A few years ago, I was taking yoga classes pretty consistently once or twice a week to supplement my running and lifting. The Tuesday morning instructor was everything you hoped and dreamed your yoga teacher would be. She was one of those genuinely wonderful people who radiated joy and warmth and made you feel immediately welcome and at ease. She created a space that invited you in, and she beamed with an energy that you wanted to tuck into your pocket and carry with you for the rest of the day.
One of the things I remember her reinforcing again and again (in addition to encouraging us to make LOUD ujjayi breaths that she could hear from across the room) was to respect where our bodies were on a given day and even at a given time of the day. The class was at 7AM, and most people were still stiff from their slumbers—it wasn’t necessarily the time to force our spines into a full wheel pose. It was heading into the middle of the work week, and most of us were working desk jobs that stiffened our joints and had responsibilities and deadlines that weighed heavily on our minds.
A key message that this instructor sought to bestow upon us was that our bodies will experience natural ups and downs in mobility and strength, that life events and external happenings will lead to ebbs and flows in our potential to manifest our abilities. It would be unrealistic to expect ourselves to get better each and every day, with no steps back.
And certainly it would be unrealistic to expect to improve simultaneously in multiple domains with no occasional steps back. Some of us spent part of the year active in skiing or snowboarding. Others were training for a marathon. Others were getting excited about the powerlifts. Each of these activities, along with our life stresses and work and relationships, contributed to our stress loads and demanded a portion of our recovery pie. When one demand ramps up, the others need to back off.
You Can’t “Win Yoga”
This concept was hard for me to accept. As someone who’s pretty (er, very) competitive, I hated the notion of accepting a step back. Or doing a regression. Or doing anything other than the hardest option available. Even though you can’t “win yoga,” I was damn well going to try, regardless of how I was feeling or what else was going on in my life. Especially if I had been able to do a more advanced variation in the past.
A few years older and (maybe?!) a tiny bit wiser and better able to prioritize, I still struggle with using regressions or even waving the load across a given training week such that I have a harder day and an easier day. If it were up to me, I’d just max out each day. I mean, isn’t that the point? To always do more, be more, do better?
What I failed to understand by myopically focusing on the ultra-short term was that little daily undulations in load, intensity, and performance are natural characteristics of any skill or lift. A single undulation does not change the overall, long-term trend.
The same phenomenon can be observed in other domains. Take Apple’s stock, for example. Even though the overall stock price has grown exponentially over the past 10 years, there are a massive number of peaks and valleys of varying sizes that comprise that overall, upward line.
Imagine if we gave too much attention to that period of time in the red box. We’d worry what had happened, what had gone wrong. Maybe something has gone wrong, and maybe we do need to make a course correction. But before we jump to that conclusion, we would do well to explore alternative explanations (e.g., there was a global market disruption that impacted a multitude of companies). Maybe selling our equity at the first sign of a decline is not the best option and we should hang on for a rebound.
Back to the case of our fitness journeys, perhaps we’ve been hustling hard to improve our overhead presses such that when we practice arm balances our triceps and core are too darned fatigued to hold our bakasana (crow pose) for the same duration that we could in the past. That’s OK. Given all of the inputs in our lives, that’s our best for today. Next week may very well be different, assuming a new set of circumstances (and maybe a few days off from pressing). If we keep our head down and eyes forward, continuing to practice our arm balancing skill despite our perceived drop-off in performance, we will continue to refine our technique and set ourselves up to manifest tangible improvements once our general fatigue subsides.
Resist the Compulsion to Rate or Label Daily Performance
Indeed, the yoga teacher-inspired perspective can be a game changing mental shift that not only prevents us from unfairly beating ourselves up but also keeps us focused and positive and consistent. I often think back to that instructor encouraging us to do what we can when we can, without judgment. Without beating ourselves up for our perceived slip-ups or failures.
I’ve found incredible comfort in embracing each new day with an open mind, exploring where I am physically and emotionally, making good use of my warm up to check in with myself and assess the degree to which I can and should push myself. This isn’t to say that I don’t track my performance or troubleshoot when a given trait that I’m currently prioritizing continues to lag or plateau for several consecutive weeks, but I practice giving myself space to have off days, to recognize the impact of life circumstances on physical performance, and to be OK with certain physical qualities dropping off when I am actively working on different goals.
It is possible to improve multiple qualities in parallel, but you can’t be your best at everything all the time. Nor can you maintain personal bests in a given lift or quality indefinitely. Nor can you expect to be at the top of your game each and every day.
This doesn’t mean you’re not making progress or that your strength has withered away or that your training program is flawed. Rather than battle against the above truths, embrace life’s inherent variability and welcome the practice of checking in with yourself. Practice the daily work of gently, non-judgmentally asking the question, “where is my body today?”