Whether you’re completely new to the mat or a seasoned yogi, the practice of yoga – with its seemingly impossible contortions and an elusive sense of inner peace – can feel like a real challenge for many.
If you feel like your experience of yoga isn’t quite matching the serene Instagram snapshots and the tranquility of your local studio’s Instagram posts, it might be helpful to know that yoga is a formidable journey – regardless of your flexibility!
Let’s take a look at:
- More than poses
- Why is yoga so hard?: the body
- Why is yoga so hard?: the mind
More than poses
While your yoga instructor may have shared this insight with you, for those who haven’t heard it, let us clarify a fundamental aspect that underlines the essence of our practice when we step onto the mat: yoga is more than just poses.
Yoga poses are number 3 in his systematization, a deliberate order designed to guide us progressively from the external to the internal realms.
This might be better understood as:
- What not to do (e.g. violence, lying)
- What to do (e.g. cleanliness, self-study)
- Shutting off the senses/turning inwards
- Meditative absorption
Yoga is therefore a lifestyle, rather than a single practice that we leave on the mat. It extends into every facet of life, from personal hygiene to ethical decisions and relationships.
Though many modern, postural teacher trainings use the 8 limbs as a basis for their teachings, Patanjali himself was not really interested in the body at all. By ‘asana’, he meant a comfortable seat in which one could meditate. Not the kind of poses that we practice today.
If you’ve been going to asana classes, you will likely be familiar with Hatha Yoga (which has built the foundations for more modern styles of yoga like Iyengar, Vinyasa, and Ashtanga). But there are more paths than just Hatha or Patanjali’s understanding of yoga, too!
Other paths include:
Why is yoga so hard?: the body
With this perspective in mind, you are now positioned within the comprehensive framework of yoga. It is hopefully more evident that the physical aspect of the practice, or asana, is just a fractional piece of the puzzle.
This realization not only highlights the challenges that might make yoga feel so hard but also provides a profound reality check, emphasizing that yoga’s true depth lies beyond the postures you practice.
Asana is not an end in itself but a means to achieve a more balanced life and become more at peace with ourselves (and maybe even achieve liberation!)
Though, with that being said, let’s first explore why these asanas can be so difficult – as this certainly makes up a large part of a modern yogi’s practice.
A story as old as time: you feel that you need to become more flexible so you sign up for a yoga class with the intention of having a nice little stretch.
Before you know it, your mat is surrounded by fellow yogis, all looking blissed-out, while you’re left wondering if you’ve accidentally signed up for an advanced class of Twister instead.
If staying in one pose feels more like an extreme sport than a spiritual practice, you’re certainly not alone because there are not many other classes that challenge your flexibility quite like yoga.
There is really no single definition for flexibility, it depends on the context. But you could say that flexibility is the ability of a joint, or series of joints, to move beyond the active range of motion (ROM) and into the passive range.
Passive range of motion describes the extent to which a joint can be moved through its full range of motion without active effort, muscle contraction, or using an external force.
There’s a few things to remember here:
- Genetics play a significant role in determining someone’s natural flexibility. Some people are genetically predisposed to be more flexible, while others aren’t
- The shape and structure of our joints can affect their flexibility. Some individuals have joints that allow for a wider range of motion, while others have more restrictive joint structure
- The length of muscles and tendons can vary among individuals. Shorter muscles and tendons can limit our flexibility, making it harder to achieve certain asanas
Aside from the anatomical side of things, research shows that the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, plays a crucial role in controlling muscle length during stretching through a mechanism known as the stretch reflex.
The body detects changes in muscle length during an asana and sends sensory information to the CNS, which then assesses the stretch’s safety and adjusts muscle tension accordingly to prevent overstretching and maintain stability.
The CNS effectively slams on the breaks if it thinks you’re going too far for your body to handle, hence why we get muscle stiffness and discomfort!
Keep at it, regular stretching allows the body to gradually adapt and build tolerance. As a result, your CNS becomes more accustomed to the poses, deeming them safe and permitting increased stretching over time.
Finally – more is not always better! Just because you can go deeper into a stretch, it doesn’t mean you’re ‘better’ or ‘more advanced‘ at yoga.
Mobility has seemingly developed as a buzzword in the health and fitness industry over the past few years especially. But what does it actually mean?
Whilst flexibility is the ability of a joint to move through a ROM passively, mobility is the ability of a joint to move through a ROM actively – as in, the muscles are being contracted in order to move the joint into the position.
This is sometimes called ‘active flexibility’
Yoga asana works with two types of flexibility:
1. Passive flexibility
The muscles are relaxed, utilizing a prop, another person, or gravity and your body’s weight to aid in stretching muscles.
E.g. Paschimottanasana using a strap on your feet to pull your torso closer to the thighs
Another example would be getting so far into Hanumanasana (the splits) that you need to use your hands to get out of it – we’ve moved so far into our passive range we can’t engage our muscles to get out.
This is the understanding of ‘flexibility’ as defined in the first section.
2. Active flexibility
The muscles are contracted. You don’t use assistance in this type of stretching as the opposing muscle is engaged to lengthen the muscle you’re trying to stretch.
E.g. Paschimottanasana with an active hinging from the hips, keeping the spine long, and resting the hands on the floor or legs. The quadriceps, as the prime mover, are contracted in order to lengthen the hamstrings.
This would be considered mobility as described here, because the muscles are being engaged. Another way mobility might be explained is the capacity of a joint to move freely and easily through its full range of motion.
Either way, mobility can be really challenging for both the mind and body. This is especially true for many of us who work at a desk all day, as engaging in limited ranges of movement in daily life can restrict the development of a full spectrum of mobility.
Achieving mobility often involves coordinating the contraction and relaxation of multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This requires neuromuscular coordination, which can be difficult to develop, especially in complex movements.
Furthermore, mobility requires active muscle engagement to move a joint into a specific position. If muscles are weak, tight, or imbalanced, it can hinder the ability to control and move the joint through its full ROM actively.
Why is yoga so hard?: The mind
One thing that can be especially hard for yogis is silence, as it’s one of the rare opportunities that we have to be left alone with our thoughts.
In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, sitting in silence is fairly uncommon. We usually always have some sort of stimulation, whether that’s a podcast, music, the TV, our phones, or other people to keep us company.
Without these stimuli to keep us busy, we can be faced with buried emotions, fears, or anxieties that we may have been avoiding – this can make for a pretty uncomfortable yoga class!
2. Stored trauma
Yoga can bring about emotional release, sometimes in unexpected ways.
As our body opens and relaxes, stored emotions and traumas can surface. Confronting these emotions can be mentally challenging, as it requires facing past experiences that we may have refused to look at.
If an event or life experience causes you to feel unsafe in the present moment, the enduring physical and psychological repercussions of trauma can persist (this is what somatic memory is).
Researchers have observed that trauma retained within somatic memory can manifest as alterations in the biological stress response, meaning that trauma is stored in the body and can show up as physical symptoms even many years later.
Though it’s not physically stored in the muscles and bones, it’s stored in the brain (in our emotional and memory centers) as a constant instinct and need to protect ourselves.
3. Monkey mind
The monkey mind is a Buddhist concept explaining how the mind is characterized by agitation and unpredictability, meaning we have a lack of mastery over our own thoughts. This phenomenon is referred to in yoga as chitta vritti, the fluctuations of the mind.
Similar to the monkey, the mind possesses a natural talent for swiftly changing its focus. (Hence why in one moment you’re thinking about how much your quads are burning in Utkata Konasana and before you know it you’re thinking about your to-do list).
Yoga is a great tool for quietening the constant chatter, restlessness, and distractions that our minds often generate, yet at first it can seem to make it worse.
That’s because it’s probably one of the only times that we are trying to redirect the mind away from distractions and into the present.
Calming the monkey mind is a challenge – it’s also an ongoing process that won’t happen overnight. So be sure to stick at it! Just as physical flexibility and strength improve with practice, so do mental clarity and focus.
More on yoga
If you’d like to explore the different styles of yoga available and see whether one may be a little less challenging for you, take a look at these articles: