When it comes to reducing the stress in our lives, finding a ‘work-life balance’ is often suggested as the magic solution. But is it? David Dodd looks at how yoga can help us to reframe this challenge.
Shifting the focus
We are often encouraged to ‘get our work-life balance right’ to manage our stress levels. However, many of us struggle with this. For one thing the separation between “work” and “non-work” is less clear for many of us these days. But for the majority of people I have worked with as a coach and yoga teacher, the primary reason why this idea doesn’t work is that our life outside of “work” quickly fills up with other tasks and activities too. We are left with little time to just be.
Yoga offers us an alternative way of framing this challenge: instead of searching for ‘work-life balance’ yoga teaches us to explore the balance between being and doing.
This idea is at the heart of both our yoga practice on our mats, and of taking our yoga into our lives as a whole. The Yoga Sutras – which is considered by many to be one of the definitive guides to yoga – is a text of around 200 verses. Of these only two refer directly to the practice of asana, or the physical postures of yoga. The first of these gives the definition of yoga asana: yoga pose is a steady and comfortable position.
The balance between doing and being
The essence of our yoga on the mat is to rise to the invitation to explore and find some sort of balance between action or doing (steadiness) and non-action or being (comfort) in each posture and whatever the form of yoga we are engaging in.
The second verse on asana in the Yoga Sutras gives us instruction on how to do this:
- It tells us to ease off a little on the effort we put in; in particular, we let go of trying to get somewhere and we engage in the practice for the sake of practice.
- It tells us to pay attention to our breath; we notice when our breath becomes restless or short and we grow our ability to practise in a way that the breath remains smooth and easy.
- It tells us to shift our perspective from the physical body to the breath; we allow our breath to guide our movements on our mats.
Breaking it down
Now let’s look at how these three instructions – and the experience we gain from practise on our mats – translate to our life as a whole. Here are three strategies derived directly from these instructions that empower us to shift from finding ‘work-life balance’ to exploring the balance between doing and being. This new balance can radically lower our experience of stress.
1. Ease off. Let go of the fruits of our actions
One of the main factors that drives stress is that we have become chronic ‘doing’ machines. We ‘do’ all the time; we do with our physical bodies, we do with our minds, and we do with our hearts. And our doing is characterized by a focus on results simply because most of us are embedded in very results focused societies: we do to get somewhere, to achieve something, and our success is measured by our achievements.
This Easing Off strategy is emphatically not one of being inactive or not caring about what happens! Rather it is one of aiming – setting our intention – and then acting, without clinging on to whether or not we get those results. With this attitude, we experience that in many situations the results materialize anyway but with a lot less stress along the way. The challenge for each of us is to find some actions or scenarios in our lives – in the workplace or outside – to start to employ this attitude. We then learn as we go along and expand this to new actions.
2. Allow time for rest; time for just being
Most of lead quite sedentary lives. We sit a lot both in the workplace and outside. We are not doing the intense physical activity that results in restlessness and short breath. However, even without physical effort our chronic doing impacts our breathing: we hold our breath when typing on our computer keyboards or mobile screens, or we get caught up in shallow chest breathing when interacting with others. As a result, we sustain a stress reaction.
One low threshold way of implementing this second strategy is to take a few moments to just breathe throughout your day. Sit upright, allow the weight of your upper body to fall through your sitting bones and use this support to let a feeling of space and lightness infuse the upper body. Bring your attention to your breath and allow the breath to just happen. The magic is that as we allow the breath to just happen the breath returns to its natural easy rhythm and loosens us from any experience of stress.
3. Allow Being to infuse all our Doing
Our practice of yoga postures on our mats is practice for life. Simply because we always find ourselves in some sort of posture. Our postures on our mats serve many purposes: they grow our strength and flexibility; they directly loosen us from stress; they may support us in addressing a particular ailment or injury. Above all, they support us in developing an internal posture that is conducive to yoga on our mats and off our mats in our worlds: they grow our ability to explore and find balance in all sorts of situations.
This third strategy means that, whatever else we happen to be doing at that moment, we grow our ability to continually check in with our breath and to allow our doing to happen within smooth and restful breathing. When we start (and this may mean for several years or quite possibly the rest of our lives) this means consciously and regularly monitoring our breath. Whether we are typing or in interactions with others we continually ask ourselves ‘how is my breath?’ Over time, this conscious attention may become less necessary as we sink into this way of doing within being.
These three strategies work. They are simple although not necessarily easy. The challenge for each of us is to find the space to formulate the right intentions in our specific situation, to act on those intentions, and then to allow the space for the magic to happen.