Ever been in a pose, or in a particular class, taught by a particular teacher that's just made you feel a little bent out of shape? I have, and I often do, in several of the yoga classes I attend on a regular basis. You might think, isn't the purpose of yoga to feel relaxed? Why would you seek out a situation masquerading as a relaxation method that is going to trigger the shit out of you? Because part of the process of yoga is discomfort.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify what I mean by 'challenging' poses in this particular context. Handstands are challenging, full pigeon pose is challenging, but they also out of reach for the majority of the population. What I mean by challenging, for the purposes of this piece, are the poses that everyone can technically do, but most people don't like. Think; warrior 3, side angle pose, plank pose and its variations, a lot of the hip opening poses... you can add yours.
I teach hot yoga and it's a set sequence that contains an overwhelming proportion of these types of poses, and yet it seems to be really popular. It could be that hot yogis are gluttons for punishment, or, it could be that they know that practising in this way is one hell of a way to progress in yoga. That isn't to say that you'll come out doing every fancy pose in the book, but the release you'll experience from actually allowing yourself to sit in the site of your tension for a little longer than normal will be profound and lasting. We all carry tension, in the body and also the mind, and really the two are interconnected, something you perhaps know, but really come to experience the longer you practise yoga. We come to yoga with varying degrees of tension, some surface layer that might iron out in just one class, and some more deep-seated, possibly connected to past trauma; the kind that takes longer to release, but once you do, the release is extra sweet.
When you find yourself in one of these poses that puts a finer point on your tension, where do you go to try and escape it? Do you physically back out of it, or even leave the class altogether? Do you push further into the pose to try and fight the tension with more tension? Do you start to breathe faster and louder? Do you stop breathing in a bid to stop feeling? Does your mind go elsewhere to detach and dissociate from what you don't want to feel in the pose? Do you become self-critical/angry with yourself? Does some of that anger get projected onto the teacher? None of these responses to challenge are wrong. In fact, they're very much a part of the yogic process. To release tension we must first recognise it; this is yoga.
So, the next time you meet your tension when practising, be assured that this is very much part of the practice. It is necessary in establishing more ease and comfort within your physical body, but really, what it does even better is help you to establish more ease with yourself. A yoga class provides an (ideally) safe environment in which you can meet yourself fully; being fully present with what might tend to throw you off balance both physically and otherwise, and being able to practise your response to those triggers. This means that, over time, when you get thrown off balance out there in the world at work, in relationships and so on, you'll have the understanding that allows you to respond in a better way.
B.K.S. Iyengar calls practising yoga asana an 'experiment' and even likens the body to a 'laboratory'. On the one hand, you are changing your physical matter in a chemical way; by adding heat to your system through movement and breath, you can change the length and strength of your muscles, as well as experiencing numerous other physiological effects. But the real experiment, at least in my experience of yoga, is the experiment with your psyche and the way you can train your mind, thoughts and emotions into such resilience through the controlled stress some of the poses present.
So, if you're a student, don't shy away from practising the poses that can bring shit up for you, let the teacher support you but never push you beyond your own boundaries. Teachers: don't be afraid to take your students there! You might get a few grimaces, but those almost always turn into grins thereafter.