Ease and Effort

I just completed my 30-day yoga commitment, and while the physical experience has been front and center, there’s a lot more going on that I’m trying to notice.

I’ve particularly appreciated what I’ve heard about ease and effort from Rolf Gates, a wonderful yoga instructor, substance abuse counselor, ex-Army Ranger, and author. I first met Rolf 20 years ago and he’s still one of my favorite teachers (bonus: he’s now giving excellent live online yoga and meditation classes).

In yoga, and in life, our intention is to be in flow, which Rolf describes as “maximum effort without an ounce of unnecessary effort.”

“Maximum effort, without an ounce of unnecessary effort” requires us to maintain focus, calm and discipline even while engaged in something strenuous. Which is to say: the thing we are doing might be strenuous, but that does not mean that we need to experience strain while doing that thing.

I encourage you to contemplate this profound idea while doing something physically challenging–a yoga pose, a sprint, lifting weights, even just holding your breath for 30 seconds–to see what you discover.

This is another way of describing the integration of ease and effort that is at the heart of yoga. Rolf does a lovely job explaining this in a class I took with him last week:

In life we tend to like the ease of life and we don’t really prefer the effort.

And what we’re taught in our practice is that we need both ease and effort to keep growing.

But we want to organize our life around what we like (and we want that) and what we don’t like (and we don’t want that).

We struggle in this battle, this inner battle: ease good, effort bad.

And what our practice is telling us is that the two things are really the one thing, that we don’t have growth without both.

Needless to say, this is not just about yoga. The yoga poses are simply a chance to explore this idea.

For example, every time I get into an elevator (ah, the good ol’ days) and hear someone say “only 2 more days until Friday,” I’m hearing “ease good, effort bad.”

Of course, work can be hard, and weekends can be wonderful. We need a healthy dose of both to have a balanced life.

But balance doesn’t come just from the right proportion of work and rest. It also comes in a more profound way from our experience of work and rest.

The mindset “ease good, effort bad” is not neutral, not at all. That mindset is not a reflection of our lived experience, it profoundly shapes our lived experience.

If there’s one thing most of us non-essential workers are living during this pandemic, it’s the blending together of “work time” and “free time.” For those of us with families at home, this blending is making it harder to be productive in a traditional sense. For those without families at home, creating boundaries around work can be especially difficult, since our office is just a few feet away. In both cases the division between work and rest has blurred.

This, then, is a golden opportunity to observe our mental model of the duality, “ease good, effort bad.” It is a golden opportunity to explore finding the ease within the effort, and the effort within the ease.

What we find there is at the heart of a much more sustainable long-term strategy for all of us.