“In the last few months since I became a yoga teacher and strongly intensified my own personal practice, I’ve been turning over an important question in my yoga brain: how do you strike the perfect balance between practice and rest? Is there such a thing as “too much” practice? Finding the equilibrium is a really vital aspect of cultivating your practice to ensure you don’t fall into one of two extremes: either not challenging yourself adequately and not reaping the full benefits of yoga, or pushing yourself too far and completely exhausting yourself.
As with any yoga dilemma, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer some guidance and wisdom on this matter. Once you grasp a basic understanding of the Sutras, you learn that two of the “eight limbs” of Ashtanga Yoga are concepts called Yamas and Niyamas – basically, how you treat and respect others, and how you treat and respect yourself. These are then divided into subcategories of behavioural rules that you strive to achieve in order to be a complete yogi.
“Ahimsa” is the first Yama and translates as “non-violence.” Of course, this means showing compassion to those around you, but yogis also like to use it to mean being gentle with themselves. There is no point in beating yourself up if you can’t do a posture just yet. Take the time to build up to it slowly, letting your body gradually absorb the little changes. I think taking rest days away from practice is also an important part of Ahimsa. It’s your own responsibility to be non-violent towards yourself and part of this is acknowledging when your body might need an extra hour in bed rather than more practice.
This is where we meet an interesting conflict, in my opinion, in Patanjali’s Sutras. Because when we get to the Niyamas, we learn of “Tapas”, which means maintaining passion and enthusiasm for practice. I’m also reminded of Sri Pattahbi Jois’ famous saying that yoga is “99% Practice – 1% Theory.” Clearly, we need to remember Ahimsa, but we also need to ensure we are practising often enough and keeping up a level of determination in order to call ourselves yogis.
For a contemporary view on Tapas, you need only to log into Instagram to see the Instayoga world awash with hashtags such as “yoga every damn day” or “practice practice practice”, encouraging us to make no excuses when it comes to getting on our mats. Stuck at an airport for 24 hours as you travel, weary and jet-lagged, across the world? Struggling with a cold and a fever? It doesn’t matter, many of the famous yogis on Instagram tell us. You still get on your mat, do a perfect arm balance, and look flawless in the process.
So where is the balance? How do we know when our body truly needs rest, without simply letting our practice slip or neglecting it? How can we ensure that we are on the mat often enough to see real development, but not so often as to become obsessive and potentially harmful?
I am aware that I have a personal tendency towards the second of the two camps. When I get really into something, as I have with yoga, I thrive off pushing myself and setting myself personal challenges. I take after my mother, who displayed a similar attitude when she became hooked on running thirty years ago, and who recognised the pattern and called me last week to remind me to take a day off and rest. I told her I didn’t want to – after all, I feel better and happier on the days when I do do yoga than on the days when I don’t. But, and it pains me to say this, I think she may have been right.
I don’t have any magic answers or a go-to guide on how to find the ideal balance of practice and rest. But I think I’ve learned something really valuable that sounds simple but can’t be underestimated: listen to your body. Tune into what it truly needs that day. If you’re itching to do a Full Primary Series, that’s awesome – go for it and you’re bound to feel amazing afterwards. But if you wake up and every muscle is aching and fatigued, as is bound to happen some days if you’re practising regularly, then find an alternative method that allows your body to rest. Savour a gentle Yin practice, read up on some yoga literature, or practise your Sanskrit chanting. Or even, dare I say it, take a whole day off yoga completely. Your body might actually thank you for it the next day when you do get back on your mat. I won’t tell the yogis on Instagram if you don’t.”
You can find Jenn practicing in the morning Mysore room, or you can check out her classes right here.