Years ago, when I first stepped onto my mat, I pushed myself as fast and as hard as possible through soreness, fatigue, and uncertainty so that I could “master” the new poses that I was learning in my yoga classes.
I pushed myself through aching muscles–muscles that I never knew existed!–and kept pushing myself through tiredness, both during and after class, unaware that I might be overefforting. At the time, I believed the way to do yoga–to do anything, really–was to push myself to my limit and beyond.
I was lucky, thanks to caring and careful teachers, that I didn’t injure myself in those early days the way that I’d hurt myself running (which was why I’d turned to yoga). Instead of finding teachers who, like my old running coach, tried to instill in us a work ethic based on the mantra “No pain, no gain,” I found teachers whose mantra was the complete opposite: “No pain, no pain.”
My mat, I discovered, wasn’t a place where I had to compete with anyone, not even myself. It was a place where the only thing that I had to do (as my teachers reminded me each week) was to breathe. If I was pushing too hard, trying too hard, overefforting in a pose, I had to remind myself to slow down, pull back, and just breathe. I had to learn the difference between pushing myself too hard and not pushing hard enough.
Sometimes this line was blurred, other times completely invisible, and I wouldn’t know until the following day, thanks to sore muscles or a stiff back, that I had pushed too hard, twisted too much, held a pose too long. But in time I began to recognize the soreness and fatigue as signs that helped me become aware of when I had crossed the line.
It ‘s taken years to develop the skills to “see” the line before I cross it, to know when I’m overefforting before I push too hard, so that I can pull back without causing injury or strain. One of the things that helped was taking a gentle restorative class. Each week we learned to do Moon Salutations instead of Sun Salutations. We spent time massaging our feet instead of trying to touch our toes. I learned to show myself a little compassion, to lighten up and see the world as it is instead of as I might have wanted it to be or as I thought it should be. We rolled on our backs in Happy Baby, stretched our hamstrings in Forward Bends, lay in passive positions like Reclining Bound Angle (Supta Baddha Konasana) without moving for long stretches of time.
The class helped me slow down and develop patience, not only with myself but with others. The same way that I stopped expecting myself to reach goals that were often unrealistic or unattainable, I stopped expecting so much of others. My yoga practice helped me notice when I was rushing through the check-out line at the grocery store instead of stopping to talk to the check-out clerk. It helped me accept that my daughter may never remove the hair out of the bathtub drain after she showers, and it taught me to view the foibles and idiosyncrasies of other family members (as well as my own flaws) with more patience.
I stayed in the gentle restorative class for a month or two before leaving to sign up for a different class. What I discovered when I left the gentle restorative class was that I entered challenging poses with more patience (and more compassion for my aging body, too). Somehow I had learned to soften and no longer push toward an unrealistic goal. Instead of spending all my energy on overefforting, I could explore–with patience and compassion– where I was in the moment.
Do you know when you’re overefforting? Can you tell when you’re pushing too hard in your practice or is it only after you’ve stepped off the mat–sometimes hours, sometimes days later–that you find yourself too tired or too sore to move? How can you begin to recognize that you are overefforting before you’ve gone too far?
The next time that you step onto your mat, try to notice when you’re straining or pushing too hard and when you’re moving with ease through the poses. When do you keep pushing? And when do you pause to rest?
Write: 15 min.