Yoga attracts all sorts of different people: flexible, stiff, old, young, anxious, relaxed, energetic, exhausted, patient, impatient — every human characteristic is welcome at a yoga class. However, that does not always mean that every trait serves us, both in yoga and in life. Even the most practiced yogis feel the tug of perfectionism or push themselves through poses or situations when their bodies and minds know something isn’t right. They, just like all of us, feel the urge to move through things quickly, strain their muscles, and contort themselves into the ‘best’ yoga pretzel even though their body might not be ready for it. However, in our quest to be ‘perfect’ in our practice, we get hurt, exhaust ourselves, and don’t engage with the work of stillness and self-compassion.
The journey we take in our yoga practices and the work we do for our mental health are incredibly similar — they are slow, frustrating, and sometimes feels like we are moving backwards. One day we can hold a plank position, the next day we are lying on our mats wondering what went wrong and why are we so broken? Sometimes we beat ourselves up for our inabilities or else push ourselves to go harder, be perfect, and ignore the pain. But that only moves us out of balance, into a state of depletion and exhaustion. If we remain here for too long, we risk serious consequences both mentally and physically. Many of us see rest and easing up on ourselves as being lazy, unproductive, and shameful. But self-judgement and pain does not a balanced life make.
In yoga, the concept of effort-and-ease encourages us to practice finding the balance between mindful movement and energy. A pose should feel alive and warm but it should not come at the cost of holding your breath, pain, or force. It is about moving through, not plowing ahead. It means honoring your beautiful body and its strengths and limitations.
Like mental health healing work, it takes a long time to cultivate self-compassion and awareness of the balance between effort and ease. It can feel difficult whether we are just starting out on our journeys or if we’ve been practicing for most of our lives. There are the days when we can’t touch our toes, get out of bed, hold chair pose, or concentrate on daily tasks and it is so disheartening to think of all the time and effort we have put in only to feel like a failure when these basic tasks seem insurmountable. We might slip back into perfectionism or judgement or comparisons and that is natural. But we must also recognize that our bodies and our minds are our own — they are unique, strong, and broken in their own beautiful ways.
The journey might seem long, frustrating, and arduous (because it often is!) and that is okay. In yoga, you wouldn’t expect yourself to do Vrischikasana (Scorpion pose) on the first day. It might take years or decades or it might never happen and that’s okay. You might instead open yourself up with camel pose, build core energy with extended side plank, or ground yourself with happy baby pose. You can work on different poses, make progress, and learn modifications that make sense for your mind and body. Some days will be amazing — you’ll feel like a zen koala and you’ll find the balance between effort and ease. Other days might not be so easy and you might push yourself too hard or need to spend most of your time in corpse pose. There might be more corpse pose days than you want and it can hurt to feel so broken and exhausted. Those experiences are part of your path and judgement or blame won’t make them any easier.
Know that your balance is yours and your journey, through mental health, yoga, life, is yours. You are enough and your path might be leading you up mountains that feel never-ending but you might find a smattering of mountain flowers, meet some spunky mountain goats, or catch a moment of clarity on your way.