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.
1. Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
Stand in tadasana, feet firmly planted on the floor. Inhale, and as you exhale, imagine your breath coming out of the soles of your feet creating wide, earthy footprints, like an elephant’s. Place your palms against the sides of your legs and press your thighs toward each other, gathering your legs together. This will give a lift up your spine, without hardening your back muscles.
From here, place your hands on your hips and bend your knees, keeping your torso vertical. Lift your left leg to hip level and internally rotate the very top of your thigh. Wrap your rolled-in left thigh around your bent right thigh, and then, if possible, wrap your left foot behind your right calf. If you can’t manage that today, you can stay with the single wrap, or place your left toe on the floor or a block.
Extend your arms out in front of you, cross your left arm over your right, bend your arms and crisscross your wrists, placing your palms together. If this is out of reach for you right now, place the back of your hands together.
Garuda is so twisty and windy! At first it can seem like a tight situation, but if you can soften down into your bent standing leg and breathe into the open space between your shoulder blades, you will start to feel some releasing happen. Remember your wide elephant foot and let the movement required for one-legged balancing rock and roll you in a natural way. Place your mind on your even, smooth breathing. Can you maintain a gaze that is not hard, but simply steady, for 5 to 10 breaths?
2. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
Slowly begin to unwrap from the closed shape of the eagle. If you can relax your determined effort a little bit (that is, loosen your mind’s grip), you’ll be able to become aware of all your limbs at once—and orchestrate their movements—without losing your balance. Here goes: Extend your right leg back, press down with your left leg, lift up with your right arm, touch down with your left arm, and reach the crown of your head and your tailbone away from each other—all at the same time! Reaching out from a stable spine and toned front body will allow all parts of you to arrive in ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) at the same time. Once you are in the pose, continue to radiate like a starfish, but avoid letting any of your extremities—fingers, toes, face, lips—get tight. Ride this pose for 3 to 5 breaths.
3. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose)
From ardha chandrasana, exhale as you begin to bend your left leg and stretch your right leg back and down. That reaching back-and-down action is met with a reaching forward-and-up action of your left arm, and this double-lengthening work will help you float gracefully into virabhadrasana II (warrior II pose). Can you be sensitive enough in this transition to feel the very moment your right foot touches the floor?
Virabhadrasana II is a warrior pose, fierce and strong. But, in fact, the warrior is just you, as you are right now, with an open heart and open arms. Try to feel the arms beginning at the shoulder blades so that your back can be strong and upright, mirroring your commitment to practice. Here your back is like tadasana supporting the shavasana—the soft letting-go aspect of your front that mirrors your willingness to be open to whatever arises. Isn’t that the real bravery of the warrior? Stay in the seat of the warrior for 3 to 5 breaths.
4. Cartwheel to Plank
On an inhale, cartwheel your arms to the floor, giving yourself a delicious side stretch along the way as your right arm circles up and over. The very moment your hands touch the floor, step your legs back into plank and reach your sternum forward.
Really fire up your legs here. There is a common tendency to overuse the abdominal muscles in this pose, but if you use your legs, your abs will work naturally and not overwork. Even though this might not be your favorite place to take a pause in the flow, stay in this pose for 5 full breaths. Try to feel all the movement in this pose, so that it doesn’t get too hard. Let go of any tension in your jaw, neck, and shoulders—all the places that you don’t need to engage to do this pose.
5. Vasishthasana Variation (Side Plank Pose)
Take a moment in plank pose to evenly ground through your hands—under each fingernail and around the perimeter of your palm—so that your weight is well distributed and you can take some of the workload off your wrists. Keeping your left hand right where it is, shift your plank onto your left side. Maintain your strong legwork and remember the feeling of touching the outside of your thighs in tadasana. Let the outer left thigh lift up into your right thigh.
Feel the movement of your breath in your chest and belly. Even though your bottom arm is holding some weight, it doesn’t have to grip. Move your breath into your shoulders, widening your collarbone, and float your top arm up to the sky with elegance.
Stay here for a few breaths. Pay close attention to your experience, and if you start to tighten, come out of the pose by lightly returning your right hand to the floor.
6. Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
From vasishthasana, exhale as you lift your thighs up and back, and come into adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose). Remember the work of the legs and the weight in the hands, and try to balance that with a soft belly, soft mind, and soft heart.
Organize your hands, arms, shoulders, sitting bones, and heels so they are in two parallel lines with each other. Slowly lift your left hand off the floor, maintaining (as much as possible) the equal reach—up and back—of your two sitting bones, and the equal reach—down and back—of your two feet.
Place your left hand on your right ankle or shin, coming into a twist. This is going to be a wibbly-wobbly process; your job is to stick with it, take your time, and find the fun in it all! From all the grounding work that has come before, see if some lightness can bubble up into this twisty balance.
7. Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Untwist, lower your knees to the floor and rest in balasana (child’s pose). Take a moment to observe your breath stabilizing. What else do you feel right now?
8. Navasana (Boat Pose)
Round up from child’s pose, through every single vertebra, focusing all your attention on your spine. Swing your legs around in front of you and sit up tall, legs bent, tip toes on the floor. Lean back slightly so you’re on the back part of your sitting bones. Lift your legs up and either keep them bent in ardha navasana (half boat pose), or extend them fully. Again, don’t get confused and think you need to harden your belly. Firm your shoulders into your back to allow that tadasana feeling to open your chest. Engage your legs and arms, but open up just enough space between each toe and finger for a little breath to move there. Can you let your throat feel wide here? From inside this effort, can you have a soft face and eyes that see but don’t grip?
9. Tolasana (Scale Pose)
On an exhale, bend your knees in navasana and crisscross your ankles. Place your palms on blocks. On your next exhale, press down into the blocks to create a lift up. Maybe your hips and feet will lift right up—or maybe not! Whether they do or don’t, can you try something new without freaking out? If nothing seems to be going up, try this: Keep your feet crossed, but let them stay on the floor. Push one foot down into the floor; that will swing your hips up and back behind your wrist. From here, push down into the blocks again and you might be able to get your feet up. What needs to be tight and what actually needs to be loose in order to do this pose? We call this pose scale pose, which means there is a swing to it. Swing your hips and feet back between your hands and the blocks and step back to downward-facing dog.
10. Walking Meditation
From downward-facing dog, slowly walk your feet to your hands. Take small steps, giving yourself time to be in the middle of this transitional experience. Let it be about cultivating sensitivity and presence, and not about getting anywhere. When your feet get all the way to your hands, round up to standing in tadasana.
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM yoga and the author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind and May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind. A practitioner of both hatha yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, she has been a columnist for Yoga Journal and Shambhala Sun for many years.