Playing the Edge … on and off the mat

There is a concept in yoga called “playing the edge.”  It’s about balancing effort and ease in your practice —working at the point where you aren’t pushing, but you aren’t holding back.  While the phrase “playing the edge” wasn’t coined until 1977, the concept of this balance between effort and ease was first written about by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras.  In Chapter 2 Sutra 46 he writes “sthira-sukam asanam,” which translated means each yoga pose should contain a balance of effort/steadfastness and ease.  This balance is both physical and mental.

To practice at the edge requires paying attention to your moment by moment experience and listening to the cues your body is sending — the pace of your breath, the sensation of the stretch, the level of energy you are putting forth.  It is also noticing the flow of your thoughts — the topics that arise (including self-criticism), the level of agitation or relaxation that certain poses may create, the way you mentally classify poses as ones you like and ones you can’t wait to move out of.  Yes, once again we find ourselves using mindfulness.

I’ve written about mindfulness’s role in helping us know when we are going too far.  Or in this case, the point just before pushing.  But it can also help us determine when we are holding back.  This is important because if we never challenge ourselves, our practice grows stale and we miss out on opportunities for growth.  Signs that we are holding back can be more subtle than those that signal pushing.  For example, the sharp intake of breath that accompanies stretching too far is immediately felt.  But, the holding of breath as you move into a pose that you find intimidating isn’t as immediately noticeable.  You have to be watching for it.

The edge is not a constant.  It isn’t a thing you achieve and then never have to think about again.  It changes not only from practice to practice and pose to pose, but breath by breath.  In his book Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, Erich Schiffman demonstrates how working with this changing edge allows us to make progress:

As you come into a pose, look for your very first edge.  Do not rush past it.  When you feel that edge, stop.  Stop moving, deepening the breath, clarify your energy lines, and wait for it to open.  You will know the first edge has opened when the sensations of stretch begin to diminish.  At that point you will naturally want to go deeper into the posture.  Rather than having to push your way in, you will feel drawn into the pose.  As you are drawn deeper, a new edge will soon appear, and the sensations of stretch will come back.  Wait for the sensations at this new edge to diminish before going deeper.

Do this over and over.  Wait for the sensations of stretch to diminish somewhat and then go deeper.  It will feel as though you are sneaking into the pose, not barging your way in.  Proceed slowly, edge by edge and gate by gate. 

While finding and maintaining this state of balance can be hard for anyone, those of us living with chronic conditions have a tendency to practice at one extreme or the other.  Some push too much.  Others hold back too often.  Both are the result of fear.  Fear that acknowledging a limitation is surrender or “giving in” to the disease.  Fear of the unknown — will doing more or doing X result in pain or fatigue?  How people will react to me if we stop doing certain activities?  Will they see me as a quitter?  Will they stop asking me to do things? 

The direction from which you approach your practice is often a reflection of how you approach life.  I am prone to holding back — both on and off my mat.  This was not always the case.  During the first couple of years with multiple sclerosis, I often pushed too far.  I hadn’t yet returned to yoga, so this “pushing” was in life.  Sometimes it was my own pride that didn’t want to accept a limitation.  Sometimes it was following the well-meaning advice of others who assured me that pushing through was the only way to continue living a meaningful life.  Sometimes it was because I hadn’t yet figured out what activities could result in pain or fatigue.  The result of all that overdoing was that the pendulum swung all the way to the other side.  Holding back became my first response.

It took some time to begin to find balance between pushing and holding.  Yoga has been very helpful in learning how to make these choices mindfully.  To realize its not “all or nothing.” However, I still tend towards holding.  My mental dialogue is where I am best able to notice it.  That’s where the fear of “what if” is most at the surface.  When I notice myself “what if-ing,” I pause and ask myself questions like: 

  • is this fear based on past experience?  If so, can I modify the last outcome by doing things differently (i.e., not staying out as late, not sitting in the direct sun where I’ll over heat, not forcing myself to keep pace with others during Sun Salutation)?  
  • If this isn’t based on past experience, what do I fear will happen?  How likely is that to really happen and is there anything I can do that would minimize the likelihood of this outcome?
Sometimes the smart response is to hold back.  Other times, I’ve been able to  find a way to participate without overdoing.  But, every day is different.  The only constant I’ve discovered is that the more consistent I am in my yoga practice, the easier it is to find and live at my balanced edge.


Acceptance Part 2

In my last post I wrote about the concept of acceptance — acknowledging reality as it is, not as we want it to be.  In my experience, acceptance begins with the practice of mindfulness.  In his book, Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind, Frank Jude Boccio defines mindfulness as:

“observing of things as they are, without choosing, without comparing and judging, without evaluating, and without laying or adding any of our projections or expectations onto what is happening.”

He goes on to provide the following visual aid:

“One image used to describe this quality of mind is to imagine awareness to be like the sky.  All the thoughts, feelings, and sensations — indeed all our experiences, both physical and psychological — are like clouds passing through the sky.  We tend to identify with the clouds of thought, projection, craving and aversion and ignore the sky.  Our practice is to cultivate ‘big sky mind’ and to allow all the changing phenomena to pass through awareness, without being swept away or entangled in any of it.” 

The way we respond to things on our yoga mat is a reflection of how we respond in life: Do we rise to the challenge or run away?  Do we push beyond our limits and pay a price later or do we work within boundaries that will keep us healthy?  How concerned are we with what others think of us?  Can we enjoy the moment or are we already regretting that it will soon be over?  This makes the mat a great laboratory for practicing mindful acceptance.

Imagine you have tight hamstrings.  As you bend into a standing forward fold, do you strain to reach the floor or do you make an adjustment such as bending your knees until you can reach the floor or stopping when you feel the beginning of a pulling sensation in your hamstring, resting your hands on your legs/a block?  If you allow yourself to make an adjustment that keeps your hamstrings safe, what happens in your mind?  Do you criticize yourself for “giving in” or “wimping out”? Can you remain focused on the sensations in your body or are you envious of the person on the mat next to you with their hands flat on the floor?  And if you realize that you are in envy of the person next to you, do you beat yourself up for doing so?  Or can you laugh at being human and refocus your thoughts on what is happening with you?

As a teacher I have watched time and time again as students who need to use a prop or make a physical adjustment to safely experience a pose refuse to do so.  Instead they struggle, adding unneeded stress and sometimes getting injured.  I can empathize because one of my own challenges to acceptance comes on days when my hands, wrists and forearms are in too much pain to practice the traditional version of Downward Facing Dog.  It is one of my favorite asanas (poses) and there are days when I find myself beginning to grumble as I move onto my hands and knees and feel the pain that says “No Down Dog today.”  I know its variations and I know they are just as beneficial.  Still, I sometimes find myself resistant to using them or even angry that I can’t do the “regular” pose.  This coming from a yoga teacher who encourages EVERYONE to do the version of an asana that is right for them in that moment. 

I don’t analyze why this is happening while I’m on the mat.  That’s an activity for later.  On the mat is where I practice making choices that can lead to acceptance or away from it. In that moment of resistance I can choose to continue resisting and do the regular version — the consequences of which will be even more pain now and later — or I can accept that whether I like it or not, its a variation or nothing.  Mindfulness is what helps me recognize that I’m in the midst of resistance sooner rather than later (noticing the tightening in my jaw or chest; the feelings of resentment; the urge to just skip my practice like the petulant child who would rather take their ball and go home than play by another’s rules).  It keeps me from moving without thinking into more pain.

Just like on the mat, the addition of mindfulness in our life gives us the option to make a choice between working with reality (through acceptance) or continued resistance, which eventually leads to unnecessary pain/struggle/irritation, etc.

The meditation cushion is another place to practice mindful acceptance.  The simple act of watching your breath and the flow of your thoughts without trying to change anything is often extremely challenging for beginning meditators.  Friends have told me, “I can’t meditate.  My mind won’t slow down.”  That’s the first lesson: recognizing that our minds are like monkeys or happy puppies.  They are all over the place.  Dashing from one thought to another as they arise.  It is a sensation we don’t like so we decide we can’t do meditation.  Until we accept that our minds are like a toddler on a sugar high (or Dori from Finding Nemo), we will always feel that we are failing at meditation.

Don’t think that this is all easy for me.  There is a reason we say yoga ‘practice’ and meditation ‘practice’ — even acceptance ‘practice.’  Yoga and meditation don’t lead to a life of roses.  But they are handy tools to know how to use when you are faced with the reality of a stem filled with thorns.

Whatever your current reality, may you hold it with a compassionate heart of acceptance.

Acceptance isn’t Surrender

When we are told something we don’t want to hear or are confronted by a situation we cannot face, our reaction is often one of denial, refusal or resistance.  It may take the form of a shouted or whispered “NOOOOOO!”  or a deep sigh and shake of the head.  Our inner teenager may stomp her feet and storm from the room.  Or we may simply turn our back, pretending that what was said or done, never happened.  Problem is, while denial can be a great, and even helpful place to visit.  Its not someplace to take up permanent residence.  Doing so takes an enormous amount of energy, and eventually, reality comes knocking.  And when it does, denial and illusion no longer hold up.  When it comes to reality, The Borg* had it right, “Resistance is futile.”

You might be familiar with the five stages of grief associated with the death of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  These same stages apply to other forms of loss including the end of a relationship, being fired or laid off, or receiving the diagnosis of a chronic or life-threatening disease.  Unfortunately, i
n the world of chronic illness “acceptance” is often synonymous with “surrender.”  It may be thought of as passive and without fight.  But to practice true acceptance is no easy feat.  It requires courage.

Acceptance, simply put, is acknowledging the situation for what it is, not for what we want it to be.  We many not like it.  We may not agree with it.  We may wish things were different.  But none of that matters.  Whatever the truth of the moment is, you can only move forward by acknowledging it. The following is a quote from Yoga for Pain Relief by yoga therapist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.  Although it speaks to working with pain, you could substitute with any challenge you are having difficulty accepting.

“Acceptance doesn’t mean embracing your pain or identifying yourself only as a person with pain.  It means a willingness to experience pain as a part of life and a willingness to move on with your life even if your pain persists.”

This doesn’t mean you become passive, held hostage to the situation. Quite the opposite. It is by accepting things as they are that we can then decide the most skillful way to proceed.  We can operate without blinders, reviewing options with a critical eye to whether or not they fit our reality.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ~ James Baldwin

I’m not sure why, but I had no problem accepting the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.  Maybe that was because I had googled my symptoms and an overwhelming number of the results had come back MS.  Maybe it was because I was relieved that the visual problems I was experiencing weren’t permanent.  Maybe it was the amazing support I received from my future husband and immediate family. Their general reaction was “There’s no cure.  We can’t change it.  It could be worse.  So, where do we go from here.”

Whatever the reason, I am glad I was able to so easily accept the diagnosis, because my acceptance practice is continually challenged by flare-ups (periodic vision loss, weakness in one or more extremities, cognitive functioning issues) and day-to-day symptoms (muscle pain, permanent night vision loss, fatigue).  Yep, just like life, acceptance is an ongoing activity.  And that’s where yoga and meditation are a HUGE help.  I’ll discuss how in Acceptance Part 2 (coming soon).  

* The Borg were featured on several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the movie “Star Trek First Contact.”  While The Borg are eventually defeated, the crew of the Enterprise had to face their reality to make it so. If you are unfamiliar with the series or in the mood for a flashback, here’s a brief clip.