When I had just turned sixteen, my dad drove me down the street from our house, maybe a one mile distance, to the corner of Spring St. and Pine St., where there was a mostly empty parking lot. Then we both got out of the car, he handed me the keys, and I got into the driver's seat of the car for the first time.
I remember the surprise I felt when I pressed the gas pedal and the car started to move! I drove the length of maybe 5 parking spaces and shouted "Whoa!!" and my dad said "Brakes!" and I braked. We cracked up for a minute, and then my dad took advantage of the teaching moment. He made an excellent point which I will always remember. He said, "Next time, when you feel like saying 'whoa', what you should do instead of saying 'whoa' is use the brakes."
This was my first driving lesson: gas pedal and brakes.
(Later in the day, I drove on the actual road out in Haydenville, a teeny Massachusetts town with a population of barely a thousand, and I got pulled over by the one cop in Haydenville for "erratic driving." I told her somewhat tearfully that it was "my first time," while my dad helpfully pulled out the license and registration, and she kept a mostly straight face when she told me to "keep practicing.")
In yoga, I think, we need to learn the same lessons. I don't mean the bit about erratic driving (although if you flail about too much at certain studios, you might get in trouble with the yoga cops). I mean the lesson about the gas pedal and the brakes. In every posture, in every moment of the class, you can chose to hit the gas and expend more effort or you can chose to hit the brakes and do less. Your job - and it really is your job, ultimately - is to figure out which of these two things to do and how to do it.
It's easy to see the two big mistakes that students can make. Some students come in and drive with the gas pedal to the floor for the whole class. You know these people - the ones who come in and turn really red and breathe like they're playing rugby for the whole class. (Bless them. We've got a guy like this who is improving by leaps and bounds and I love him to pieces, in a purely professional way.) This is the yoga equivalent of the guy who weaves in and out of traffic, tailgates all the time, and tries to go as fast a possible - and yet you still notice that he gets stopped at the same red light as you do. For all his extra effort and gas, he doesn't really gain anything.
Then you have the students who are riding their brakes, or maybe they just can't find the gas pedal. These are the ones who somehow flop through the whole class without contracting a single muscle. This is the yoga equivalent of the old lady who drives at 45 miles per hour in the right lane on the freeway. Totally oblivious. Relatively safe, but there's not much actually happening.
Those are the most general and obvious cases, but the differences can be much more subtle. In my last post, when I was talking about doing "less", I used the example of pranayama breathing. For someone who is nice and healthy, there is no problem with pushing the head way back (as long as the spine is straight) - it's a fine time to use the gas pedal. But for someone with neck pain, the exercise should be done to tolerance, so that it is uncomfortable but not horribly painful. The person with neck pain might have to step on her brakes.
Even for just you, from day to day, you have to make judgments about how to drive your body. For me, when I am feeling really great, I can go through the class giving 110% and feel great at the end. (That's an efficient 110% - no heavy rugby breathing.) But this week, I tweaked my back a little bit, something way down by the sacrum. Don't know what I did, but it really kinda hurt. So I pulled my practice back to like 70%. I took out the sit-ups (which annoyed me for about 10 minutes), went slow in the warm-up, and did good spine strengthening series and camel pose but really wimpy forward stretching. And after three days - which is nothing, really - I'm nearly as good as new. That's because I knew that I had to lay off the gas pedal and just coast for a bit. If I had tried to power through the class, I suspect that I'd have been hurting for much longer.
I love when I can coast my car along the freeway - no brakes, just a little gas as needed - because it is the most efficient way to drive. (I mean, gas looks like it'll be up at $4 a gallon for the whole summer - it's expensive to be an inefficient driver, even if I am using my miles as tax deductions!) And really, when you get the hang of this yoga stuff, that's what a really good practice feels like: it is absolutely efficient. No effort is wasted - none of that nonsense where you floor the gas pedal for one block, then slam the brakes all of a sudden when you come upon a stop sign. No, you put the effort exactly where you need it, no more and no less. In the beginning parts of standing head to knee, the effort goes into the legs and the stomach, and hardly anywhere else - face relaxed, breathing relaxed. That's why your teachers can do standing head to knee and have a chat with you at the same time, if they want to. (Isn't that annoying?) It's all about efficiency. Fuel economy.
Just remember. The first lesson of driving a car: here is the gas pedal and here are the brakes. And unless you learn how to use both of them properly, you'll have trouble getting very far.
Even in Haydenville.