I have always wanted to be a runner. I tried running a few times in my late teens, and it did not go well. I was shy, prone to anxiety, and, with the exception of childhood horseback riding lessons, not a very active kid. Running for the sake of running seemed out of my reach, like something only very thin, athletic people did. Still, I tried. I would psych myself up, take a few huge breaths, and then take off—sprinting as hard as I could. My lungs would constrict and my throat would burn. My ankles, overstretched from years of English-style riding lessons, felt weak and floppy (all those years of hearing “Heels down!” had turned my connective tissues to mush). Everything south of my knees would immediately swell up and scream with ache, and my mind would yell, you can’t do this, you have to stop! And I would, coming to a sputtering, gasping halt and doubling over with my hands on my knees. The farthest I ever made it was probably about 500 feet, and I hurt for days afterward. I’d give up the dream for another year or two before trying again with the same results.
It was around this time that I began attending yoga classes semi-regularly. One day after class, I complained to the teacher that my lower back hurt constantly. She slowly looked me up and down and said, “Yeah, I guess it would. Why on Earth are you standing like that?” I was mystified—I’d always had amazing posture! She proceeded to point out to me that, although I wasn’t hunched over, I was sinking into the floor in every other possible way. She worked her way from my neck downward, lengthening my spine, instructing me on how to use my core to help keep my body upright, and adjusting my pelvic tilt. She stopped when she got to my feet, and said something like, “Wow. These things aren’t even trying—they’re like a couple of dead fish.” I was completely collapsed into my inner arches, to the point that the outer edges of my feet looked as though they were trying to peel themselves right up off the floor. My teacher taught me how to engage the muscles of my feet, to make them work to ground me and give the rest of my body a strong foundation. Shortly thereafter, my back pain vanished. I had been a yoga dabbler before, but I was now a full-fledged convert.
Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end, but a unique event in itself.
~ Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Fast forward years later to my teacher training program. It was there that I discovered the dual concepts of sthira and sūkha, or, as they are often translated, effort and ease. As Patanjali’s Sutra 2:46 tells us, sthira sūkham asanam, which means roughly, postures should be strong yet comfortable. With each pose we do, we strive for the ideal balance of these two elements—we want to feel strength, purpose, and stability, in addition to calm, peace, and comfort. It is the balance of these hard and soft components that gives life to our practice. Too much sthira, and we are like rocks: rigid, brittle, and frozen in space. Too much sūkha, and we are like mud: formless and sloppy. This dichotomy can be applied to many facets of our practice, most notably balance, flexibility, and endurance. If we go too far to either end of the sūkha-sthira continuum on any one of these dimensions, our practice fails to progress and/or we become injured. Indeed, we can apply the sūkha-sthira principle to every aspect of our lives—it makes sense everywhere.
When we begin a yoga practice, our novice mind may tell us that practicing yoga means fighting, striving, and pushing ourselves until we feel like collapsing. If we are lucky, we learn that the practice is not running headlong into the fire of effort and then collapsing into the blaze. Neither is it showing up to yoga class and half-heartedly going through the motions while we replay last night’s Downton Abbey in our heads. It is a balance between pushing hard and taking it easy. Distress tolerance is good—we need it in this life, unfortunately. Imagine a yoga practice without discipline. It’s tough to do, since yoga without discipline is…not yoga. But yoga also teaches us that discipline and learning to tolerate unpleasant feelings should be counterweighted by compassion, self-love, and ahimsa, or the principle of non-harming. In other words, postures should be strong yet comfortable.
Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.
~ Mahatma Gandhi
After teacher training, I got the running urge again. Years of doing yoga consistently meant that I trusted my feet, lungs, and stamina more than ever before. I told myself, just try. Every time that old familiar voice in my head would whisper, you can’t do this, I would answer with, but I can try. Every day, I would go to a park near my home and walk. Whenever I got the urge, I would break into a jog. I got tired quickly, and went back to walking whenever I became winded. As soon as I had my breath and energy back, I would pick up the pace again. At first, I jogged for 100 feet, then walked for 200. Little by little, my body acclimated itself to running. My feet and ankles became firm but responsive to the ground—like springs. I learned to land softly on the balls of my feet. I was able to keep my breath smooth and steady, just like I always had in my asana practice. Gradually, I came to accept my limitations with compassion on the days when I was tired, as well as to temper my celebration with humility on the days when I really rocked my run. Now, I run between 15 and 20 miles per week. I could probably do more. I could definitely do less. But, for now, I’m content with where I am. It feels just right.
Do your practice, and all is coming.
~ Pattabhi Jois