As we move through our yoga practice, we want our muscles to stay engaged and our minds to stay focused. But sometimes we can put so much effort into a posture that it can actually place us out of balance, either physically or mentally. When you’re in a posture and you’ve focused on muscle engagement, think to yourself, “What could I relax just 10%?” That 10% doesn’t have to be anything that someone else could see with the naked eye. It could be the slightest physical movement, or even just a lightening of the mind.
One way to think about it would be to make a fist with your hand as tightly as possible. Then relax it just enough so that you aren’t using your entire strength, but your hand is still comfortably efforting to keep it’s position in a fist. You could also imagine your brain doing the same thing. Your mind focusing on the posture intensely, but then relaxing it just enough so you’re in that middle ground of effort with ease.
The following article from yogainternational.com describes this idea of effort with ease beautifully.
Yoga Practice: Balancing Effort with Ease
The outdoor tent was full of students sitting quietly on their yoga mats, waiting for my class to begin—the final one of a four-day yoga festival. As I surveyed the scene, I could see that everyone looked pretty pooped. They no longer fidgeted with that extra anticipatory energy they had on day one. They were still and grounded, partly from all the good yoga they had been doing, but also because they were physically exhausted and mentally overloaded from all the teachings they’d received in such a short time.
When we move in only one direction, we get out of balance. Our strengths get stronger, but our weaknesses get weaker.
What could I offer them that wouldn’t further overload them—that would energize their bodies yet relax their minds? I decided to ask them. “How are you feeling? Do you have any requests?” A voice called out, “No more hip-opening!” This request was seconded, thirded, and quickly became unanimous. “OK, I responded, “Today we’ll do hip-closing.”
They all laughed at that, but I wasn’t kidding! When we move in only one direction, I explained, we get out of balance. Our strengths get stronger, but our weaknesses get weaker. Our openings might get more open, but where does it all end? Yoga then becomes the hour of our discontent, the opposite of santosha, or contentment, one of the five niyamas, or observances, outlined in the Yoga Sutra. Instead of being satisfied with what we experience as we experience it, we get stuck in a cycle of craving—more opening, more opening, more opening!
Since many of us come to yoga feeling kind of glued together anyway, we crave the poses that open us in places we didn’t even know needed opening—our hips, shoulders, low back, and even our digestive tract. Beginners typically learn to make extreme gestures, such as spreading their fingers apart as wide as possible, in order to actually feel their hands. Yoga teachers encourage this kind of big opening action to help newbies develop a tactile awareness of their bodies. Once they can feel where their arms and legs, feet and hands are in space and in relationship to each other, students can start to develop strength, flexibility, and coordination. At first this process requires a lot of physical exertion and mental focus, but we certainly don’t want to stay there.
As our practice moves to an intermediate level, we can start to work on the more subtle actions and refinements. As the body becomes more alive and sensitive, we notice we no longer need to work with super-hard intensity. We still need to apply effort, of course, but how much effort? Since yoga is the union of body and mind, we can look for the answer to this question from two viewpoints: physical and mental.
The Middle Path
The physical practice of yoga is called hatha yoga. Ha represents the heating quality of the mind, and tha its cooling quality. Our asana practice offers us two poses that express these opposites—the heat of exertion and the cooling quality of release—tadasana (mountain pose) and shavasana (corpse pose). When you’re on the mat, no matter what pose you’re doing, can you experience the outgoing effort epitomized by tadasana in equal measure to the internal letting-go feeling you encounter in shavasana? Discover that in-between place composed of just the right blend of tadasana’s determined strength and shavasana’s quiet relaxation. Even when you’re doing tadasana, you don’t clench all your muscles and hold on for dear life, right? That kind of extreme exertion misses the point of asana: steadiness and ease. Of course, when you release into shavasana, you don’t completely let go there or you’d soon be fast asleep. The muscles certainly find a sense of ease, but the mind remains clear, calm, and awake.
Discover that in-between place composed of just the right blend of tadasana’s determined strength and shavasana’s quiet relaxation.
A Buddhist story explains this concept quite nicely. A musician once asked the Buddha how we should meditate. The Buddha responded by asking, “How do you tune your instrument?”
The musician answered, “Not too tight, not too loose.”
The Buddha said, “Exactly like that.”
Our yoga instrument includes both the mind and the body. We know that whatever comes up in our mind will affect how we work with our body and vice versa. The useful notion of “not too tight, not too loose” offers us a guideline about how hard to work, when to let go, when to engage our quads more, when to release our jaw. This back and forth of firming and softening, advancing and relaxing, toning and releasing, is how we find balance in our asana practice.
At the deepest level, not too tight, not too loose reminds us that nothing is solid or permanent. As you transition from one pose to the next, you are completely leaving one experience and entering a new one. The old pose does not exist anymore, and, in fact, it never did. It was a momentary gathering of alignment, breath, and attention into one physical shape. And then it was gone—as soon as you focused your body and mind on the transition and then on the next pose.
At the deepest level, not too tight, not too loose reminds us that nothing is solid or permanent.
This powerful teaching applies to our everyday life as well. Can you sit in the middle of each experience and engage just enough to support the process while releasing your effort just enough to let the experience become alive for and within you? By doing this, we gain a sense of balance in our lives. Not too tight, not too loose creates an imprint of non-drama, a new habit of not panicking or grasping or resisting situations as they arise, and instead shows us how to engage in these situations fully, all the while knowing that everything will shift in time anyway.