The Yoga of Surrender: Tuning Into The Difference Between Strain And Effort

Nicole Markardt

With hands in prayer, I turn my focus inward. As I flow through my first sun salutation, I am a silent observer of my mind and body. The level of self-realization that I experience in this observation is unmatched.

I’m often astonished by how much I learn about myself, my focus, and my energy flow as I observe myself in yoga practice. “Why am I rushing today?” “Why am I straining?”

Tuning in, I focus on audible breath. The sound reminds me to be present and to flow through yoga with acceptance. Time and time again, I’ve observed a never-ending pattern of feeling, as if I have to strain in order to feel.

Effort and strain, however, are not branches of the same tree.

Defining the Difference

Strain is felt in the body as well as the mind. As we flow through our practice, if we are caught up in thoughts of mastery or being better than we were the day before, our body receives those signals and responds accordingly.

Strain is rigid and feels heavy. It’s a form of resistance because we’re not approving or accepting where we are currently. Our body feels this resistance and begins to tighten as, it too, resists. We break a nice sweat and feel as if our effort is strong, but we are not actually expanding.

By tuning into our thoughts and the flow of our body, we are stepping into awareness of the true nature of our intentions and patterns. Strain is beyond effort. It is forceful.

Hold On Loosely

If we are forcing or trying to control an outcome, we are straining. We become attached to results, and our happiness becomes intertwined with over exertion in making things happen. Creating our life experiences does not lie in making things happen.

Creation is more organic. As we uncover our passions and set intentions, we set goals and begin to progress as part of an organic process. This effort is from a place of self-love and the desire to grow, rather than from a place of needing to be different or better.

A forceful approach, however, puts different energy behind our intentions; energy that is abundant in non-acceptance and self-rejection.

While progress in life (and in yoga) is supposed to include discomfort, surrendering to discomfort feels different than pushing ourselves to the point of pain.

In relationships, for example: In an effort to really be seen by someone we love, we may feel discomfort if we feel we aren’t quite there yet. Very often we find that surrendering to this may be more effective than forcing and fighting. Maybe there is a lesson in not feeling seen.

Surrendering to this feeling allows us to properly tune into what we truly crave in relationships. Knowing what we don’t want helps us realize what we DO want. If we keep fighting and straining, we may begin to feel stuck.

Surrender is based on trust, and is never forceful. We breathe through our discomfort and surrender to trust that expansion lies on the other side of this feeling.

Awareness Holds The Key

When there is no longer a rush to be this or that, no more fighting for survival of an identity, there can be relaxation.

It takes work to get to know ourselves completely. Our needs may shift. Our focus may be pointed in a new direction. So the crowning glory in all of this is when you uncover acceptance—when you truly surrender to yourself, you begin to progress and expand.

We may find that our true north is not even in the same vicinity of where it once was. Awareness is the true catalyst for change, and it’s more important than any book with tips and tricks that lead us to transformation (which may actually be causing us to strain).

Awareness of our patterns holds the key to knowing ourselves. We can gain so much insight by tuning into how we approach our practice.

Remembering What Yoga REALLY Is

Indian yogis use yoga as a way to open their stiff bodies to endure long meditation sessions, and connect with their higher selves. Reaching higher consciousness is the ultimate goal. Somehow these sacred philosophies have, at times, been interpreted as drastically different in the West.

For me, yoga is a journey of entering the spaces within (which can often be dark), dissolving the mind, and shifting our learned behavior into more conscious choices. As if we’ve caught a glimpse of our true being, yoga can leave us exhilarated and open.

It takes effort to accept what we uncover about ourselves. Strain is born the moment we feel we should be seeing something different than what is revealed.

Self-realization is the dark side of yoga. I’ve wept on my mat, pressing my face into my towel, in order to muffle the sound of my sobs. I’ve backbended further than I’d ever imagined the metal rod in my spine would allow, and I’ve felt downright angry during intense breath of fire moments.

The self-realization of yoga practice is that we can go ahead and crawl through those dark uncomfortable spaces without any expectation that it should feel different. Effort brought those beautiful or emotionally excruciating moments to me. They were a side effect of surrender—certainly not a side effect of strain.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

~ Bruce Lee