When I was studying Ayurveda, there was one concept in particular that stuck with me, and has guided a lot of my intuition about my own health and self-care routines. The idea is a simple image: think of an inner flame that burns quietly and constantly, held close to the center of our bodies in our digestive area. This flame burns through our entire life, and represents our life force in a way. Our overall health can be measured by the quality of how this fire burns.
In Ayurveda, the work of self care involves balancing the 3 main energies, which are known as Kapha, Pitta and Vata. If we get too distracted (one aspect of Vata imbalance) its like too much wind on our fire: it gets smoky, flickering, and has trouble burning brightly or may spread our fire too thin. If we get too muddy (one aspect of Kapha imbalance) its like throwing dirt and water on a fire: we struggle to get enough inspiration and air, and our fire barely burns. If we get too aggressive (one aspect of Pitta imbalance) its like a fire that burns too hot, raging out of control, consuming everything too quickly.
Ayurveda observes these elemental qualities in everything that exists: our bodies, our minds, our food, the seasons, the times of day, the phases of life, etc.
Right now we are in “Vata season”, just coming up on the edge of “Kapha season”. Our healthy little flame is contending with an intense amount of fierce wind, combined with the increasing weight of Kapha’s stagnant mud. Keeping a fire lit can be overwhelming in this atmosphere!
Luckily, there is a concept in Eastern philosophy that points to the way to keep our fire burning, all winter long. It is sometimes called “Right Effort”, or in yoga it is also known as sthira and sukha: the balance of steadiness and ease. It sounds simple enough, but after 20 years of practicing yoga I can tell you that the mastery of yoga does not come from the accomplishment of a specific pose–it comes from learning to integrate the balance of steadiness and ease into all that we do. Our culture has a tendency to be both too hard on ourselves and too soft on ourselves at the same time. We go from piling on the excuses to why we can’t do something we want to do, to admonishing ourselves for not doing it. The mindset that is missing? Right effort.
“…the mastery of yoga does not come from the accomplishment of a specific pose–it comes from learning to integrate the balance of steadiness and ease into all that we do.”
Does this scene sound familiar?
I woke up this morning with the best intentions to go for a run. I put on my gear before dropping my kiddo at school so I would be ready to hit the streets as soon as I returned. Then I got back inside, and started to wonder if I really wanted to go out into that blustery, 38 degree, 12mph wind and scattered showers landscape. What if I just found a way to move my body in my cozy house instead? This is where I am reminded of the children’s book, If you give a mouse a cookie. The first excuse gives way to a mountain of follow up excuses. If I tell myself I will do yoga inside instead of run, then I’m going to need to sweep the floor. Then I’m going to need to download a new yoga video app to my roku. Then I’m going to forget my password. Then I’m going to hem and haw about whether I really want to substitute yoga for cardio, because I prefer a slow and mindful yoga practice. Then I’m going to finally start a class with one of my favorite online teachers, and then my internet is going to slow down and keep stopping the class. Then I’m going to realize that its getting late and I haven’t had breakfast yet and I have a lot of work to do.
Finally, after wasting half an hour on my trail of excuses and diversions, I decided to get outside after all. For about 2 minutes I wondered if I had made the right decision. The cold and wind burned my skin and my resistance had settled in. And then, as always occurs, my internal fire started heating me up and motivating me from the inside out. By half a mile out I was ready to go another mile. By the time I was running against the wind I was laughing at it. By the time I got home, I had done a full run and had to turn off the central heat because I was completely warm and comfortable in my own body. The obstacles, which seemed so huge before I left, evaporated in only a few minutes with the application of “right effort”, but caused me to waste over 30 minutes before I was willing to apply that effort.
I share this story because it is a perfect example of the challenges we face in this season. Vata season made me struggle with indecision and too many possibilities, while Kapha season beckoned me to lay on the couch under a cozy blanket and drink tea instead. When I found the right effort to apply to keeping my fire lit, I got in the flow and everything became easier. We often tell ourselves that we can’t do something because it will be too hard, take too long, cost too much or otherwise burden our resources, but often the real reason is because it will very slightly challenge our comfort zone. The truth is, the thing we are avoiding is often the most efficient decision we can make for our combined resources, that will use the least amount of effort overall. Since becoming a mindset coach, I witness stories every day of people spending way more time, energy and effort on their resistance than they would on the actions they are resisting.
Once we can “get out of our own way”, their is an incredible ease that can come after just a little bit of application of right effort.
I am currently enrolling for a program that I developed around this concept of Right Effort. Its called “The Year Long Yoga Habit”, and it blends group yoga classes with one-on-one coaching and accountability, using mindset shifts, strategy, and the wisdom of yoga to keep discovering the moving line of that balance point between ease and effort. One of the fundamental concepts of my approach (in life, and in this program) is to begin from a place of absolute and unconditional self-love, with no aggression whatsoever. All too often, we think that we need to get aggressive with ourselves in order to get momentum going and meet our goals. That aggression may motivate us for a little while, but inevitably we crash and burn under its brutal heat. Believe it or not, yoga and self-care should actually feel good and enticing-not punitive. As one of my clients brilliantly put it, “I want it to feel like putting on a cozy sweater, not a work uniform”. The way we do this is by building the habits that work for us, and continually checking those habits against the changes in our lives, the seasons, our growth goals, etc. so that we do not become complacent or committed to stagnant habits that no longer serve us.
My intention for those of you who are willing to join me for this pilgrimage, is to create a year of deep and long-lasting transformation, using slow-simmer baby steps, rather than huge sweeping dramatic gestures. There is a saying that we vastly overestimate what we can do in a day, but vastly underestimate what we can do in a year.
Join me to find out just how far you can go with just the right amount of effort this year!
Kate Holly is a Yoga therapist, Life coach, and founder of Yoga Refuge and the teacher training program, Yoga Conservatory. Want to chat with her directly? Schedule a free consult!