When I work with beginners, I used to just take them through the poses. These days, I really dive into explanation, doing poses with them but almost having a conversation with them to share the various aspects of the pose, breath and alignment.
While this can make for a good deal of me talking to the class, I try to balance it out with a spiritual or more universal theme and also leave them time for silence. One of the themes I love to work into class is that of balancing both strength and surrender in a pose as well as in your practice overall.
When we think of how we spend much of our day, it’s in stress. It might be stressful physical positions, stressful emotional situations or could be just the stress of running around, multi-tasking all day. When we physically exercise, some of us even choose forms of exercise that are stressful; albeit in a good way. We choose adrenaline pumping, heart racing activities like running and bootcamp classes. While this can be great to mix into our work out schedule, it mimics much of what our life is like. Our body and mind are used to stress so when we start to exercise, we tend to just pound the body even more.
When many people think of yoga, they think of restorative yoga. Known as the most relaxing kind of practice, often called “Yin Yoga,” it involves holding poses for a long period of time, many that are on the ground, while supported by props. While this can be a fantastic way to stretch and relieve stress, it’s only one style of yoga. If I told you that athletic, flow-style classes were meant to be both strengthening as well as relaxing, would you think I was crazy? Perhaps. But not if you understand one of the fine tuned aspects of the practice.
In every yoga pose and in every yoga practice as a whole, one of the things we’re working towards is a quality of balance between both strength and surrender. Now, “surrender” might sound a little strange to you but if you think of “surrender” as you would think of “relaxation,” you might get the idea. When we come into a pose, it’s a physical balance in our body often between the ground and the sky ( top and bottom of the body) or our feet and our hands or any variation of these two dynamics. If you think of Downward Facing Dog pose, you’re trying to balance the weight of the body on the hands and the feet in just the right way so you aren’t plowing forward into your wrists, nor are you shoved back into your hips.
In addition to that physical balance, you’re also trying to balance out your energy, in terms of the physical effort you’re expending. If you were to go into each pose with a “no holds barred” approach, chances are you’d be exhausted after a few minutes. This happens a lot when weight lifters and gym lovers come to class. They attack the practice with the same zest as they do their workouts and find that pretty quickly, they tire. The idea is to find ways in each pose to relax what you can and work what you need to work, so that the overall experience is more even.
This is something that’s good to bring up to beginners early on. While it’s a bit heady and might seem a bit too complex to understand, I’ve found the sooner I bring it up, the better chance they have to start to integrate this kind of thing right away. As you are in a pose, suggest to them the physical actions that can relax the parts that can soften and cue them with clear actions (“press,” “root, ” “push,” etc.) that can help them get grounded and strong in the areas where they need to create foundation. There’s nothing more frustrating for a student to feel wobbly and it’s our job as teachers to use good cueing to they can find their footing.
Once you start to get an idea of this balance between strength and surrender, you can start to see how in your day to day life, you’re always in stress. You can find ways to create surrender throughout your day so your overall experience in life is one of greater balance. I sometimes think of this like what a mother must go through with kids in the morning. I know lots of moms and they often say mornings are a tough time. Everyone is running around crazy, trying to stick to a schedule. They tell me they “pick their battles,” meaning, they only insist on things they know are critical to the day and the child’s welfare and they let go of the things that really make no difference (“sure, go ahead and wear your rain boots on this sunny day!”)
This is the kind of discretion we need to use more of in our lives, otherwise, everything’s a stressful trigger, from the guy that cuts you off to the woman in front of you in the grocery store line with a full cart in the express lane. It’s the same with our practice. We can let the little things get under our skin or we can let them go and find both the strength and surrender that will allow us to rest.
Make no mistake about it; it’s possible if not critical that we find this and use this technique in our flow, vinyasa, athletic-styled classes. It’s through contraction and relaxation that we build strength and also train our muscles to relax. It’s the same with our mind. I will never forget a friend of mine that came to class after years, literally years, of saying he was too stressed to try yoga. A true gym lover, he finally came to class one day, baseball cap on backwards, ready to go. He powered through the practice and at the end, promptly fell asleep, cap askew. It was his body’s way of saying, “Man, I’m done. It’s a good thing you finally gave me a chance to relax.”
Don’t wait until it’s too late to teach your body how to balance between these two opposing ideas. It’s good to have stress in our lives when it helps us stand tall, take a chance, speak our mind or try new things. But ongoing stress in our body only teaches our internal systems to always be on alert. We need to give it a break sometimes.