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Yoga Is Not Hard

in YogOpinions

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by J. Brown

When I meet someone who is new to yoga and they learn that I am a teacher, they always say the same thing: “I went to a yoga class and it was really hard.” While it’s encouraging that so many people are trying yoga, that their early experiences always feel like “hard work” is unfortunate. Setting this precedent becomes the basis for many of the pitfalls that betide practitioners today.

First, it’s worth considering why it is that so many yoga classes feel so hard. Some contend that it is just the nature of practice. I strongly disagree. I am convinced that I could take the exact same twenty-six poses in the Bikram system that are kicking everyone in their asses and do them in a way that does not feel so darn hard. Even more than the poses that teachers choose, which we’ll get to later, the mindset with which the poses are approached is really the primary culprit.

Setting aside the overarching philosophical frameworks at work, the conventional attitude is that in order to progress in practice it is necessary to take your body past your perceived physical edge. Not taking your body past its physical edge is often seen as lazy or resistant. The practice is a way to challenge ourselves to do more, to reach fuller potential. And certainly, this mentality is proven effective in many pursuits. If you’re going to run marathons or perform gymnastic feats then some amount of no pain no gain is likely going to be required to accomplish that task. But if what we are after is functional body health, where our bodies can do what we need them to do in our lives with as little pain as possible, then a see-how-far-we-can-push the limits mentality is absolutely counterproductive.

A lot of the “hard” work that people are doing in yoga practice to be healthy is actually working against their functional body health.

Some amount of effort is usually required in order to keep a person healthy in modern times. It is the character of that work that is at question. Does it need to be “hard” work? Or could there be other models? There are benefits to be had and plenty of testimonials to support positive results from ever challenging the limits. But as most long-time practitioners eventually caution, being overly reckless or misguided with working your body in times of youth or health easily leads to unintended consequences and degenerative issues down the road. Whatever immediate gains that might come from our efforts must be weighed against the risk of injury and longer term outcomes.

There is also the matter of the poses that teachers are choosing to offer. It is commonplace that many students are left to their own devices as a class moves through challenging and risky sequences. Often teachers act as drill sergeants whose job it is to usher students through this difficult experience, sometimes with great humor and charisma. And even for teachers who do not adopt a “tough love” kind of sentiment and do their best to offer modifications, given the diversity of the students and the expectation to lead intricate sequences, there is often little more to provide than hopeful encouragement as folks struggle along.

If we make yoga practice into hard work that never ends and never succumbs, rather than a forgiving effort that is easily and readily enjoyed, we paint our experience of life in the same unyielding hue.

The ultimate effect of both the “hard work” mindset and ever-challenging forms is the lasting impression of things never being enough and there always being more to do. I grant that there are times when a process of healing can involve pain and difficulty and require concerted effort. I am not suggesting that yoga practice always feels like a bubble bath. In the course of addressing our bodies and minds, all sorts of deep and inner challenges are presented. But meeting the challenges that arise naturally in yoga practice is not the same thing as imposing extraneous physical challenges on students because it is thought to be impressive or inspirational.

The choice is between a practice that is pushing the limits and feels really hard, like a steep mountain that you’re forever climbing but never quite getting to the top of, or a practice that works within the limits and feels like a relief, as though to say: “Thank God.” In both practice and life, the work does not need to be unnecessarily hard. Efforts in practice translate into our behaviors in a myriad of ways and, more often than not, temperance is warranted.

Yes, I sometimes feel challenged by the life that is before me, sometimes I am overwhelmed. But being overly forceful with my body, or in life, has proven to be unhelpful in meeting the burdens that life bestows. I do not need to push my body hard in order to be well and the efforts I make to meet the challenges that arise do not need to be a struggle.

~

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere.  Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com.

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14 comments… add one

  • Suzanne

    I think we’re overthinking this. Many people have also told me that they tried yoga and it was ‘hard’. When I questioned them further, it was only perceived as ‘hard’ because the popular concept of yoga as ‘not really exercise’ and ‘sitting around chanting OM for an hour.’ Alas, when they actually took a class and realized that yes, it does indeed working your muscles, et al, it became ‘hard’.

  • VQ2

    One can make the decision to sever the popular (advertising) association between the image of someone sitting zazen meditation and yoga, and decide if they will meditate rather than do yoga.

    Yes, the two can be mutually exclusive.

    And yes, yoga WAS a thing in the trendiness department. But yoga was and is not this image. Not to say it is the Cirque du Soleil one, either. But the old definition of Raja yoga did mostly include the mind. The new, popularized definition includes the body.

  • Kirthi

    When people who have done no exercise come to to yoga thinking its going to be easier, it is hard.
    Surya namaskars and standing poses are difficult for students who have no flexibility.

    Absolute beginners need to do a lot of basic stretching, Dynamic poses with breathing and develop some amount of flexibility before trying to strengthen through vinyasas or holding.

    That’s the problem going to all level yoga classes. Its not for absolute beginners who have not done any form of exercise or are not flexible.

  • Dwayne

    Agreed that beginners are likely to experience soreness if they throw themselves into many standard postures or sequences.
    But even in my remote rural area, there’s a good assortment of “stretch” and “absolute beginner” classes available, so gradual/accessible introductions can’t be *that* rare.

  • Catherine

    Personally the first yoga class I’ve ever taken was a bikram class. Yes, it was sooooo hard but did i manage through the whole class? barely. But now i know i’m not really into hot yoga to much. Its a matter of trail and error and finding which practice of yoga calls to you. I’ve taken friends and family members to all sorts of different classes and studios of yoga and they all have a different experience. Thats the beauty of yoga and ones self, we are all different and receive things differently :)

  • shannon

    Yoga is different things to different people in all its permutations. The physical practice of moving your body through space while breathing and concentrating means working against gravity using mostly isometric contraction, this can be challenging. For me personally, I would never define yoga as easy. It isn’t supposed to be!

  • I recently wrote a blog post based on the same observation:
    http://adamantineyoga.com/upgrade-asana/
    I think there are good reasons that people are getting their “asanas” kicked in classes, and it may have more to do with the group-led class environment than the nature of an authentic yoga practice. People need to be approached as individuals, not as a generalization. When a teacher is tasked with challenging multiple individuals simultaneously they necessarily resort to basic postures that require strength/endurance over flexibility/range of motion. This creates a more typical western exercise experience of intense effort over the more balanced experienced of moving through a well sequenced series of postures designed to meet each student exactly where they are at.

  • VQ2

    And all this time, I’d just thought that yoga teachers were being lazy and unimaginative in their vinyasa class sequencings …

    I am not sorry for one second, that I took my practice home; as I do not have the “upper body strength” to make up for the lack of hip flexibility in the class situation. I had never been self-conscious about that, until some elitist yoga teachers had made me so.

    And, certainly, in their suggesting “privates”; it goes beyond the body: my bank account even moreso. It’s not their business I if I choose to be solvent at the time.

  • S.

    The title should be “Asana Is Not Hard” because that is what is being discussed here. Following yama and niyama is probably the hardest thing one can do.

  • For me, a really good yoga session will challenge me to stay present within a physically demanding sequence. Achieving the balance between too hard and too easy is the challenge for the teacher.

  • Kerry

    I’ve been practicing and teaching for over 15 years and have found what you are describing to be the exception, certainly not the norm.

  • nelliebelle1197

    Amen. :)

    James, I have read several of your articles and I simply see lot of excuses and not a lot of depth. Your dismissal of headstand and shoulderstand was shallow at best and arrogant at worst (the title alone was silly hyperbole; there was no “dethroning” of anything, merely an opinion on why inversions are hard that underscored why YOU should not be teaching them). Yoga is not just asana (and neither is headstand, by the way); it is a journey. It was not meant to be easy. Maybe because the majority of my training is within the Iyenagr tradition, and I truly feel Guruji’s gift was bringing yoga to each person at his/her level, that I find these articles off putting. Yoga is about effortless effort. If you are not able to strike that balance, then perhaps it is not the yoga that is the issue.

  • To those who felt I was describing an exception more than a rule, I rest my case:
    http://youtu.be/U_aGeabK1k8

  • ashliryan

    You rest your case with a garbage advert? Yoga is a common backdrop in advertising lately and obviously these particular writers don’t have a good understanding of the practice. I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss opinions contrary to your own. I agree with multiple comments here.. When I started back up last year after a several month ailment that left me very sedentary, yoga was really hard! I belong to an amazing studio that really embraces what yoga truly is, and emphasizes safety in postures and acceptance of where each individual is at on each day. There are so many offerings of modifications and intensifications and, again, the encouragement to accept our individual ability as it presents each day. Also, I too agree that 1st timers may have a misconception that yoga is easy – it does kind of appear that way as an observer! I have attended many yoga classes through various venues, sponsors, gyms, etc. and I have never experienced the type of competitiveness in studios that you seem to describe.

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