I feel that I don’t always push hard enough in yoga class, but how hard
is too hard? And even if you relax and breathe into a position, should there
be discomfort for a while?
— Chris Taylor, San Francisco, California
Getting a handle on where you truly are in your yoga practice is sometimes like answering the Sphinx’s riddle to gain passage into an inner sanctum. Your practice contains many simultaneous sensations, details, and distractions that are indeed a challenge, but they ultimately lead to a more sophisticated practice. Discomfort is subjective, but I encourage you to explore the ranges of movement where the breath flows deeply and evenly. You should not feel so tightly wedged into a pose or so wound up that you are in muscular contraction. Instead, focus on having your energy flow.
In our teaching at White Lotus, we often talk about the dance of control and surrender. This interplay presents itself in every posture and is an important dynamic to understand and bring into your practice. Control and surrender are two ends of a spectrum that brings a deeper balance to your work. This dance is a defining principle in finding the lines of energy and tapping into the alignment of the posture using the natural existence of upward- and downward-moving energy but not pushing or overexerting your way through poses.
You may sometimes will yourself to be somewhere in your poses when you aren’t ready, overriding the feedback your body is giving you at the time. You may be imposing your will to achieve the pose rather than responding to the living posture. Yoga postures are beautiful metaphors for seeing the way you relate to life. Are you pushy, demanding, and unnecessarily judgmental of yourself? Do you move forward without integrating or digesting life’'s offerings or lessons? Are you lackluster? How you practice often seems to reflect your inner nature and can be quite enlightening—and even humorous at times.
The subject of pain and discomfort in yoga is a huge topic. As you practice, you want to become familiar with the feelings that define the boundaries of movement and the springs and tensions your muscles set to hold your skeleton together. A sharp pain or deep discomfort tells you that you are in over your head or out of the range of what is good for your body. That feeling tends to speak pretty clearly. There is a way of exploring your body where you can find comfort and also release tension. Exploration of these cusps is an important part of refining your practice. Developing awareness, insight, and enjoyment are three of my guiding principles; you should not seek discomfort in asana, but instead seek to decode it.
Tracey Rich is a director of the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California. Visit www.whitelotus.org.