Why 'staying comfortable' isn't always your best option
‘Stay comfortable’ is an instruction that I use a lot in class. My intention is to draw you away from our cultural habit of aggressively pushing through and beyond your natural range. But it’s not completely the best approach. It’s too general.
So why would you want to move into a practice that’s uncomfortable – physically, mentally or emotionally?
The why is important
Ok. Lots of people ask me how they can touch their toes. I say bend your knees and you’ll touch your toes. Then they roll their eyes at me.
Why do you want to touch your toes with straight legs?
Because I can’t do that right now.
I guess you can’t ride a unicycle either.* So why is touching your toes so important? (or substitute any physical posture of choice – splits, headstand, peacock pose)
Often replies get a little shaky after that, but the why is important to your yoga practice.
Consider what will you gain or benefit from being able to touch your toes. Here are some suggestions, feel free to add in your own perspective…
A sense of satisfaction that you’ve achieved a goal (if this was about performing the splits or other extreme postures, you might also consider what physical cost there might be to that achievement)
Feeling that you’ve somehow recaptured your youth or rolled back your age (you could be on to something there – but see the next point…)
You’ve increased your range of movement (note: R.O.M has an optimal range – not too little and not too much)
You feel you can share your awesome picture perfect pose on instagram (sure, share away, but it’s absolutely nothing to do with your yoga practice)
You’ll be able to move around more freely, pick stuff up from the floor and reach to look after the health of your feet
With the last point, I feel we’re getting somewhere. Functional movement is important for your health and wellbeing. But there’s an optimum range of movement that needs to be balanced by strength to support your structure and stamina to give you resilience. Stretching further and further and further is not a good functional practice and leaves you prone to injury. Be careful what you wish for!
Moving out of comfortable
You could argue that if sitting on the floor isn’t comfortable, then you should avoid it and just sit on a chair using my ‘stay comfortable’ instruction.
But that’s not a great idea.
Getting down, sitting on the floor and getting back up is a fundamental movement for your body. Should you push through agony to do it? No. But you shouldn’t just write that movement off either.
What happens if you fall over? How will you get up? What if you keep avoiding more and more movements and positions that have become a challenge? Your repertoire of movement shrinks. You do less and less. Your world shrinks.
The journey towards…
Begin with actions and strengthening that take you towards the movement you want to restore or improve.
Get up from a chair using the power of your legs rather than your hands to build strength
Sit on different chairs – a lower chair, a stool without a back, an exercise ball, a pile of cushions to experiment gradually with a different range for your joints
Stretch your calves, swing your legs, walk with good form to free joint space
Play with ‘curtsey’ kind of movements, little squats and the yoga chair posture to build strength
Get to sitting on the floor using a chair seat to support you on the way down and back up so your nervous system gets used to that movement
You could make the same journey in small steps towards any posture. But first, ask yourself why do I need this posture? What are the benefits? Are there any downsides?
Sometimes the physical posture will move you into a place that’s mentally or emotionally uncomfortable too. This is when people often suddenly need the toilet in class! So be kind to yourself. Maybe you try a tiny version, or something that moves you safely in that direction so you can take baby steps there while your nervous system stays calm. It’s a useful skill for situations in the world off your mat too :-)
Think about the why when you’re doing any yoga practice. Is down dog to stretch your legs? Release your shoulders? Help you to feel comfortable with being upside down? Getting a fresh perspective? Helping you move towards a handstand? Strengthening your arms? Softening and relaxing your nervous system? Learning to breathe when you're feeling a little anxious? Your choice… Your why will change the way that you do the posture.
Where will you experiment outside of ‘comfortable’ this week?
*(actually I do know quite a few people who can ride a unicycle)