Focus & "In-Tense-Ity" in Yoga

Metaphors for life are often found in our yoga practice, and those of us who come to yoga stiff or weak, are only too familiar with “confronting our edges”.

In most urban, contemporary societies, we are frequently exposed to confrontation – in our environments, in our relationships, in our jobs…. the list goes on. Our success in dealing with confrontation, and the stress it generates, depends on our ability to recognize and adjust to what presents itself in those situations. Often, it is easy to avoid dealing with confrontation until a certain level of intensity is reached, where we can no longer avoid it and are forced to address that which stands in our way. 

When our tools for dealing with confrontation are overwhelmed and what we perceive as our very nature becomes threatened, our life “systems” begin to contract - mentally, emotionally and physically. If ignored for too long, this contraction can color the way we perceive our “reality” and what is very unnatural to a healthy body begins to seem natural. Because this process occurs over extended periods of time, like the aging process, we often lack the awareness that it is happening until we are beyond simple fixes.

With recognition though, this contraction can be utilized for another purpose, which is to create the “in-tense(ness)” necessary to overcome the distortions in perception and regain a more wholesome perspective - we don’t have to look very far to remove the film that colors our perceptions. If we work systematically in responding to that which is found in limitations, our view of confrontation changes from that which we would normally seek to avoid to that which is a useful, often necessary, component of growth.

Consider the beginner’s approach to difficult poses, even relatively simple ones that challenge flexibility, balance or strength. Poses like these take our attention directly into areas of our body that are unfamiliar, painful, and/or unresponsive. This is often confronting. For stiff people, it is learning how to work with pain, which is often intense, in order to remove the obstructions found in tight muscles or joints. Typically, it is associated with movement where previously no movement existed or was extremely limited. For the weak or overly flexible, it is learning how to work without overworking, to create the support or resistance necessary to bring about the subtle movement of energy in the body to build the necessary stamina or strength. 

It is a common experience for both the overly flexible and the stiff, to question why it is we lack movement or feeling in these areas in the first place, and to wonder if there will ever come a day when it could be any different. This is the beauty of confrontation found in yoga, where opposites attract, and working simultaneously with effort and non-effort is a very important lesson to learn.

With many of the asanas a beginner tackles for the first time, it is a common experience to struggle with opposing forces of particular actions found in a pose. Attempting to relax tight muscles is not easy when we are receiving a steady stream (or scream) of more demanding messages in the seemingly undecipherable language of pain. It can feel like the very resistance we experience has been protecting us from injury or “overdoing” something, and to surrender into this discomfort would be unwise. Likewise, working in a pose with weak muscles, to stay in the pose, to dig a little deeper, even for one more breath, seems against all of the yogic principles of non-violence (ahimsa) and the anxiety that this can produce is real, where fatigue (mental and physical) seem to threaten your very existence, and ever cell in your body is convinced that you’re approaching an injury or near-death experience. 

By it’s very nature though, Hatha Yoga takes us on a confrontational journey which can produce the awareness required to overcome ingrained resistance and penetrate the dense matter of our consciousness. For those with chronically tight or weak muscles, the correct practice of asana with conscious breathing forces the mind into a very alert state, and very quickly fills the “gaps” typically found in a beginner’s attention. This is a very important place to be. In it, we are given an opportunity to feel the power of this situation physically, to observe the dynamics of stress in an intense environment, and to overcome the mental or emotional struggle inherent in that predicament. Of course, entering these situations in your practice requires a little preparation, and in the event of any pre-existing conditions, working with an experience teacher who can suggest modifications to challenging poses will be beneficial and highly recommended. 

However, once you become familiar with your edge to gaze at what lies beyond, having a guide will only be a distraction, until you reach back inside yourself for guidance, towards your “inner teacher”.

That path, once mastered, prepares the understanding necessary for the more advanced practices of yoga and meditation, where with patient, persistent effort, mental focus is strengthened and confidence is built as the confrontation found initially transforms into intelligence and wisdom. 


Ps headshot 2012
Peter Sterios is an internationally recognized teacher based in San Luis Obispo, California. His video Gravity & Grace, placed in Yoga Journal’s “top 15 yoga DVDs of all time” (2008). He founded Manduka Yoga Products (1997), writes for various publications (Yoga Journal, elephant Journal, Yoga Magazine (UK), Yoganonymous, and Huffington Post), and for three years, taught yoga at the White H...READ MORE