So many exercise regimens today emphasize pushing oneself to the limit of one’s endurance. This is a foolhardy strategy that is sure to lead to injury, debility and perhaps permanent decrepitude. Certain sub genres of Hatha Yoga have also been infected by this hyper driven, egoistic approach to practicing the ancient and venerated method of developing human potential we call yoga.
I was once badly injured by an aggressive teacher from one of the most prominent yoga lineages of the 20th century. Her violent, thoughtless actions inflicted painful, chronic sciatica upon me. It took me months to heal myself. But with gentle, persistent effort, I did.
Of course, I’ve injured myself with my own egoistic stupidity, too. All of these injuries combined have helped me formulate and realize my motto: Gentleness is the Path to Strength. One of my talented students graciously embroidered these words of wisdom on my yoga mat as a constant reminder. When we pay for our mistakes with our flesh and bone, we tend to remember them!
So, how much vigor and force should we use during our yoga practice? It’s different for each one of us. We all have a head, two arms and two legs I tell my students, but the similarities end there. Individual tolerances to the forces of exertion vary widely. This is why I’ve coined the term “comfortable engagement” yoga.
It’s not another in the ever increasing number of yoga styles on the market today; it’s simply a way to practice that ensures incremental progress with safety and enjoyment.
The hallmarks of comfortable engagement yoga are attention and awareness. As we move and breathe we must exercise discrimination and discernment as we “play the edge” of our ability as Erich Schiffman would say. A rule of thumb I use is that if you can smile with genuine pleasure as you practice you are comfortably engaged; and as such, you are unlikely to injure yourself.
As we mindfully move into each asana we are working to apply the perfect amount of exertion to match our ability. This is the concept of sukha and sthira, ease and steadiness. As we work with ease and steadiness we learn to inhabit the sweet spot of each pose.
Discomfort and pain are warnings for us to back off. The “no pain no gain” philosophy is simply an egotistical invitation to injury. What we are striving for is a balanced dance of movement, breath and gravity, the three components of asana. Too much exertion afflicts us with tension which restricts the flow of our life force or prana. Like a wire with more voltage than it can handle our musculoskeletal and nervous systems are over loaded. This is the threshold of injury. Too little effort will result in a pose with less than optimum energy or benefit. We may become distracted and bored. A comfortably engaged body feels totally active in the pose, while the mind can focus in the repose of meditation.
The comfortably engaged body achieves optimal musculoskeletal engagement. The bones, muscles, organs, glands and connective tissues are in a state of balanced effort that conveys an unobstructed flow of vital force to each cell of the body. This is the yoga or union of our whole being. This unity of being is what confers good health upon us and the preparation for us to progress into the techniques of single-pointed concentration, meditation and blissful absorption into union with the unlimited creative force off the universe.