Practice is always challenging; some days are more difficult than others. When having a difficult yoga practice, you might have noticed difficulties that include tightness, fatigue, impatience, emotional reactivity, inflammation, shallow or labored breathing, heaviness, unfocused mind, and lack of willpower.
Through repeated encounters with a difficult yoga practice, I have developed a sense of when it is better to cut it short and when to continue and modify. Breath and concentration are the engine of practice. If my breathing is shallow and it feels tedious to concentrate on the breath, then I feel little choice but to cut the practice short. Admittedly, I feel disappointed on these days because I have many experiences of “good” practices that set a positive tone to the day. I reassure myself that I can try again tomorrow. There are some days when I come to the mat tired or agitated assuming practice will be difficult, only to slide into the flow of breath and concentration. I am grateful for the practice on these days. I usually feel better. Whatever I was chewing on seems more manageable. On days when I feel exceptionally tight in surya namaskar and standing postures or I hit a wall in the middle of second series, I sometimes practice the first ½ of primary series to end the practice on a more positive note.
When a difficult yoga practice occurs, my inclination is to understand the causes off the mat. Often there is a multiplicity of causes that collude to make facing the mat difficult. For my job, I often travel, which means sitting in the car or plane, eating less than ideal food, interacting with people for long periods (increasing the noise in my introvert mind), sleeping poorly, and practicing alone in the carpeted hotel room. My practice tends to progressively fall apart over a number of days in this routine. You probably have your own version of these colluding factors. I’ve begun to accept these situations and the difficulties that they cause in practice as largely unavoidable. I might practice 5 Surya A & B, some of standing, or full primary series depending on how I feel and the time available to practice. I do my best and treat these practices as placeholders to maintain the ritual of daily practice.
Through the knowledge that I am going to face the mat in the morning, I’ve consciously and unconsciously modified my habits off of the mat to increase ease and enjoyment in practice. This includes eating earlier and lighter dinners, steering away from avoidable relationship drama, changing media consumption to quiet the mind, giving up alcohol, and choosing a partner who supports practice (and practices beside me everyday). I’ve modified my habits intuitively, through experience, without moral imperatives. Responding to the practice feedback loop has not been an automatic process. I’ve found that it perpetually requires steering off of the mat. It often feels like swimming upstream culturally. I do not always steer well, but the trajectory is positive.
Dedication to regular practice of the Ashtanga asana series over years and decades is a sadhana. It is self-reinforcing feedback loop that has disproportionate affect on your choices and habits off of the mat. The benefits of practice are the carrot. Progressing in difficult asanas and feelings of well-being after practice positively reinforce habits off the mat that make practice more enjoyable. Conversely, a difficult yoga practice is the stick. Regular practice through life’s inevitable variability strengthens the feedback loop. The practice feedback loop steers away from avoidable suffering and towards the positive qualities that practice often invokes: openness, resilience, strength, and stability.