“Challenge serves beautifully to introduce you to your best—and most brilliant—self.” Robin Sharma
Yoga is no one-trick pony.
When you get into the rhythm of a regular practice, you’ll find that morning stiffness is a thing of the past and that your mind is a much friendlier neighbourhood to spend time in but it can also provide you with challenges if that is what you need. After all, a challenge is just something you don’t know you can do yet.
One way that you can sharpen your sword in yoga is to practice balancing poses—arm balances, one-legged standing balances and complex, twists.
Challenging yourself on the mat has innumerable benefits for your body and mind and you’ll find that these rewards transfer into other areas of your life.
Taking on challenges feels good
“Problems are adventures in disguise.” Steve Chandler
One reason that you know doing hard things is good for you is that it feels good. Not in an ice-cold-beer-or-tub-of-Ben-and-Jerry's-momentary-pleasure kind of a way, but in a way that is sustained and that genuinely makes you feel good about yourself. Tackling a difficult task is absorbing and stimulating and the pay-off for discovering that you can achieve something that you didn’t know was possible can be euphoric.
We are wired to enjoy doing hard things because it gives us an evolutionary advantage. It’s only when we push ourselves to our limits that we grow. The technical term for this process of growth as a response to stress is hormesis and we see it right across the natural world.
What doesn’t kill you
“Challenge is the grindstone by which you sharpen the sword of your spirit so that you can become greater, become stronger.” Aubrey Marcus
Hormesis is the process that explains how growth takes place as an adaptive response to stress. Let’s take lifting weights as an example. Resistance training actually causes micro-tears in the muscle fibres. This damage signals to the body that, during repair, it must adapt the muscles to better handle this level of stress in the future. We can see the same process taking place in superfoods like blueberries, broccoli and turmeric. These health-food powerhouses contain mild toxic compounds called phytochemicals (anthocyanins, sulforaphane and curcumin respectively) that bolster our immune systems by adhering to the same principle—that stress activates an adaptive response.
It’s just not possible to improve our performance in any area of life if we are stuck, continually repeating the same patterns.
Doing difficult things builds your self-efficacy
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” Henry Ford
For me, the best thing about taking on new challenges is that it boosts your self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the term coined in the 1970s, by psychologist Albert Bandura, to describe your belief in your ability to achieve your goals. After all, how can you possibly know whether something is achievable or not if you even haven’t tried it yet?
We have a lot of limiting beliefs around our yoga abilities. “I'm not flexible enough, strong enough. I'm too old, my legs are too short.” Having the courage to try new poses will show you that you are far more capable than you realised, and this will encourage you to take on increasingly difficult challenges and continue to expand the sphere of what's possible.
Just be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.
Finding the sweet-spot
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.” Michelangelo
Perhaps I should take a moment to define my terms. I am by no means suggesting that you drop everything, buy a parachute and find your nearest skydiving school. What I am recommending is incremental and sustained growth. The trick is to take on a challenge that is almost, but not quite, out of your reach—and then to titrate up slowly from there. In yoga, there is always a way to modify the pose, so don’t get cavalier, miss out the middle 5 steps and jump straight into Half-Twisted-Balancing-One-Armed-Scorpion.
There is a fine line between challenging and overwhelming. The key to continuous progression is to keep putting yourself just outside of your comfort zone.
When you stumble make it part of the dance
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” Confucius
Dan Coyle, in his book, The Talent Code, argues that when you’re engaged in activities designed to improve your performance, you only want to be successful in 50-80% of your attempts. Less than that and you’ll get frustrated; more and you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. By my calculations that means that failure is a requirement for growth. So when you do inevitably fall out of a pose, don’t sweat it. This is actually a sign that you're doing it right. Take a moment to centre yourself and then get straight back into the pose.
As one of my teachers used to tell me every time I toppled out of Tree pose, “mistake make better.”
There are so many different ways you can go with this topic so I’d love to hear your thoughts.