoga mat so we get better at living and how we practice yoga.
How your yoga practice involving effort and ease benefits your daily life
Yoga teaches you a lot about how your mind works. It is a process of inquiry that uses the body as a vehicle for accessing the mind and uncovering our true nature.
It's easy to find ease when your practice is fluid and resistance free. But what happens when you are wobbling and falling apart? Do you judge your limitations or enjoy the process despite the struggle ? Do you overwork to the point of exhaustion even before the class has finished?
Learning how to create effortful actions and then injecting ease to sustain the discomfort is how we grow in our practice. When we experience this concept at a visceral level, it permeates how we live our lives and what we do to stop the daily burn. Balancing effort and ease on the mat changes our neurobiology and because the state of our mind affects our body and the state of the body affects the mind, a positive change in our neurobiology contributes to self-transformation.
Practical tips to infuse effort & ease at the same time on the mat.
Students who are more 'chilled out' typically resist discomfort or consistency and tend to judge their 'lazy' tendencies harshly. For such peeps, my job is to remind them that 'slow gains is better than no gains' as that what motivates them to keep at it and progress well.
However, I've found that majority of my students are motivated towards effort. I've observed many beginner level students pushing hard to the point that they simply collapse into a pose (often chaturanga). While there is something to be said about eagerness and giving your absolute best but not knowing when to dial down is key to un-sustainability.
Your practice on the mat should be about learning to play at your edge.
'Wait, was does it even mean?' I can literally hear you say that..
Playing at your edge means exploring freedom in the body - a state where there is room for growth but enough ease that you don't get spent too fast.
The theme of ease and effort is described in the Yoga Sutra:sthira-sukham asanam. Stir means steady and sukham mean comfortable. Asana is steady and comfortable—a harmonious and stable position—a suitable locus for the Divine. There is a sense of not holding the pose too tightly or too loosely.
You know you are establishing sthir (steadiness) and sukh (ease) in your practice when:
A pose feels alive and energetic - maybe has you wobbling, sweating and panting but it doesn't come at a cost of holding your breath, pain, or force.
There is a push and pull of working hard and letting go during transition or while holding an asana (pose). While holding an asana, you go back and forth with strengthening and softening, advancing and relaxing, toning and releasing all at once.
At all times, there are three dynamics at play: 1. You put heaps of effort, 2. You also surrender to the effort (through steady eyes and conscious rhythmic breathing) and 3. You recognise how effortful it is to surrender!
As a general rule of thumb, strength-building poses such as arm balances - crow, side plank, etc. can sustain a bit of over-effort but you may get injured if you over-stretch muscles during flexibility-oriented poses such as pigeon pose.
So do pay extra attention to your sensory stretch threshold and dial it down a few notches from your maximum capacity when holding a stretch.
Practice consistency and moderation in your practice.
There will always be days when you can’t hold your Chaturangas, get out of bed, touch your toes or focus on your daily responsibilities and this may invite judgement, a sense of shame, perfectionism or even comparisons. After all you've worked so hard to put all that effort in your daily routine only to get up one day and feel anxious about simple, previously enjoyable tasks.. and it is in these very moments of vulnerability and self-doubt that we learn how to continue taking the right actions and simply let go. It is in these moments that the practice of effort and ease becomes most alive.