Relaxing while working to the edge: three lessons from yoga

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had chronic muscle tension. It’s caused a good deal of pain, voice hoarseness, and unnecessary stress. One thing that has helped is yoga.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Kevin at YogaSource, has taught me some lessons for outside the studio.

1. Relax while working to the edge: Kevin will guide us into a pose – my favorite is Warrior II – then say, “Where can you now relax? Where can you push the edge without panic?”

I have seen myself and other Valley folks believe that working hard means working panicked. That if you’re sleeping more than three hours a night, drinking less than four cups of coffee per day, and aren’t sweating bullets, you’re not working to your edge. It’s a poisonous belief.

We can sometimes increase short-term productivity with extreme stress, but we suffer mentally and physically. Investors and managers who aren’t satisfied unless you’re stressed are reaping your short-term gains while saddling you with long-term costs.

The mind and body function optimally when there is a reasonable amount of eustress – positive and achievable challenges – than distress. Kevin’s advice has reminded me to identify where my edges are and how to relax to expand them.

2. Stress is perceived challenges minus perceived resources: Kevin reminds us that yoga is super simple because it starts with breath, not Scorpion pose. Yoga sounds mystical and tortuous to novices who envision bending into pretzels. That perceived challenge plus poor flexibility can cause first-timers to quit.

Stress is fascinating because it stems from perception, not reality. Our minds model what might threaten us based on values, beliefs, biases, and memories. In the most popular class at Stanford, Robert Sapolsky’s Bio 150, he notes primates are the only species that literally makes themselves sick with imagined stress. You can see this among yogis who feel the inability to do a split is a mark of failure.

There are two ways to deal with this:

Reduce our perceived challenges. What percentage of our stressors are really dangerous to our welfare? Maybe 5%? Insults, losing things, sports defeats are examples of stressors that are really rounding errors on our welfare, but we perceive as worse because of unhealthy beliefs. “If X says I’m dumb, I’m no good”, “If I lose in soccer, I’m a loser.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people correct these faulty perceptions.  It is the gold standard of therapy with the most scientific evidence of effectiveness.

Increase our perceived resources. Some threats really are serious – cancer, losing a job – but can be managed with coping mechanisms. Cancer patients with strong peer support improve at higher rates. Laid-off workers with a strong network regain employment faster. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels.

Again, many of these solutions don’t increase tangible resources like food or money, but our perceived resources of safety and connectedness.

3. Contentment is not a competition. Most yoga studios have mirrors to help students improve form. Unfortunately this also causes students to compare themselves to others. You’d think men gawking at women in tight spandex is yoga’s most common voyeruism, but it’s really everyone envying the most advanced yogi in the room.

Kevin probably harps the most on this knowing his Silicon Valley audience. “We aren’t competing here, folks.” Some students close their eyes once in a pose to temper the urge to compare. Kevin will lay out levels of difficulty for each pose so that novices can find their own edge instead of adopt someone else’s. For example, here are three levels of backbend:

 

If you haven’t tried yoga, I highly recommend it. If you’re in the Bay Area, YogaSource has been deservedly voted the best studio in the Valley for ten years running. It’s a wonderful community.

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