Balancing Practice and Life from Paul’s Blog
Here’s an answer to a question I received on my blog not too long ago.
Not too long ago, I received a question asking about practice and ageing. Without going into the details, I answered that since ageing affects each person differently, it all depends on the individual’s energy level measured against one’s responsibilities off the mat.
I replied that if you feel like practice is exhausting, depleting or leaving you without the energy to fulfill your other life responsibilities and activities, then it’s time to look at whether your practice suits you or whether you have pigeonholed yourself into a practice that is no longer appropriate.
Then, I thought that this is good advice for anyone in just about any circumstances, not just with respect to ageing. It can apply to school, work, family and traveling to name a few.
Ultimately, the question is one of balancing Practice and Life and it made me think of two attitudes on the uses and benefits of yoga practice.
On one hand, there is the attitude that practice needs to be intense and challenging so it can press our buttons, shake us up and give us insight into the workings of our minds, emotions, etc. Put another way, practice needs to produce a lot of tapas to be effective. In this case, practice is a crucible for our personal evolution and the breaking down of old, conditioned responses and patterns. The catch is that this type of practice is very high maintenance and can be very tiring because of the tapas generated.
One of the great things about taking practice at KPJAYI in Mysore is the ability to “leave everything on the mat” because there are very few if any other commitments outside of practice. It doesn’t matter how tired we are because we can dedicate a lot of time to taking care of ourselves afterwards. Without the burdens of running a yoga shala or holding down a job, we have a lot more time to rest and recuperate. Nevertheless, trips to Mysore end and we all return home eventually and have to reintegrate into our “real” lives.
As best I can, I’d like to preempt comments from Ashtanga parents who will assert that, since starting a family, their days in Mysore post-practice are no longer simply about long rest and recuperation. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that your days in Mysore with your family are radically different from how they were before you had children. That said, from discussions with parents in Mysore, it still seems like things are relatively more relaxed than they are back home where one has to juggle jobs, shalas, kid’s activities etc.
On the other hand, one can also approach practice in a way that it functions as a support to our daily routines and responsibilities. Practice would still give us an awareness of where our minds and emotions are as well as keeping us honest about what we’re thinking and feeling. However, it would leave us with enough energy to fulfill our other responsibilities.
There must be balance between these two attitudes.
A person who tries to leave it all on the mat without budgeting the time and energy required to fulfill one’s other responsibilities will probably find oneself unemployed, injured, sick, burned-out or any combination of the above.
That said, a yoga practice that isn’t enough of a challenge could start to feel empty or boring. Without enough tapas, our time on the mat isn’t going to serve the role of practice. Put another way, practice needs to be challenging enough to create the conditions for awareness and insight without exhausting us. If taking it easy were a viable yoga practice, we’d all be enjoying long hot bubble baths rather than sweating on our mats.
Holding down a job, raising a family, having meaningful relationships automatically create tensions between practice and life. Practice requires a level of intensity to be practice but without being so intense that we cannot function off our mats. It’s a duality and a paradox, but certainly not the only one that exists for the Ashtanga practitioner. Ashtanga Yoga forces us to recognize, integrate and find balance between many dualities such as Strength vs. Flexibility or Determination vs. Non-attachment.
Finding a happy medium so we can have a meaningful practice and a meaningful life off the mat is just another balancing act that we can master if we remain open to the idea of change and adaptation.
It’s not uncommon to falsely approach practice as a set-in-stone collection of asanas that remains constant. As yoga teachers, we will often say “no matter what is going on in your life, practice. It will benefit you.” But what does that really mean? If we consider the act of showing up on our mats and the generation of tapas as the important factor rather than the specific asanas we perform as yoga practice, we can find balance and practice diligently without exhausting ourselves or driving ourselves crazy with false expectations.