Monday, October 11, 2010

I stretch. I force. I stretch. I force.

Do you stretch? Or do you force yourself into a posture? Normally, I think I take things pretty gently and that I never fall into the latter category, but after yesterday's class, I'm not too sure. But more on that later.

Last weekend, I went to a way cool talk on meditation given by a dharma teacher, Sharon Salzberg. It was chock full of insights that I let wash over me. Many ideas from Sharon's talk stood out, but one seems particularly relevant to yoga. Sharon discussed the difference between stretching and forcing. The goal of meditative practice is not to force the mind into unnatural realms. The result of doing that is simply more anger or fear! Instead, we work to gradually stretch ourselves out, to move out of our conditioned brains and connect with the vast consciousness that is already within us. The result of doing so is an ability to react more appropriately to whatever stimuli we encounter--we respond to a colleague's suggestion with equanimity and acceptance, for example, rather than out of fear or anger that we've been judged. 

The relationship of stretching vs. forcing to yoga is obvious enough to you yogis, right? The point is not to force ourselves into a posture; we move at the edge of discomfort, trying to continually hold ourselves there, until gradually that edge moves further and further away. But what about forcing yourself to get to class? To maintain a practice? To think that this yoga is right for you when some days you're just not sure? These are the questions I've been grappling with lately.

I admit to feeling a bit like I'm forcing my yoga practice these past couple of weeks. Heck, I feel like I've been forcing a lot in my life lately! It's a time in the semester where just maintaining the status quo is hard enough--forget trying to make progress in yoga or other aspects of life. When I'm going, in, and returning from class, I have a lot more doubt than I've had since returning to Bikram yoga a year and a half ago. I wonder, "is this too hard on my body? Am I helping or hurting?" "In a time of stress, as this is, should I take it easy on myself, or make myself go to yoga in order to maintain my health and consistency in my life?" Heck, my blog is called Eat the Yolk--it's all about going for it--but maybe you gotta go through a phase where egg whites will do!

I had a class yesterday that scared the living daylights out of me. It was a super-hot one, which I can typically handle under normal circumstances. But by the fourth posture, standing-head-to-knee, a migraine headache came on seemingly out of nowhere. I felt like one of those cartoon characters that randomly got whacked over the head with a giant hammer. 

It scared me. The excessive heat, the lack of circulating air, a new instructor, and the headache combined and put me in freak-out mode. I struggled to get a hold on my thoughts; it seemed they were roaches scattering across the walls as the light flicked on--they were quick, frightening, and too numerous to address any one of them in particular. Among other things, I thought of Salzberg's idea of stretching vs. forcing. In that class, I really felt I was forcing it.

I took a quick break, leaving the room to check my tongue in the mirror to make sure I wasn't having a stroke ;-) Really, I did do that! The rest of class, of course, I was OK. No strokes! The headache persisted for a while but eventually dissolved, and by the end of class I had a handle on my thoughts by recognizing them as simply... thoughts. Like the cockroaches, they're there. They can be ugly and scary, but when the light is on, they scamper away pretty quickly. 

I reckon this post could seem a little wishy-washy. There's the nice idea about not forcing, just stretching, but I don't always feel I can recognize where the line lies. I know, however, that not every question can be resolved and tied up in a neat little package. Maybe the goal is to become more and more comfortable with that uncertainty. 

Until I know for sure, you will probably find me at a Bikram yoga class. But I'll be stretching, not forcing! :-) 

Randomly awesome quote:
"At least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled."--Sam Lipsyte, "The Dungeon Master"


SylviaG. said...

I guess it´s up to one´s individual interpretation and definition of streching and forcing respectively. Half Moon is the one that immediately comes to my mind, since it´s the first posture and you need to stretch oh-so-much, however you do so by pushing your hips towards one side, and for me pushing is actually forcing one body part (hips) in one direction so another part (your whole back side) can stretch. I think I´m trying to say is that you may have to "force" yourself to be able to "stretch". :)
With forcing yourself to get to class...hmmm that´s a good quation, E! There are two results: you either manage to stay mentally strong and end up having a really stretch out mind by the end of the class - so you know the forcing is temporary. :) In the other case, you may just happen to hold on to tight and you have to let loose and maybe take a few days (weeks?) off and let your body miss it again.

ps: btw, this post is by no means wishy-washy. Good question raised. :)

hannahjustbreathe said...

You're touching on so much in this one blog post that I don't konw what I want to address first!!

Mostly, just this: One of the greatest hurdles to overcome in my own yoga practice is the uncertainty. Those days when you DO question whether the yoga is helping or hurting, whether you should stay in the room or go, whether you are stretching or forcing. And what I have learned to always come back to is this idea of having faith---in the process, in the yoga, in my body, in my practice.

Faith is my yolk. I try to swallow it whole each and every day.

Anonymous said...

I would say most of the time that I don't feel like going, I go anyway, and then I'm glad I went.

I think though, there are days when you just truly know you simply should not go to class. However, those days are very few and far between. Maybe about 5% of the time?

I love your posts :-)


Yolk E said...

Oh, thank you, Torri :-) I really appreciate that. And you're right. it's probably 5%--or less--that you really shouldn't go.

And thanks, Hannah and Sylvia, for your support. On the one hand, I want to say "fuck the uncertainty!!" On the other, I know it's impossible to do and that the point is to learn to live with it!

Anonymous said...

I am catching up on my blog reading! There's actually a fancy term for the stretch reflex that happens. But you stretch your body to a point until it reflexes and says don't go further. But then you breathe there and hope this becomes your new normal over-time. I'm not big proponent of "force" since frankly aren't most of us the TYPE A overachievers anyway who are more likely to overdo?

I am working on this finding the difference between forcing towards a goal and stretching for it. What an interestingly new way of putting it?! If I am forcing chances are when I get there I will not enjoy it. If I stretch for it, I will feel joy in grasping it if I make and joy for having tried if I didn't. Joy and love are great tools in deciphering what is best at the moment....

Hope you are well.

Catherine said...

Thought of this post (yours) when I saw this post (hers):