For many years my approach to health and fitness was defined by no pain, no gain. Eating only salads and nuts made me feel virtuous, and running five miles made me feel as if I’d suffered enough.
Today, I’ve dropped the punitive approach. No longer set on pummeling my body into compliance, I seek to practice, whenever I can, whenever I remember, a mindfulness of simply letting it “be.”
I see this as the observance of what the great yogi sage Patanjali called Ishavara pranidhana , literally, surrender to the Lord. Of all yogic practices Patanjali views it as penultimate – because if you can successfully surrender to the divine power of the universe, you basically don’t have to do anything else.
But as a teacher, I admit, I’ve found surrender is a tough sell. It flies in the face of our belief that health is something to be fought for, a daily battle waged against the inevitable and encroaching forces of entropy and decay. We’ve been raised to believe the universe is a cold hard place that doesn’t give a fiddle about our personal well-being. So we take our vitamins, slather on sunscreen and haul our butts to the gym.
But what if, as yogis have long told us, that optimal health isn’t created from the outside in but from the inside out? Yoga places special emphasis on role of the mind because, as yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar states “what happens in the mind happens in the whole system’.
Desikachar is a pioneer in the field of yoga therapy. He believes our human tendency to focus on the bad and ignore the good, creates fearful or negative thoughts which activate the stress response and turn off healing functions of the body. To avert this, Deskiachar recommends a process, modern psychology today refers to as ‘cognitive reframing‘. As Patanjali wrote in the Sutras, “when disturbed by negative thoughts opposite (positive) ones should be thought of.”
Today we know this simple technique quiets the amygdala, center of fear and anxiety in the brain. Banishing negative thoughts not only causes our heart and respiratory rates to slow, it lowers cortisol levels, balances hormones, and kicks our immune and healing systems into high gear.
Research conducted by the Heart Math Institute shows how feelings like anger, frustration, anxiety and insecurity, cause our heart-rhythm patterns to become erratic. They have found that replacing negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones not only causes our brainwaves and heart rhythms to entrain, it balances both hemispheres of the brain. This sharpens our intelligence, thinking skills, creativity and memory, and increases feelings of peacefulness, happiness and contentment.
The goal of ‘cognitive reframing ‘ is to change our perspective and beliefs to reduce “contextual fear” – fear caused by certain beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in.
So I see ‘surrender to the lord’ as a chance to practice the ultimate in cognitive reframing. A chance to relinquish my view of a universe designed to grind me down, and surrender to a universe dedicated to building me up.
I believe, as the ancient yogi’s did, that a divine life-giving energy is contained in the air we breath, the soil we walk on, the food we eat, the water we drink. Whether we call it qi, prana or the quantum field, it is waiting every moment to be called upon by our body and mind, our sensations and intent.
That’s why yoga isn’t about exercise or achieving mastery over difficult postures. Yoga is union between us and this energy field. And as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika warns, “over-exertion” is one of the great “destroyers of yoga.”
Medical studies demonstrate that when we push too far beyond our physical limits we trigger a full-fledged stress response in the body. This activates the flight and fight response of our nervous system, diverting energy away from our bodies innate healing functions. Switching our emphasis to relaxation, mindfulness and breathing supports physiological healing by triggering the “rest and digest” function of our parasympathetic nervous system.
As a yoga teacher I agree with J. Brown founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY – there is no gain with pain. As Brown writes in the popular yoga blog Yoga Dork “In my experience, forever taking the body to its “edge” leads to chronic pain down the road.” Brown likens growth in yoga to growth in plants. “Watering a plant more does not necessarily make it grow faster or better. In fact, over watering plants will kill them.”
By ‘reframing’ the idea that yoga is hard, we can use our practice to achieve better health. We can direct our body’s energy away from stress, towards repair and regeneration. Yoga isn’t about dominating the body, its about breathing in and letting the divine power that animates life flow through you.
That’s why my current approach to yoga, as Patanjali advised, is to find the balance between ease and effort. This means surrendering our clenched jaws and over straining muscles and pulling ourselves back from our utmost edge, to find our breath. It means relinquishing our litany of not strong enough, not flexible enough, not good enough and turning our focus towards finding the sweet spot where the energy flows. But ultimately, it’s about falling backwards and believing the universe is there to catch you.