When I was a little girl my mother used to say, “If there’s a hard way to do something, Gail will find it.” And she was right. The harder I tried, the better I thought I was doing. One hundred percent was never enough. I gave two hundred percent. It was through the practice of yoga asana that I came face to face with how destructive that behavior actually was. Practicing yoga with a two hundred percent effort was really hard and resulted in injury, after injury, after injury. But instead of easing up, I just kept trying harder because I had confused trying harder with doing my best. I kept it up until one day I heard something inside me say, “CHILL OUT! There’s gotta be an easier way.”
The way I practiced yoga on my mat was indicative of how I was functioning off my mat. Consistently doing things the hard way is not sustainable, and eventually I experienced burn out. Because I tended to take on more than I could comfortably handle, I became resentful. And since I never took a break, I was exhausted. I was clearly not aligned with what was optimal, appropriate, or life enhancing. I was very intense and tense, and I was way out of balance.
As I refined my yoga practice I learned that the intensity I needed to develop was not to be intensely effortful, but to be intensely aware, to be intensely purposeful, and to act as if every movement on my mat was meaningful. In other words, the effort I needed to develop was to be intentional, not to work harder.
As I made the effort to become more intentional in my practice, I learned the difference between doing my best and trying my hardest. I began to realize that trying my hardest was overkill and that doing my best in any given situation, on the mat or off, was all that was required. I became aware that doing my best meant to participate fully, but never with so much effort that I lost my inner smile. On the mat you can tell if you are trying too hard when your breathing becomes labored. Off the mat you can tell if you’re trying too hard if your inner smile is gone. I discovered that when I did my best instead of trying my hardest, I found the delicate balance between effort and ease and I felt empowered. I was happier, too.
It got me to thinking about all the times I’ve done something out of a sense of duty and obligation, without joy – something that I really didn’t want to do because my heart wasn’t in it. Forcing yourself to do something because you think it’s the right thing to do but is devoid of joy is what I call efforting. It’s like preparing a meal you really don’t want to prepare for someone who really doesn’t want to receive it. It’s a lot of hard work, there’s no inner smile, and it can lead to resentment. In contrast, preparing a meal that someone wants to receive with a smile in your heart still requires work, but it is so much easier and so much more fulfilling. This is what I call an offering.
The difference between efforting and offering is not defined by the activity itself. The difference lies in the intention you set for yourself doing the activity, and the attitude with which you approach it. Let’s face it, just as we do postures on the mat that we don’t necessarily enjoy, we are also called to do things off our mats that we would rather not do. It’s a part of life. But when we set an intention for ourselves to do our best instead of trying our hardest, no matter what we are called to do we have made a commitment to do the task with sensitivity and a smile in our hearts.
Instead of doing an unwanted task, or any task for that matter, by forcing yourself to do it with either a negative or a lackluster attitude, make the task an offering. And remember, that what matters most is the offering you make, not the effort you make. When you make an offering your actions are an expression of something deeper than duty and obligation. Your actions become a gift of the heart and you become the offering that others want to receive. It’s so much easier and your inner smile shines brighter, too.