One of my students recently asked me about pushing oneself in yoga class. He had heard from another instructor that he shouldn't push himself and was confused as he was under the impression that unless he pushed himself, he wasn't going to improve.
In Western society, we are taught, from a very early age, the harder you work, the better you do. We are conditioned to "push through the pain" and "don't be lazy" and "no pain, no gain." This is pretty much the exact opposite of what the Eastern practice of Yoga dictates. Pain is our body's message to to stop, we are hurting ourselves (for more on understanding pain, see How To Know Your Limits in a Yoga Class). Here we need to separate the ideas of forcing the body to do something vs. setting the intention to accomplish a physical task in a way that feels good and creates balance. We want to move our body intentionally, using enough muscular effort to maintain a pose efficiently, but not struggle or strain while doing so. How we approach our asana practice matters, as well as why we choose to practice certain poses.
Our goal for each yoga posture is written in one of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: Sthira Sukham Asanam which translates to Steady, Comfortable Seat. "Practicing yoga with strength and in a relaxed manner gives rise to harmony with the physical body (asana)." Each pose teaches us that even if our body is challenged in some way, our mind can remain calm, which creates a more pleasant overall experience; you maintain the effort, while releasing the struggle. When you can relax in a yoga pose, it conditions you to relax in the "real world." "Try easy, don't try hard," is something that one of my yoga colleagues, Joe Scianna, often says when he teaches. That really says it all.
I see the body like a oppositional teenager: the more you push and force and struggle to get it to do something, the more it rebels and pushes back. Force meets with resistance. But, if you give it a little space, and a little breath, in its own time it will do what you want it to do. Practicing kindness with your body is always a better way to go. So many times I see students trying to force their body to do something that it is not ready to do, like deepen a stretch or hold a pose that doesn't feel good (I can see it on their face). This is why there are modifications and props. Everyone can do some version of every pose, they just might need to modify and/or take a simpler version to accommodate their body's readiness and ability. The ego will want to push and shove regardless of how a pose feels; the challenge is to listen to the body and allow the pose to happen, rather than make it happen.
Of course it is easier to relax in poses like Childs Pose (Balasana) or Reclining Bound Angle (Supta Baddhakonasana), but your efforts should be the same in all poses. Even in Awkward Pose (Utkatasana) or Warrior 2 (Virbhadrasana 2), which require more muscular exertion to create and hold the pose, you don't need to harden every muscle in your body to hold it. Use enough effort to maintain the pose, but nothing extra. Then once you are there, relax the mind, let go of the struggle and breathe. Try this with poses that challenge you and you may be surprised at how your experience changes.
Janine L. Agoglia has been teaching Vinyasa yoga since 1998. Her yoga journey started in 1995 with Iyengar Yoga and she discovered Vinyasa yoga in 1997. The combination of breath with proper body alignment is what fuels Janine's practice and the classes that she teaches. She believes that yoga should be safe as well as challenging, creative and fun. She always emphasizes proper alignment within the flow, as well as focus, breath and humor to help students find the balance between strength and ease. Deepening one’s physical awareness helps one strengthen his/her spiritual awareness and mind-body connection. Janine loves being able to help people deepen their own practices, finding yoga in everyday life on and off the mat. Her DVD, “Vinyasa Yoga for Regular People” is available for purchase at the front desk at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland, MA.
In addition to being the Co-Director of Yoga and teaching yoga classes at Lumina Mind Body Studios, Janine is also a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist who practices at Integrative Therapeutics in Natick, MA.