Effort in Yoga, how much is too much, how much is too little?

Deep surrender in dragonfly, the effort is in the surrender. Note that I am dagging out in trackie dacks and keeping warm in home practice with ample clothes, practicing on a warm carpet and in front of the fire. All highly conducive to letting go.

Deep surrender in dragonfly, the effort is in the surrender. Note that I am dagging out in trackie dacks and keeping warm in home practice with ample clothes, practicing on a warm carpet and in front of the fire. All highly conducive to letting go.

As a teacher, I see a range of types of people coming to class to learn and practice yoga, and within that many variations in body types, and mind/ personality types. It’s a wonderful thing that keep us yoga instructors on our toes and far from being bored and complacent. No two body/mind/spirit combinations are the same.
There is always a wide range of effort in class, from person to person and from week to week, from season to season and from one type of class to another. Hence it is worth posing the question- how much effort is the right amount?
How do we know when to just allow the shape of the pose to do its work, easing into it without activating the muscles, or when to work against the shape of the pose to press and push deeper?

Obviously, the type of yoga you are practicing makes a great difference on a basic level- in an Ashtanga or Vinyasa class effort is seemingly key, while in a Yin class it seems it is all about letting go.

However it goes deeper than that. The intensity and therefore benefit of a yoga posture can be enhanced by conscious activation of the muscles surrounding the joints that are being worked in any given pose. Engaging or tensing the muscles towards the bones with effort protects the joints and allows the practitioner to move in and out of the pose safely.

Think of the hamstrings for instance- when stretching the hamstrings, a purposeful ‘engagement’ of the front thigh muscle ( the reciprocal part of the body to the hammies ) perhaps through pushing into the big toes or consciously pulling up through the arch of the foot, maybe also micro bending the knee- will activate the quadriceps and in turn protect the hamstrings from over stretching. The hamstrings will then in turn, after a few breaths, be able to move deeper and more slowly into the stretch without the threat of sudden, damaging over-stretching in the origin or insertion points of the muscle.

This action demonstrates how the muscles serve to activate the reflexes of reciprocal action, and the reflexes of relaxation- if you tense the muscles towards the joint being worked and hold them there, the muscles will after a time let go, allowing greater depth in the asana without the danger of letting go and surrender. Ok, I kind of repeated myself there but you get to drift.

This type of activation also increases the heart rate for many people and encourages deeper breathing, creating heat, which helps with flexibility.

How much should we be tensing the muscles towards and around the joints though, and when do you and don’t you tense them?

Key to this question is- how does your head and neck feel? Is your jaw and tongue able to stay soft and your forehead smooth when practicing poses. Is your face red? If there is tension in the face and head, you may be trying too hard. Many beginner Ashtanga students find themselves using the face too much to do a pose that has nothing to do with the head, tongue cleaved to the roof of the mouth, and that intense set jaw and stare… this is not yoga!
You may also find you can not move into the pose very much at all if the muscular effort is too intense. Shaking or quivering is another manifestation of over doing it. Not so much the quivering of a muscle that you are not used to using, but an internal quivering, signalling nervous system over stimulation. Often you won’t realise this until after the practice, whilst resting in savasana.
Over breathing- basically hyper ventilating with breaths too deep and too close together- is another major sign of over effort. Sure we need to do it sometime to manage oxygen levels in something causing exertion ( think of pushing a wheelbarrow full of wood up a hill ), but a whole yoga practice like this ??? That lends itself to nervous system irritation and in the longterm over sensitisation. not really yoga at all. In savasana or meditation at the end of your practice, see if there is any subtle pulsing or flickering in the eyes or behind the eyelids, like a mini strobe light effect. If there is, you have likely over doe it with the effort that day- and need to pull back a bit tomorrow.

You should be conscious and present in your own practice, whether in a class setting or at home, and use this mindfulness- this concentration- to see and feel and know what your body is doing in any given pose on any given day. Some poses may require more effort than others, others more surrender.

If you move too fast into a pose or a vinyasa without muscle co-activation, where the muscles are working together to protect the joint, the danger is that you will compromise the joint or muscle by moving too deeply into the weaker OR more flexible muscles of the area, without using the more stiff regions. Damage can result, and in the long term- even without damage- muscular imbalances may be formed which are hard to undo.

Generally, if you are cold or stiff, tired, unmotivated and/or distracted, a little extra effort in the muscles is all you need to get you back on track and bring greater benefits to your practice.
Some teachers will ask you to ramp up the breath in order to do this- I suggest in order to nourish and protect your sympathetic nervous system ( the one responsible for flight and fight/adrenal stimulation) that the effort comes from the muscles and you don’t force the breath into an unnatural depth or speed. There are far too many people out there that are over doing the breath and are on the path to yoga burnout/ nervous system burnout. Extreme hunger after practice can also be a sign that you have been over breathing/ hyper ventilating.

How about Yin yoga then, the yoga of sweet, sweet surrender?
This advice can also be incorporated into a Yin style practice without being completely contradictory.

First of all, in a Yin practice, you are not building heat through the breath, or through muscle activation or through vinyasa, or through effort. So, the key is to be warm– practicing in a warm room or sunny spot out of the wind, with plenty of clothes on, even socks!
As the body remains cool, and therefore somewhat stiff, there can be a danger to the joints, tendons and muscles if going into poses too quickly and too deeply. Luckily Yin yoga is about patience and staying in the pose for minutes, and seeks to use the reflex of relaxation by doing this. The bodily reflex of relaxation takes around a minute ( give or take) to kick in, and a few deep slow breaths can help it occur. Then you may feel your body soften and let go.
But you have to keep it real and be honest with yourself- not push in any way or expect to get into poses with the depth that you may in a more Yan style practice. Yin changes every single time you practice. Keeping your eyes closed or focus soft, and keeping the breathing natural and tidal helps you keep from grasping or trying too hard.

However, muscle activations can be used to benefit Yin yoga too.
Take for example drogon-fly pose- or the wide legged, seated forward bend known as Upavishta Konasana A in Ashtanga yoga. In Yin yoga you hold this for 5 minutes, and since it is not asking you to balance or make a muscular effort, it is a true Yin posture- as Yin as you can get- especially if your body is open enough to lie on the floor between your feet.

However, on coming into this pose when the body is cool, you may find yourself too stiff to move forward, and too stiff to let go. The muscles of the hips, the hip flexors and extensors, tend to hold on tightly in many people and require more than mindful ‘asking’ of your body/mind to let go. Tensing these muscles while in the first minute or so of the pose, activating towards the hip joints and increasing heat in the area, can help move you deeper into the pose once you let go and the blood flows back into the area. Surrender is then able to happen more safely and completely.

Say you have moved into a Yin yoga pose but feel unsafe- like you have gone too far and are stretching the muscles or tendons beyond what they are ready for? Thats is another time that the effort of muscle activation is beneficial. Say you have a pain in the knee… Immediately engaging the muscles towards the knee, in effect locking it and not allowing it go any further, will protect it. You can then either stay in an engaged form of the Yin pose, or move a little out of it until your knee feels good and then let go of the muscles again.
And if there is a sense of over stretching the lower back? Use the muscle activations of the abdomen- especially good to use when coming in and out of asanas, by imaging a wide 80’s style belt around your belly between the navel and the hip bones, and consciously pulling this belt in from all directions, as if cinching the belt in. This will protect the lower back within the pose, or until you move back to a depth more safely available to you.

How do you know, in any form of physical yoga, if you have not used enough effort? Well, first up, you don’t feel radially different than you did when you first rolled out your mat.
Did your mind wander while practicing, and get caught up in mundane worldly problems or issues? Another sign that you could have applied more effort.
Or, you may find you can’t relax in savasana ( this can also be due to over breathing and over stimulation of the nervous system- be mindful and work out for yourself whether its from over or under effort ).
Or perhaps you don’t feel it in your muscles at all later that day or the next day. We are working the muscles and joints, some sensation is likely, and a useful gauge of how the effort involved.
Or perhaps your practice is going backwards, not forwards? Often in yoga we make effort abut reach a plateau. I believe this to be normal, it can last a long time, and that’s fine. But if in regular practice you feel you are going backwards- physically and in concentration- then maybe more effort could be a useful tool.

All of these signs are good markers to work out for yourself what kind of effort you should apply to yoga practice, so that you neither damage your joints and muscles or your nervous system, or just waste time on the mat faffing around getting distracted and stagnating.

What are your thoughts? Where are you at right now and what do you feel affects your effort in practice the most?

Where is your mind?

This is a little video I made a while back illustrating how easy it is to get lost in thought when practicing… or how concentration comes and goes, stuff comes and goes, interruptions come and go….

 In truth, practice is an exercise in allowing things to come and go.

Yoga should be a practice of mindfulness when possible, an experience towards meditation. Time- as in PRACTICE, committed and persistent- helps this as much as anything.

Coming back to the breath, remembering to find the bandhas ( muscular/energy locks), attending to drishti ( gaze points) and importantly… focusing on sensation all help encourage your practice to become a moving meditation. 

click below to view…

‘Where Is My Mind’- a video piece about concentration and the monkey mind


Standing Meditation- for those sleepy days

It is winter here in Australia and where I live, just over the Great Dividing Range in Victoria, it is freaking cold compared to Melbourne, and like a different planet compared to the intense heat of late summer. We get down to 0 degrees or a few below Celsius at night and a couple of weeks ago we even got snow… I missed it, it was at 4am.

I’m not sure if it is the cold, the dark, the change in diet that winter brings (more on that in the next post), the lack of sleep from my partner’s outrageous snoring or just general winter malaise settling in, but my daily mindfulness meditation has recently become a whole lot harder.

I practice two kinds of meditation practice daily ( and occasionally, most likely on the esteemed ladies holiday or moon days I may do some lovely sanskrit chanting )

First up I do an energetic/chakra/visualisation based yoga meditation technique for a while ( as I was taught by Gregor Maehle – see his awesome book here ) – to make the most of the energies generated from my asana and pranayama practice. It is upward moving from lower to higher chakras and, though increasingly complex and taking a lot of focus and effort, I love it. I see it as brain training.

Then I do mindfulness meditation for longer- as long as I have time for- as mindfulness meditation gives me that beautiful buzzy feeling that just makes my day. It’s mindfulness meditation that I believe can truly change someone for the better in time, as with this technique you deal with the detritus and trauma of the unconscious. Stuff comes up.

Asana alone is never going to do that for you. Never.

In the warmer months I tend to rise much, much earlier, do the kriyas, pranayama and meditations, then the asana to keep the body clear, light and healthy. Or if I’m not sleeping too well and need extra sleep, I do the first three, then go inside for some kid wrangling. Once they are safely at school I head back into my little yoga-studio-at-home for asana practice.
But in winter I often get straight into kriyas and asana to keep me motivated and warm as my heaters crank up. It sure is easier to hold lotus position after an hour or two of warming asana!

However at the moment, not long after I get settled into my seated meditation pose with my favourite cushion just right, and my leg blankie and favourite felted cotton shawl I got in Laos, my mind just baulks and off it wanders into the ether. I either sit there drifting off into inane thoughts, fitfully remembering to attend to the breath, or I just nod off like a junkie 😉
It has been driving me mad, which of course doesn’t help a bit.
I get a bit attached to the good times when meditation practice flows. Don’t we all. When it feels like it is being done TO you, rather than you trying to do IT.

But I don’t often get to that place in winter and for a long time I have been wondering why.
But it seems, for now at least, I have found, perhaps not the answer, but an alternative solution.
……drum roll…..


Standing meditation is my new beloved… my sanity saver. I’ve been teaching it in mindfulness classes lately and most people just love it too…. ( although there are always a few people who don’t, maybe 20%, so if this is not for you don’t stress, just go back to sitting and be happy.)

Buddhist texts say walking meditation is the hardest, one of the more advanced forms of mindfulness meditation- try it, you’ll agree.
Lying down meditation is also in the bit harder basket- although delicious to practice- it is mostly challenging to do properly as we tend to drift off into la-la land when lying on our backs. It takes considerable effort to attend to sensation in savasana.
Standing meditation is seen as a moderate practice- not too hard, not too easy. Less concentration is required than for sitting, but more physical effort.
It is great for when you are sleepy ( tamasic energy dominates- see post on gunas ), for when you have sore hips, knees, back or bum or are unable to sit for whatever reason. It is also recommended to practice in between seated sessions if you are doing some kind of marathon meditation deliciousness.

I like standing meditation as it makes me feel alive, vital and awake- an energetic calm. I feel grounded and planted on the earth, and when I finish up I feel super connected to the world around me.

This meditation practice can be done indoors or outdoors, in a place where you will not be or feel disturbed. Shoes off on bare earth is ideal, however in warm socks or comfortable shoes is great too. Hell, do it in your ugg boots, it’s all good.

These are the basic guidelines:

1: Stand with your feet hip distance apart and your knees slightly bent- do not lock (hyperextend) the knee. Check over each shoulder to ascertain if your feet really are shoulder width apart. Turn the toes in very, very minimally. Just a tad, a wafer even….
Let your arms fall to your sides with palms facing up and out, hands naturally cupped.
Pull your chin in a little so your ears are over your shoulders- jutting your chin out aggressively won’t help any kind of meditation or indeed do much good for anyone or anything.

2: To begin with, don’t be closing your eyes on the job! Take a few long and deep diaphragmatic breaths, more if you feel tension in your body. Breathe into the navel and feel the connection of the breath to that area, expanding up into your chest and ribs in all directions, not forgetting the collarbones.

3: If you have just done asana including savasana, you can go straight into step 4. Otherwise spend a few minutes doing a simple standing full body scan, part by part, from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head with your eyes closed or the gaze softened.

4: If you haven’t already closed your eyes, do so now, or soften your gaze if closing them makes you feel too unbalanced or vulnerable. Bring your attention to your feet. Feel the soles of the feet on the floor or within your shoes. Notice everything about the soles of your feet. The parts of the feet that touch the floor, the pressure there, where there is firm pressure, where it is lighter. The arches of the feet. The individual toes on the floor. Spend some time looking closely at pressure, it’s differences and similarities. Do not attempt to visualise the soles of the feet. Though a mental image may arise, do not dwell on or try to cultivate the image as this is in the realm of imagination/visualisation- i.e. a different form of meditation.

Here we are attending to sensation, only.

If you are a visual artist of some kind ( pick me, pick me Fat Cat! ) a visual learner or a visually dominated person, this might be damn hard. Stick with it, just keep going back to the sensation again and again and gradually the internal imagery will back off and lose it’s agency…. hopefully.
Now begin to notice the temperature of the sole of the foot where it touches the ground, sock or shoe. Notice the differences in temperature in detail. Bring to your focus a sense of devoted attention, a curiosity, even a delight in the tiny details of sensation as you become aware of them.
Repeat with the sensation of texture as you scan your awareness over the soles of the feet, the fabric of your socks or the grass or sand beneath your feet. Do this with the same exquisite attention to detail as any other sensation.

Notice the movement within the sensations. Is there a feeling of flux and change, or a quiet solid stasis? Notice and accept these phenomena.
Notice and accept any sensations of discomfort or pain, and even perhaps comfort.

You may find an incessant, internal dialogue rambling along… ‘oh here is a hot spot, hot spot, I can attend to that for a bit, ooh, mind is wandering, ah here it is, pull it back in, hot spot, hot spot, yes, must stay on this hot spot what’s for breakfast, hot spot, oh that reminds me of….’ etc etc.
This is not ideal… although entirely normal. If your mind is the kind that wants to chatter to you ‘in words’ choose instead to do some simple labelling. e.g.- ‘Sole of foot, heat, heat, heat, cold, warm’ etc, etc.

The mind will and does wander. That is the nature of mind. No need to beat yourself up about it. Practice makes perfect and here you are practicing… well done! This is you time for you alone ( and by extension the entire universe benefits, ideally! ) To bring judgement into the practice is just not fair on yourself. You are just so damn lucky to have the time, space, presence of mind and life conditions to be able to give meditation a go, right?

Remember- as Jon Kabat- Zinn … says

‘Mindfulness meditation means paying attention, in a particular way. On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’

Spread your awareness to include the whole of the feet, outer edge, heel, inner edge, top of the feet, all sensations of the feet, the ankles, the shins, the calves, the knee cap, behind the knee, all of the lower legs including the feet, the front of the thighs, outer edge of the thighs, back of the thigh, inner thighs, groins, hip creases, buttocks, sit bones… all of the legs and feet. All of the legs and feet. Stay there a while.

Move your attention back down into the feet OR pay attention to the breath as it manifests at the navel or throat or nostrils or the whole cycle of the breath. OR indeed, as invariably happens in my practice, pay attention to the cycle of breath while being aware of the entire body sensations, how it feels standing, any and all sensations and the involuntary movements and automatic balance finding.

Choose one of these places in which to enquire- and if changing at all, change only once in the standing practice, as shifting from one to the other over and over is just another way for the mind to distract you with its tricky tricks.

Whenever the monkey mind wanders, gently and with kindness bring it back to the sensation at hand. Every time, over and over. And over. If you get lost and wonder where you were, go back to the grounded sensation of the feet and stay there a while until you reestablish yourself.

Ten to fifteen minutes is a great place to start, longer if you already have a solid sitting practice evolving. Five minutes is better than nothing. Depending on what you have been doing that day or if you stand on your feet a lot on an average day, you may be surprised at how tiring it isn’t!

Next post I will detail some of the things I have found out while trying to research why winter makes my- and others- yoga and meditation practice so much harder.