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.


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