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July 11, 2016

The dialog in many yoga classes addresses the challenges of modern life. We insatiably seek more, so yoga teachers challenge us to find contentment where we are; we have habits of jumping to judgement and resentment, so they instruct us to cultivate compassion; we buzz with stress, so they encourage us to simply let go. In the right context, these instructions are wonderful, healing, and enlightening; however,devout yogis who are constantly bathed in yoga adages risk bouncing to the opposite extremes, which are as dysfunctional as their counterparts: with an overabundance of contentment we become apathetic, with too much compassion we run the risk of enabling unhealthy behavior, and letting go of any and all stress may actually be a form of emotional repression calledspiritual bypass.

The idea thatvirtues are a moderate point between extremes has come up in both Eastern and Western philosophy. The Buddha called this the Middle Way, a moderate pathway between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Aristotle called it the golden mean, the midpoint between excess and deficiency. In a2007 article about virtues by James Lanctot and Justin Irving, the authors give some examples: Discernment is the virtue between foolishness and judgmentalism, humility is the virtue between pride and degradation, and courage is the virtue between cowardice and foolhardiness.

Our yoga practices are the ideal venues to balance out our extremes. For example, those who are overly cautious may benefit from practicing with teachers who encourage them to dance at the edge of fear in arm balances. A risk-taker would likely benefit from practicing with a teacher who focuses on backing off in the interest of healthy alignment.However, change is uncomfortable and we tend to be drawn to practices that are familiar and make us feel good about ourselves. Flexible yogis tend to enjoy teachers who give them plentiful opportunities to drop into splits and blossom into wheel. Strong yogis go for classes ripe with warrior poses, core work, and triple-chaturangas. This may feel amazing for months or even years, but in the long run, avoiding our areas of challenge to indulge only in our gifts is arecipe for physical injury and spiritual stagnation.

Unfortunately when we realize the way we have been practicing has not served us, instead of looking for a moderate alternative, we impulsively strive for the opposite extreme. For example, the yogi who got injured in a free-flowing vinyasa yoga class may switch to a style so rigorous about alignment that there is no room for intuition or expression. This is unsustainable in a different way. This ultimately has a yo-yo effect:we bounce back and forth between extremes looking for that which is good, healthy, right, and pure. To make matters more confusing, there is a guru or expert at every extreme advocate for its merits. For many of us it takes many years—or a lifetime (or more than one lifetime)—of bouncing around to realizethe sweet spot isn’t sexy, or trademarked, or even clearly defined. It’s vague. It’s somewhere in the middle.

The specific practices and techniques will be different for every yogi, but here are four general strategies to find The Middle Way in your practice and break the pattern of bouncing from extreme to extreme:

  1. Explore discomfort (tapas). Proviso: of course it’s okay to practice with teachers you love! That’s part of finding balance.. When you dislike a yoga class or a particular teacher, take time to consider the source of your aversion. There are certainly unskilled and reckless teachers out there, and you are not bound to keep attending unsafe classes. However, if something simply does not resonate with you practice discernment and ask yourself why. No matter the direction, change feels unpleasant. Does practicing with this teacher feel uncomfortable because it’s taking you farther from your golden mean or because it is bringing you closer to it? It is worth considering thatthe teachers who resonate with you the least may be offering what you need the most.
  2. One-on-one instruction (guru). Traditionally,yoga gurus and students had a one-on-one relationship. In modern-day crowded group yoga classes, even the most skilled, experienced teachers cannot always tailor their messages and routines to fit every single student in the room. If you’re feeling out-of-balance in your practice—physically or spiritually—it’s time to get some personalized instruction from someone who can speak to your specific, unique situation.
  3. Self study (svadyaya). Any good yoga teacher will tell you that they are not ultimate guru, nor is anyone else—your real teacher is within. When you are new to the practice you need a teacher for support, but as you become more experienced your wisdom, intuition, and introspection become your compass. Some people take yoga teacher trainings simply to attain the knowledge to inform their own individual practice. It is in a self-guided practice where we may truly explore our areas of imbalance without being distracted by the less-informed messages from an external teacher. With awareness, discipline, patience, and compassion we gradually tread closer and closer to the middle way.
  4. Patience. Finding the middle way isn’t a quick fix; it is not achieved through a single exerted effort. It is a lifelong journey.

Remember, it's about balance. More importantly, you need to be compassionate to yourself and where you are at in the moment.


Written byBarbie Levasseur, San Francisco Bay Area writer, yoga teacher, and mom. 

 Barbie Levasseur