Unhunch your shoulders

On Saturday mornings I do yoga with a truly fantastic teacher. Roman teaches Yoga Synergy, which is, I must say, quite hard work, but he is careful to reinforce the message every session that the most important thing is this: Do not force, do not strain.

Yoga, he says, should leave you feeling better. You should have more energy, walk taller, and have better posture after a class than before. This is not the typical Western approach to exercise, which tends to see it more as a competitive “no pain no gain” style activity. You push as hard as you can. If you’re not hurting, you’re not working hard enough. Push yourself further than the guy next to you. Pain is your FRIEND. Seek it out. Embrace it. Feel the burn.

I am often tempted to prove to myself that I can do more than others in the class. I want to be able to say that I can do the advanced postures. I feel good about myself if I am pushing really hard, approaching the absolute limits of what I can do.

Yet even though I feel good in class, working that way usually leaves me wrecked for the rest of the weekend. Sometimes it leaves me injured. It’s a style of approach that I first recognised years ago when I got into cycling – I’d ride out my front gate, hurtle up the nearest hill as hard as I could, and more often than not turn blue, collapse off the bike and occasionally pass out before I’d made it up the first hill. In those days a long ride was out of the question, because I would burn out in the first ten minutes.

I have to continually remind myself of Roman’s central message: Do not force. Do not strain. And just when we’re in the middle of a difficult posture, giving it all we’ve got, he’ll remind the class to “unhunch your shoulders,” and we’ll discover that we’ve contorted ourselves into positions The Grinch would be proud of, in an effort to really nail that posture. Thereby completely missing the point.

I find I also need to remind myself that Roman’s words apply equally well to everyday life. I am fundamentally bad at pacing myself. I force, strain and hunch my shoulders all day long, rushing at life like a bull at a gate, and often passing out halfway up that first hill. Yet those times when I take a deep breath, make time to meditate, and force myself to stop every now and then, are also the times when I am most effective, productive, and indeed sane.

When I remember to unhunch my shoulders, I can keep going almost indefinitely. That’s a lesson I badly need to apply to my work. I’m tired of passing out on the first hill. I am thinking of asking Roman to let me record him, so that I can make an app that pops up every so often and says “Remember: Do not force, do not strain. And unhunch your shoulders.”

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