A brief scene to illustrate the "pull of opposites":
Characters:Self (student of yoga (me))
Ego (red-faced, smoking a cigar, draped in a mink shawl (voice inside Self’s head))
Setting: A yoga class anywhere in the Universe[Self is preparing for pachimottanasana]
Teacher (calmly): Bend the knees or sit on some padding to give you more space in the spine if you need to before you gently fold forward.
Ego (out of breath with anxiety, yelling, and spitting in Self’s face): Farther! Faster! Stronger! Forehead on shins! Legs straight! Embrace the pain.
Teacher: Exhale as you fold forward. Remain connected to the breath, ease into the shape without force.
Ego (putting her cigar out on Self’s forehead): Everyone sees you’re not in the perfect pose. The teacher’s disappointed. You’re not working hard enough. Toddlers can do this! Step up!
You get the idea. I let Ego have full reign. Ego’s not all bad, but I got caught up in ambition, especially in forward folds, because the “destination” (the top of my shins) was right in front of my face. I was tempted to yank my head closer no matter the cost (stretching nerves and overworking joints). “Much doing but no music”. A quiet voice in my head told me to pull back but I was not ready for that level of humility.
Ego – 1, quiet voice – 0.
This nonsense would not last much longer. My hips and knees began to thoroughly ache. I finally (and reluctantly!) began to use forward folds as an opportunity to soften my Ego: I bent my knees, used straps, breathed, etc... My joints started to feel better and I began to find a little peace. Eventually, what seemed like cosmetic adjustments to poses translated into a metaphor for life (you’ve heard this before!). I realized I needed to ease-up in general because the more I tried to control things, people, poses, and situations, the more damage I did and the more work I created for myself.
No, I’m not always perfectly balanced. But, now when I smell Ego’s cigar smoke wafting in, I try to listen to both voices (“Pull back!” “Push forward!”) and the dance between contrary yearnings brings me a little closer to finding steadiness and peace. Sthira Sukham Asanam.
Easing-up in forward folds was my springboard to finding more balance in general. Here are 5 approaches that helped me find more balance in forward folds (and life).
An acronym to help: B(reathe) L(ength) E(go) E(ngage) P(atience)
1. Breathe! This will always be my number one! If you cannot breathe, readjust. Here are some of my fave adjustments: Bend knees. Sit up on padding. Come out of the pose a little. Use a strap and/or blocks.
2. Length - Breathe space in between each vertebrae as you send energy out through the crown of the head instead of yanking the head close to the legs (guilty as charged).
3. Ego - Keep it in check! Try to go beyond ambition and expectation and simply listen to your body as you gently fold from the hips. Enjoy the journey instead of getting caught up in the final outcome of what the pose is “supposed” to look like. See #5
4. Engage – your legs and navel center. I am a non-believer when it comes to totally lax stretches. Gripping the muscles is not the idea, but do keep the legs active as you send energy through the feet and energize your thighs to protect your joints. Drawing the lower belly in and up will also create more space as the torso moves forward.
5. Patience – Practice it! Don’t just dive down for the kill. Take time to be mindful with your body and patiently ease your way into your individual expression of the shape. Also, Rome wasn’t built in a day…
Photo Credit: Top image via Chasi Annexy