If you find yourself huffing, puffing and possibly even grunting on your mat, something’s not quite right. As while it’s important that you push yourself in yoga, it’s not the same type of effort that’s required for burpees and box jumps. If you’re struggling in your mind, your body will respond accordingly. And only when your mind is struggle-free, will your body be free to let go of restrictions and learn more effective movement patterns.
In this article, we’ll look at how to make all aspects of your practice appear effortless—from breathing to deep stretches and challenging postures to transitions. You know that feeling of being in the zone, that you’re so familiar with in your sport? That’s what we’re aiming for.
BALANCING EFFORT AND EFFORTLESSNESS
“Sthira sukham asanam.” Yoga Sutra 2.46, Patanjali
In yoga, this effortless approach is encapsulated in the Sanskrit concepts, sthira and sukha—terms that translate to “steadiness” and “ease”, respectively. Sthira comes from the root stha, meaning “to stand firm”, reinforcing the importance of establishing a firm foundation and maintaining good posture. And sukha can be translated as comfort, harmony or pleasure. Observing these principles shows us how to gauge an appropriate level of effort. To be steady and spacious in our poses and smooth and graceful in our transitions. Striking this balance takes presence and skilful use of the breath.
SET YOUR FOUNDATION
“You cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren.” William Henry Hudson
Many of our sequences begin in Mountain pose, also known as Equal Standing or samastithi, in Sanskrit. This is the ideal posture to establish this balance between effort and ease.
- Ground. First, create a firm foundation—standing with your feet hip-width apart and balancing your weight evenly between both feet.
- Lift. Then, as you press down through your feet, lift up through your legs, abs, chest, shoulders, neck and head—introducing a feeling of lightness into the pose.
- Engage. Next, subtly draw your shoulder blades towards each other and engage your abs to activate your postural muscles.
- Release. And finally, release any tension in your neck, shoulders and jaw.
The goal in Mountain pose is stillness. Once you have established your posture, try not to fidget. Your joints and bones are perfectly aligned, your muscles are free from strain, your breath can flow smoothly and your mind is calm and clear. As you start to move through the poses, try to maintain this feeling.
KEEP A COOL HEAD IN CHALLENGING POSES
“Don’t flap your wings so hard. It only exhausts you.” Kamal Ravikant
Cue: relax any tension in your jaw.
In postures designed to build strength, including Warrior 2, Chair, Crow and Side Plank, the goal is to hold the pose steady, for several breaths, without tension, strain or struggle. This requires good alignment, even muscular engagement, attention to the breath and a calm mind. In challenging postures, the tendency is to tense up in the neck and shoulders, and this wastes precious energy. So if you find yourself struggling, relax your jaw and the muscles in your face and deepen your breath.
As you relax, you can start to make subtle adjustments and refinements to your alignment and muscular engagement in a way that isn’t possible if you’re tensing up and stuck in your head. The more you practise, the more you’ll discover that these poses are far less effortful than you first thought. You can actually relax into them and use the alignment of your bones and appropriate muscular engagement to keep you stable.
Keeping a cool head in challenging poses is a technique that you can take off the mat. In yoga, we practise maintaining our composure when our body is screaming at us to quit. We learn to pay closer attention to our experience and relax unnecessary tension, rather than trying to muscle through it and get the exercise over with as quickly as possible. This practice increases the resilience of your central nervous system, allowing you to stay calm and composed in situations where you might normally feel stressed or out of control.
MAINTAIN RHYTHMIC BREATHING THROUGHOUT
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Cue: don’t forget to breathe.
Whether or not you’re able to breathe comfortably in the poses is a way to gauge appropriate effort. Often we hold our breath when we’re putting in considerable effort, instead of releasing unnecessary tension and deepening the breath. This letting go has a calming effect on the mind and frees you up mentally to refine your alignment and tune into the physical sensations triggered by the pose.
In yoga, there is a specific way that we breathe—typically we inhale when we lengthen the spine and exhale when we contract or twist the spine. We also inhale to prepare for a transition and exhale as we move into the pose. You’ll find that this pattern, almost always cued by your teacher, is fairly intuitive and if you get it the wrong way around, you’ll get in a muddle. In the strength poses and transitions, we aim for roughly equal inhalations and exhalations—without pauses or jerkiness—breathing deep into the abdomen and not just into the upper chest. And as you come into the flexibility poses, you can start to draw out your exhalations, as this will help you to more deeply let go of tension.
Breathing effectively takes practice. When you learn to breathe in sync with your movements, it allows you to practise in a more relaxed state. The breath is effortless and it establishes the rhythm for your movements.
USE THE FORCE, NOT FORCE, IN DEEP STRETCHES
“Force is a substitute for intelligence, always.” Moshe Feldenkrais
Cue: soften into the pose.
Often, when hard-charging individuals take up yoga, they struggle to let go of the competitiveness, against themselves and others, that is intrinsic to their success in other areas of their lives. It is a deeply-ingrained mental program that, you’ll quickly find, is counterproductive in yoga.
When it comes to stretching, muscles do not respond well to force. If you push too hard or move too fast, your stretch reflex will automatically contract your muscles and prevent them from lengthening. This protective response is designed to prevent injury. Easing slowly into deep stretches trips this safety mechanism, allowing your muscle to lengthen and let go of tension. Disabling this autonomic reaction takes practice and is not possible if you’re distracted. You have to tune into the sensations in your body, move slowly and deepen your breath.
Another issue lies in the naming of certain poses—for example, Head-To-Knee, Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe and Screaming Toe—as well as the visual cues demonstrated by the teacher, as we demonstrate the full expression of each pose. This is just one version of the posture, something to aim towards and not necessarily where you need to be right now. The key is to respond to your body, moment to moment, rather than try to imitate how somebody else looks in the pose.
TRANSITION GRACEFULLY BETWEEN POSES
“Motor control, at its simplest, is the ability to perform an action with precision and accuracy, along with a sensation of ease. It’s what makes efficient movement possible.” Jarlo Ilano
Cue: transition carefully, with control.
We can also bring the principle of stihira and sukha into the transitions between postures. Our aim is always to move slowly, gracefully, and without jerkiness. This is the essence of body control. Moving with precision, accuracy and a sensation of ease—without wasting unnecessary energy.
Slow, graceful movement improves joint mobility, takes you out of habitual movement patterns and allows you to find the most spacious and healthy alignment. It gives you more time to respond to feedback from your body and determine how much effort is needed in each pose. This approach requires and develops muscular strength and endurance and significantly improves your body awareness. You just need to look at ballerinas to see that the more advanced somebody is in a skill, the more effortless it looks from the outside.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
Finding this delicate balance between effort and ease takes practice. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:
- Be intentional in every pose and transition.
- If you find yourself holding your breath, slow down. You can pause the videos as much as you need to.
- If you perceive sensations of strain, see where you can let go of tension.
- If you experience pain, back off the intensity. Pain is likely to contract a muscle even more.
- Take the appropriate modifications.
- Pay close attention and respond appropriately to sensations in your body.
- Trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
Releasing tension in your body and practicing with ease will be reflected in your mind—leading to a spaciousness between your thoughts, increased confidence and an overall sense of calm and clarity.
OFF THE MAT
“Yoga has remarkable brain-scrubbing attributes.” Joe Rogan
Many people report that staying composed during the challenges that they encounter in yoga increases their ability to stay calm in stressful situations. Your session is a microcosm to study how you react when you’re uncomfortable or unable to achieve something that is important to you. It shows you how to breathe, check your alignment and conserve your energy. You lean in and engage with the postures with calm and clarity. And this imprints onto your nervous system—allowing you to return to this feeling of self-confidence during the everyday stresses of life.