Challenge without Strain?

Can you have a challenge without strain?

Photo by Luemen Rutkowski on Unsplash

Recently while holding a pose in yoga class, the teacher mentioned that you should feel challenged without strain. I wondered about these two words. I used to think a challenge had to come with strain. There was no other option. How do you separate the two? Can you separate these ideas? The practice of yoga and meditation has helped me to discover that yes in fact you can separate challenge and strain. 

Challenge and strain are two different things that sometimes co-exist. Challenge is defined as something new and difficult that requires great effort by Meriam Webster’s dictionary. Strain is defined as stretching to maximum extension and tautness, to injure by overuse, misuse, or excessive pressure. 

Growing up in an immigrant family, I was taught that challenge and strain were inextricably connected. If something was difficult and arduous then it was worthwhile. I went to a demanding high school that was a struggle for me. I studied almost every night until the wee hours of the morning. My parents were proud of this and put great value on this endless stream of work. Other students at the school spoke about the hours they studied, almost bragging, and sometimes even came to school sick for exams. They prioritized achievement over their well-being. This was a true example of a challenge with strain. I was doing something difficult, using great effort, and applying excessive pressure on myself which resulted in a lack of sleep and sometimes illness. Was this the right path? Was this the only path? 

As I heard this phrase in yoga class, I was struck by this option that offered a middle path, challenges without strain, and effort with ease. So, I could try something new and difficult and not sacrifice a sense of well-being. I could hold this demanding yoga pose and feel good and strong in my body rather than shaking and stressing my muscles to an extreme. I am learning to value this middle path of working hard and embracing a challenge while being aware to watch for strain. 

Now, I am learning to recognize when the challenge turns towards strain rather than growth. Is it a challenge with or without strain?

Challenge Without Strain:

  • Are you learning at this moment?
  • Are you moving towards your goals?
  • Are you feeling stronger?
  • Are you growing?
  • Most importantly…Are you breathing?

Challenge With Strain:

  • Are you exhausted often?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed often?
  • Are you struggling to learn?
  • Are you holding your breath at times or struggling to breathe smoothly?

I believe when strain enters the challenge, the learning and building of knowledge and growth are minimized. I didn’t know this as a high school student spending hours and hours fruitlessly studying and memorizing European History facts. I also did not fully realize this as a young teacher or early in my leadership journey. At that time, I worked and pushed myself to the point of exhaustion. As a woman of color, I feel added pressure to prove myself in my career as competent and capable and feel that I have to work harder than my peers, and this can lead to coupling challenges and strain. I am learning that I can reach my goals, learn from my work, and tackle difficult challenges without total strain and overwhelm. It may take time. It is a balanced approach that works well for me.