I’m going to say something a little revolutionary here: it’s possible to work hard without feeling absolutely terrible.
I think our culture gets this confused a lot. We think that if we are working hard, it should feel and look like we are working hard. Furrowed brow, sweat, exertion, maybe some angry noises. Does that sound right to you?
In fact, we’re often rewarded for the appearance of hard work: “Wow, you’ve really been working hard;” “I can see how much effort you’re putting in!” At one point in my banking career, I recall being promoted to management and being told that I was expected to be at the office more than 40 hours a week– even if I wasn’t actually working while I was there. The appearance of working hard was just as important as (maybe even more important than?) the actual results.
I believe that being seen working hard is a virtue that encourages us to exert ourselves unnecessarily. This dynamic is really common at the gym, working with a trainer, and even in the yoga studio.
The thing is, if folks think they should be working hard, or if their trainer, coach or community encourages it– they will screw up their face, open their mouth to breathe, use their whole body and psyche to really push.
It’s true that if we really need to exert a max effort or are trying to break a personal record, we will benefit from using whole-body tension (irradiation). We might have to change our breathing or make an involuntary grunt. The rest of the time, though– it’s possible to work hard without a lot of extra “I’m-working-hard-drama.”
There’s no inherent benefit in starting with tension, grunting, and labored breathing. Even when we’re working our hardest, it’s possible to be relatively calm; to breathe through our nose; and to be using the most efficient muscular actions, rather than gripping everything we’ve got as a knee-jerk reflex. Sure, we might sweat, get our heart rate up, have a hard time holding a conversation, but we don’t have to be really feeling miserable in our bodies.
This “less-effortful effort” can be something that takes time to learn, especially if we’re in the habit of feeling like hard work should feel really hard. For some people, this might mean learning to stop when they’re in pain. I’m not talking about the discomfort of muscle burn, but a range of motion that is painful in your joints or an injury that you’re accustomed to working through. Working through this kind of pain is actually detrimental in most cases. Instead, try working up to the range of motion that feels pain-free. You can still get lots of good work done there.
Learning to nose-breathe during your training is another way to encourage less suffering and calmer affect– and to be more efficient, aerobically. The next time you find yourself “needing” to open your mouth, try slowing down and maintaining nose-breathing instead. Over time, your ability to nose-breathe throughout your practice will increase.
The benefits of working hard without suffering include greater sustainability, greater pleasure, and greater joy in movement. When we have to over-exert, when we have to mouth-breathe, when we feel a sense of urgency in our bodies, we’re outside of our window of capacity. Learning to work within our window of capacity– what our systems are able to tolerate without feeling unsafe or unstable– helps us to expand that window.
For folks with a history of anxiety or trauma, this is a game-changer. It teaches us how to be activated without being out of control; better able to handle difficult situations without needing to freak out. We can work hard mentally and emotionally, firm in our convictions, strong in our boundaries, ready to do what needs to be done– and still feel settled and steady.