“Challenge serves beautifully to introduce you to your best—and most brilliant—self.” Robin Sharma
Yoga is no one-trick pony. When you get into the rhythm of a regular practice, you’ll find that morning stiffness is a thing of the past and that your mind is a much friendlier neighbourhood to spend time in. Perhaps more surprisingly, it can also provide you with rewarding and performance-enhancing challenges. One of the best ways to test your skills is to practice balance poses—arm balances, one-legged standing poses and advanced twists, but you can also set targets for your flexibility and ability to perform a pose well.
Pushing your limits on the mat is highly beneficial for both your body and your mind. And you’ll find that these rewards transfer into many other areas of your life.
WHAT IS A CHALLENGE?
A challenge is something that you don’t know you can do yet. In this article we’ll look at why it’s advantageous to take on challenges and how to do so effectively.
TAKING ON CHALLENGES MAKES US FEEL GOOD
“Problems are adventures in disguise.” Steve Chandler
We know that doing hard things is beneficial because it feels good. Not in an ice-cold-beer or tub-of-Ben-and-Jerry’s momentary pleasure kind of a way, but in a way that is sustained and that genuinely makes us feel positive about ourselves.
Tackling a difficult task is absorbing and stimulating and the pay-off for discovering that you can achieve something that you didn’t know was possible is highly pleasurable. Each small win triggers the release of dopamine in your brain—the “feel-good” neuro-modulator associated with reward and motivation. So not only do you experience a positive feeling in the moment but you’re also motivated to push yourself further to trigger the release of more dopamine.
CHALLENGES INCREASE RESILIENCE
“Challenge is the grindstone by which you sharpen the sword of your spirit so that you can become greater, become stronger.” Aubrey Marcus
We are wired to enjoy doing hard things because it gives us an evolutionary advantage. Taking on challenges is how we grow. The technical term for the process of “growth as a response to challenge” is hormesis, and we see it all across the natural world.
Let’s take building strength, for example. Lifting weights actually causes micro-tears in the muscle fibres. This damage signals to the body that, during repair, it must adapt the muscles to better handle this level of stress in the future. That’s why, the next time you go to the gym, you can increase either the weight or the number of reps. We see the same process at work in superfoods, like blueberries, broccoli and turmeric. These health-food powerhouses contain mild toxic compounds called phytochemicals (anthocyanins, sulforaphane and curcumin respectively) that bolster your immune system by adhering to the same principle—that mild stressors activate a positive adaptive response by over-reacting to the threat in preparation for the next assault.
DOING DIFFICULT THINGS IS HOW WE IMPROVE
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso
Taking on challenges that are at the limit of your ability is how you improve at the skills that are important to you. If you follow the identical running loop every day, you may stay fit but you won’t get faster or stronger. The same is true of your yoga practice. If you semi-consciously repeat the same sequence over and over, without paying close attention to your alignment or how you’re breathing, your level of ability will stay the same.
In yoga, you can choose where you want to put yourself outside your comfort zone. There are many advanced poses that require tremendous strength, balance and flexibility but that’s not where the juice is for me. I’ve mentioned before that when I get the opportunity to go to a yoga studio, I only take beginner classes. The reason is that my personal challenge is to go deeper and not broader into the practice. The areas I focus on are alignment, breathing and focus. Can I stay within the four walls of the studio for 90 minutes? Am I able to sustain concentration on my breath throughout? Are there tiny tweaks that I can make to my alignment that unlock new dimensions of a pose? When activities push us to the edge of our competence, they demand our focus and keep our attention, and that is how we grow.
DOING DIFFICULT THINGS BUILDS EFFICACY
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anaïs Nin
One of the greatest rewards for taking on new challenges is that it boosts your self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the term, coined in the 1970s by psychologist Albert Bandura, that describes your belief in your ability to achieve your goals. To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you think you can lift both feet off the mat in Crow pose or you can’t—you’re right.
It’s common to have limiting beliefs around your ability in yoga. I frequently hear, “I’m not flexible enough.” ”I’m too old.” Or, “My arms are too short.” Having the courage to try new poses will show you that you are far more capable than you realised, and this will encourage you to take on increasingly difficult challenges and continue to expand the sphere of what’s possible. The beauty of taking on challenges is that it creates its own self-perpetuating cycle of growth. We develop a deeper interest in our practice, make a solid to commitment to get on the mat every day and recuperate quickly if we miss the occasional session.
Just be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.
FINDING THE SWEET SPOT
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.” Michelangelo
In recommending that we take on new challenges as a way to improve our skills and expand the limits of what is possible, I’m not suggesting that we drop everything, buy a parachute and start BASE jumping. What I am recommending is incremental and sustained growth. The trick is to pitch your challenge almost, but not quite, out of your reach—and to titrate up gradually from there. There’s a fine line between challenge and overwhelm and the key to continuous progression, in all areas of your life, is to keep putting yourself just outside what feels comfortable.
The task must represent either progression or new complexity. If it’s too hard, you’ll become anxious and overwhelmed and if it’s too easy, you’ll be distracted and won’t put in the hours required to improve. Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman calls this sweet spot flow: “Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the ‘flow channel’–the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch; not hard enough to make us snap.”
In yoga, there is always a way to modify the pose, so don’t get cavalier, miss out the middle 5 steps and jump straight into Half-Twisted-Balancing-One-Armed-Scorpion. (That’s not a real pose, before you start looking up tutorials on the internet.)
USING FAILURE AS FUEL
“Look at failures as opportunities for growth. As opportunities to do better.” Joe Rogan
Dan Coyle, in his book, The Talent Code, argues that when you’re engaged in activities designed to improve your performance, you should only be successful in 50-80% of your attempts. Less than that and you’ll get frustrated; more and you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. By my calculations that means that failure is a requirement for growth. So when you do inevitably fall out of a pose, don’t sweat it. That is actually a sign that you’re doing it right. Take a moment to centre yourself and then get straight back into it.
Failure shines a light on the areas where we need to improve so we should see them as opportunities for growth rather than eventualities to be avoided. As one of my teachers used to tell me every time I toppled ungracefully out of a challenging pose, “Mistake make better”.
HOW TO SET UP A YOGA CHALLENGE
“When faced without a challenge, make one.” Peter Diamandis
As I mentioned, you don’t need to practice advanced postures to challenge yourself in yoga. There’s always room for improvement—even with the fundamentals. Synchronising your breath with movement is surprisingly difficult, as is maintaining your undivided attention throughout the sequence. Pinpoint the area where you feel your progress has plateaued, where you might need to shake things up, and start there. When we’re good at something, we tend to repeat it over and over, avoiding our weaknesses and the areas where real growth is possible.
- Decide what it is that you want to work on. You could choose a challenging pose, a daily streak or a part of your body that you’d like to focus on.
- Commit to a time frame. For example, three times a week for thirty days.
- Register your progression. Unlike setting personal bests for time or reps, your progress in yoga is likely to be more subjective than it is in other sports. What’s crucial is that you make a mental note of the benefits that you’re experiencing to keep you motivated and continually moving forward.