I was in yoga the other day, in the middle of a pose, and probably tensed up, pulling or pushing in some type of attempt at increasing my flexibility when my teacher explained that a real breakthrough happens when you are able to find the balance between strength and relaxation. If you are a seasoned yogi, you know that something magical happens in your practice when you are able to stay relaxed throughout your practice. This “relaxation” begins mentally/spiritually, and then translates to your body. It is possible to be exerting strength in the places of your body you use for the posture and relaxed everywhere else. Now, in Bikram yoga, I believe relaxation may be even harder because you have more to overcome. You have the heat (a 100+ degree F room), you have the poses (who knew holding your arms over your head could be so challenging!), you have the mirror (if you have body issues, get ready), and you have yourself (yoga is really a journey in and through yourself and we are all our own worst enemy). If you go to a Bikram studio where the teachers tend to be militant and dialogue-based, then you also have to overcome someone yelling at you at an auctioneer-like pace, clapping to queue the beginning and end of every posture, and ordering you to correct specific postures when you may believe you’re using every ounce of energy just to move your body into a resemblance of whatever posture you’re supposed to be in already. So much of this practice is mental and we can choose to fight the practice mentally or to accept it, relax, and stay connected with our breath and our body. Sometimes, I’m in the zone. I’m relaxed, connected to my body, flexible, and feel like I can do anything in that room. Other times I’m distracted, nauseated, and feeling like every part of my body is tensed, un-relaxed. Often, I notice that any type of emotional baggage I’m holding onto weighs on my practice. If I’ve had a particularly stressful day, I can feel it in my muscles and in my body occupying space.
So how do you relax in stressful conditions ? In my personal experience, the breath has been the key. Being conscious of the breath, connected to the breath, and breathing with the intention of releasing tension is the beginning. Also, letting go of your attachment to the result of the posture helps. Go into the room with the attitude that you will give your all and that your all is good enough. Yoga is a practice, it’s a process, not a result and therefore, you don’t do yoga to get to a specific place. You do yoga for the experience each day, to release tension, to connect with yourself, to clear your mind, and maybe to get a nice tush in the process : )
One thing I have noticed in retrospect is that when I was a runner, I thought of my body in a Cartesian sense. It was something that I conquered, used, and exploited. I felt superior to my body, like I was in control of it and used it to take me places I wanted to go. Now, my body and I are in a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship. I listen to it, care for it… I eat to make my body feel good, and yoga has become both a means of communication and a way for me to give back to my body. I’ve noticed that when I eat gluten, I’m much less flexible, so I don’t eat it anymore. I try to go into the room with the goal of releasing tension and creating space, rather than with the goal of dominating my body into the perfect form of each posture. Of course, the ego still pops up in certain classes and I have to remind myself of this goal. Letting go of the ego and staying connected to my body is part of the practice of yoga (notice I said practice as it is something I have to continue to do with intention behind it).
Finding the balance between strength and softness is something that we can learn on our mat and then use in life. When should we stand our ground or back off and let it go? I’ve heard it said that our bodies hold onto every pain we’ve experienced, every heartbreak, and injustice. The body holds the story of your life through tension, disease, anxiety, depression. Healing that relationship with your body is a good place to start in the process of learning this lesion, and the breath is a road that can lead you there.