My Circus Life is a weekly livestream in which I share a lesson I learned in my circus activities and how it applies to life and work. Episode 95: High Intensity vs High Impact was such a big topic that I split it into three separate articles. This is part 3.
On Saturday evening, I treated myself to a restorative yoga class at the Three Jewels studio in the East Village.
As I settled in to the class, I was reminded why we so readily chase the busy-ness of doing, why we stay locked in the stress addiction, and why we find it so hard to rest and restore, even though we know it is necessary.
Shallow Work vs Deep Work
12 hours before the yoga class, I took a high-intensity circuit class at Switch Playground. The class at Switch involved rotating through 20 stations, with 2 minutes of intense activity at each station. We switched exercises every 30 seconds. By the end of the class, I was exhausted — not from pushing my muscles to their limits, but from the cognitive effort of switching tasks so frequently.
I hardly had time to get into the exercise before it was time to switch.
Restorative yoga is at the other end of the spectrum.
If Switch Playground was the fitness equivalent of shallow work, restorative yoga is the fitness equivalent of deep work.
In restorative yoga, you spend time setting yourself up in a pose, using bolsters, blocks, and blankets to support you. You spend several minutes in each pose before gently and slowly coming out of the pose and setting up for the next pose. As compared to a typical flow class, a restorative yoga class has very few “stations” (poses), and very little “task switching.”
The point of restorative yoga is to be there for a while, allowing your body to settle into the pose and open up.
On the surface it doesn’t look like or feel like a “workout” in the traditional sense. You are unlikely to sweat. In fact, you may be covered by a blanket. The teacher on Saturday called restorative yoga an hour-long savasana (corpse pose, which is the final resting pose in most yoga classes).
But you’d be mistaken to say this isn’t a workout. In fact, it is one of the hardest workouts of all.
Why Stillness is Hard
What makes restorative yoga difficult is the stillness.
As the body finds stillness, the mind begins to race. As the body settles in and opens into each pose, it creates space. In this space, we often find that the uncomfortable emotions emerge: doubts, fears, shame, blame. The judges and critics. When we create space, we open the door to everything.
All. The. Voices.
And this is when the real work begins.
The work of letting go. The work of surrender. The work of being with it. Whatever it is.
Stillness Requires Strength
Bearing witness to what arises is not always pleasant. In order to move through it, you’ve got to be with it. Staying requires strength. Not the strength that you build through burpees and squat thrusts, but a different set of muscles: presence, compassion, tenderness, curiosity, forgiveness, love.
It is this stillness that we often try to escape through our busyness and our action addiction.
Escape is easier than staying.
That’s why HIIT classes are more popular than restorative yoga classes.
It’s why most people would rather plow through their inbox than sit and struggle in front of the blank screen.
It’s why we allow social media and other distractions to pull us away from what matters.
To be clear, none of this is meant to imply that we don’t also need some HIIT workouts too. But we’ve got that covered. We’ve mastered action. Where we are weak is in building the muscles of stillness.
Restorative yoga, like mindfulness practice, helps us build the strength to surrender and the strength to stay.
Just because you don’t sweat doesn’t mean it’s not a hard workout.