"Yoga has always been hard for me - I get SO frustrated in some classes."
"I hate that I can't touch my toes."
"So, how long do I have to practice before I'll be able to (do some posture)?"
"What level is this class because I have been taking beginner classes for a while and I want to make sure that I'm improving so I want to get to more advanced classes."
Any of those sound like you? Or someone close to you? Or overheard in class? Yeah, probably. The thing is, we may just be "condemned" to wanting to constantly improve, hone, and perfect things we do. You may call that ego, but in some cases (like, running from predators or enhancing job skills for better wages) it may just be a function of biology, or financial survival (sociological impacts).
Regardless, trying to turn that off can be difficult, even seemingly impossible. We are raised on superlatives (big-bigger-biggest, bendy-bendier-bendiest) and comparisons (grade point averages, SAT scores, sports team stats, MPG) so it seems almost unnatural to decouple "working hard" from "working harder than I did before or someone else so I can be better and then be the best." How can you put in effort but not make it a fight? How can you be focused but not obsessed, and balance intensity with compassion?
In Yoga this is called the balance between Sukha/Sthira - effort and ease. No easy task, and it has many parallels in asana and in meditation, In poses we ground down (into the earth through whatever is making contact) while reaching up and creating space in the body. We engage agonist muscles but relax antagonist muscles. In medtiation we focus and clear the mind at the same time. We work hard but still allow the body to tell us when we need to pull back. We breathe deeply, but softly; we have thought but try not to judge or label them as they pass through our conscious mind.
We are taught to (try to) use the breath to help us do these things. Inhales call our nervous systems to action, exhales calm them down. Each breath cycle is a chance to find balance. Inhale too much and exhale too little, you are taking in too much (energy) and not releasing/relaxing enough. Inhale too shallow and exhale too much and you may be giving away to much energy, lose your stamina (and also get a little lightheaded).
A yogi friend said today "Yoga always frustrated me. But you help remind me of how to focus on what's important and I really start to enjoy my practice." The thing is, yoga frustrates me too when I practice, and a reminder from the teacher that this is not DOGMATIC practice, with information on how to change the position of my body, to help teach me how to not get frustrated and enjoy trying to find the balance of effort and ease...THAT is what makes me continue to do yoga (and revisit that teacher).
Every student is told "remember it's not about perfecting a pose." But, honestly, teachers and students alike.... do we really buy into that or do we just say it? Because (as a teachers), if it's just lip service, people know. What information do we give them to help them truly live that mantra? Do we instruct on use of props, detailed body alignment, personalized hands-on adjustments, and/or hold back from offering the hardest version, to help students unlearn the "overachieving" instinct? Do we all practice what we preach?
Do we - all of us yoga practitioners - all allow ourselves to experience a practice rather than trying to "get better" at a posture? Do we remember to breathe and integrate the breathe with your movements? Do we remember the subtleties of those fundamental poses, breathing techniques, and meditative styles that are the foundation of an honest yoga practice?
Some yogis and yoga styles are so focused on physical improvements in asana that not pushing to the limits can seem like underachieving. But consider that just showing up to the mat is an achievement of large magnitude in and of itself. Consider that staying in the room for a whole class that you didn't like to be a profound achievement in patience, respect and integrity (plus you don't have to go back). Consider not pushing yourself to fainting in a hot yoga class, and taking water and cool air breaks to be achievements in being in touch with your body. Consider just trying (and quite possibly failing) to do a difficult pose (and laughing about) it an achievement. Consider resisting the temptation to overpractice when injured an achievement. You can't achieve if you've pushed yourself to the point of dysfunction, because pushing is different from encouraging. The former creates stress. The latter comes from a place of compassion.
We all react to stress differently. Some grit their teeth and dig in. Some cry. Some get angry. Some give up. The sympathetic nervous system and one of its well known agents adrenalin create different responses in every one of us, but "less functional" responses don't make a person weak. If anything those responses are an opportunity to learn about how to engage yourself more productively, so to speak. If your practice overstimulates your sympathetic nervous system, then consider that you need to scale back to truly "get better." If your practice doesn't engage you (enough), then consider that you may need to change how and/or what you practice (or even what) to get better.
Be careful to not judge yourself or anyone else by the depth of their postures or the ease with which they performs (any asana or even meditation). Some have a natural affinity for strength, or flexibility or deep contemplation. But that doesn't make those of us who have to hone our practice more in any one area "less than" or "worse" than others. We are just different, and all practicing. Try not to perpetuate the myth that improvement is in the performance, not in the honest experience of being on the mat.
So, taking this full circle, when I practice yoga, I try very hard to be patient. To scale back a posture so that I can breathe and NOT kick my nervous system into overdrive. To remind myself that only way I can allow things to happen is if I make space for them. To (try to ) be calm, and focused, and breathing, to move intentionally and with body awareness, and not to push myself (or allow someone elses's teaching or practice to push me to). If I practice these things, then I am balancing effort and ease, and gain by letting go. In short, achieving yoga. And that is a damn good practice.