The Eustress and Distress of Advanced Asana Practice:
A Scriptural Perspective
1) The Eustress and Distress Zones
Physical exercise is characterized by eustress (constructive stress) and distress (destructive stress). This is illustrated through the graph shown to the left which is a plot of the benefit one gets from a physical activity versus the effort that one puts into that activity.
Clearly there is a point at which increasing the effort any further gives diminishing returns. This is indicated by the leftmost dashed line. This is the limit of the eustress zone. There is yet another point (shown by the second dashed line) beyond which any extra effort is harmful. This zone is the distress zone.
The eustress-distress concept is very true of Asana practice also even though asanas, when correctly practiced, operate at the more subtle level of the Prana. While it is not surprising to see people punishing their bodies in boot camp programs in gyms in the hope of losing weight and/or gaining muscle mass, it would surprise some people that this kind of punishment, operating well beyond the eustress zone, also happens in yoga asanas, which are perceived by the general public as having a spiritual connotation or as "gentle stretching exercises".
2) Operation in the distress zone in yoga
In no form of yoga is operating in the distress zone more prominent than in trademarked sequence based forms of advanced yoga like the Bikram yoga and the Ashtanga yoga systems. In these systems people are expected to follow a certain sequence of asanas with modifications generally discouraged (and only allowed when there are injuries) and skipping painful or difficult poses, a taboo. An important point to note about the graph shown above is that both the eustress and distress zones vary from one person to another and also with age, injury status etc. This means that a very strict standardization of asana practice does not make much sense other than for the so called "lineage holders" to keep a tight control over the system and also for the ease of globalizing the practice so that one can walk from one studio to another and seamlessly do the practice.
There are several advantages of following a sequence, however, because it establishes a routine which is more important than anything else when one starts a regular asana practice. More details on the pros and cons of a sequence can be found in section 8 of the article titled "Removing the shroud of mystery surrounding ashtanga yoga practice" and in section 1 of this article titled, "Knowing the rules of yoga well to break them correctly".
There are many reasons for people to operate in the distress zone during asana practice. The reasons for doing so can be a desire for :
i) Losing weight and gaining muscle,
ii) Gaining self esteem and a sense of accomplishment, or,
iii) Connection with others through posting pictures in social media, or,
iv) Self mortification in the hopes of burning away one's karmic stockpile.
While the innate motive behind the aforementioned reasons is noble, it can come at a high cost. Sometimes, people operate in the distress zone just because they are told to do so by a strict teacher. This is discussed next.
Kapotasana, in a led intermediate series Ashtanga Yoga class, often nicknamed 'Nightmareasana'. It is a pose that needs to be approached with respect and concentration
Navasana, in a led primary series Ashtanga Yoga class, which is done 5 times for 5 slow breaths, enough for one's abs to scream in agony
The primary series of Ashtanga yoga. Though called the primary series, it is long and relentlessly interposes advanced poses till the end. It is adequate to reap all the benefits of yoga
3) Incorrect understanding of the ancient yogic scriptures
What makes the shortcomings of some of these yoga systems, like the Ashtanga yoga system, more difficult to catch, is that some teachers and practitioners, who swear by the effectiveness of this system, say that it is an ancient time-proven tradition, in accordance with the scriptures and should not be modified. Most likely, such people have little understanding of the scriptures and quite likely have not read them either. What abiding by time-tested tradition means, according to such people, is even if one's body and mind scream in agony in a notoriously difficult pose such as Kapotasana, one has to go through the pain and anguish for months or even years till one has perfected the pose before moving on to other poses. Such people incorrectly quote this agony as Tapas or austerity, one of the ingredients of the 8 limbs of yoga called Niyama. (Please see the article "The many dimensions of Ahimsa and Tapas in our Asana practice"). The next section clarifies what proper austerity is according to yogic scriptures.
4) Perspectives on tapas and self-mortification from one of the greatest yogic texts -The Bhagavad Gita
Perhaps the most easy to read text on yoga is the Bhagavad Gita. Here Krishna clearly outlines what type of approach to life and exertion constitutes the right yoga.
Success in Yoga does not come to one who eats too much or too little; or to one who sleeps too much or too little.
Yoga becomes the destroyer of pain for he who is moderate in eating, recreation, exertion in actions and in sleep
Krishna, then talks about the incorrect and correct kind of tapas.
Austerity that is performed with ostentation for the sake of gaining honor, respect, and adoration is Rajasik (the mode of passion). Its benefits are unstable and transitory.
Austerity that is performed by those with confused notions, and which involves torturing the self or harming others, is described as Tamasik (to be in the mode of ignorance).
When devout persons with ardent faith practice these three-fold austerities without yearning for material rewards, they are designated as Satvik austerities (to be in the mode of goodness).
5) Walking the razor-thin edge between ecstacy and torment
In many asanas, especially advanced asanas, the region between ecstacy and torment becomes razor thin for most people. When the desire to do a pose is burning deep within, the bandhas are strongly engaged and there is no fear, there is often ecstacy in these deep advanced asanas, because there is release of built-up stress. However, when one feels that one has to force one's body to do a pose merely due to obligation to reach a certain goal or one has been forced to do so by a teacher, then there is no coordination in the body and the bandhas are not engaged. This induces suffering. The mindset very often becomes important in doing advanced poses and approaching advanced asanas with a spiritual mindset is often the key to reaping their benefits.
In this article I hope to have shed some light from scriptures on why to loosen up some of the rigidity in advanced yoga systems, such as the Ashtanga Yoga, that result in actions that are sometimes counterproductive and result in physical and mental distress.