Yoga Rockford: Breaking down the ‘intensity’ of yoga

By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio

Intense” is a word I have been hearing a lot lately when talking with current or prospective students: “Is yoga going to be too intense for me?” or “Man, that was intense!” As with most things, people look at “intensity” through their own filters, viewpoints and judgments, then react in a positive or negative way. So, I have wondered how to respond to these questions and exclamations. Yoga is intense, but we need a way to talk about this intensity without immediate gut reactions getting in the way.

The definition of “intense” can be found as the following: existing in an extreme degree, having or showing a characteristic in extreme degree, marked by or expressive of great zeal, energy, determination or concentration, exhibiting strong feeling or earnestness of purpose, deeply felt.

If we consider yoga in all its eight limbs, we see that it does ask for an extreme amount of commitment and dedication. In the “olden days,” before being taught the now-popularized practices of Asana (postures), a student would need to prove himself in both strict moral precepts (Yamas), such as non-violence and non-coveting, and personal practices (Niyamas), such as celibacy and absolute surrender to a higher power. Today’s “yoga” is approached differently and varies greatly from teacher to teacher. But, even the modern practices of postures (Asana), breathing (Pranayama), relaxation (Pratyahara), and concentration (Dharana) require some amount of intensity for the student to reap the greatest rewards.

The intensity we experience in Asana is unlike that of any other physical exercise. Instead of getting on the treadmill or weight machine and going through motions as we listen to music or watch TV, in Asana, we ask the mind to be involved, to focus and be present. We consciously pay attention to our bodies, fully experiencing every aspect of stiffness and weakness we encounter. These discoveries can elicit immediate positive or negative reactions, but initiate deep transformation and demand from us a determination to continue in spite of the obstacles we face.

Pranayama and Pratyahara, breath-work and the drawing inward of all our external senses, require another level of intense concentration. In our daily lives, our senses are drawn constantly outward, and our breath moves habitually without our awareness. This “normal” process makes it very difficult for the average person to stand, sit or lie still while focusing only on one aspect of our self or our breath. Asked to be still and pay close attention to the breath only through the nostrils, or by hearing it, or by feeling it, the mind will continuously jump to other things, past or future, plans or memories. Quieting these mental fluctuations requires an extreme degree of concentration (Dharana).

To move beyond concentration, a zeal and earnestness of purpose is needed to bring us to the two final stages of yoga: Dhyana and Samadhi, meditation and the final quieting of all fluctuations in our consciousness. Meditation in yoga happens when the mind is undisturbed by time, no past or future, only present. Samadhi occurs after we release the final mental attachments that we have to the “idea” of our own individual self. This cessation of all fluctuations and disturbances of consciousness leads us to a peaceful existence of ultimate freedom.

We have to get beyond any judgment of “intensity” being “good” or “bad.” After our initial terrifying, frustrating or blissful reaction to yoga dies away, we must realize that a zeal and determination to continue in practice is what will lead us to reap the deepest benefit. Yoga is intense, but the real question is, will you bring intensity to yoga?

For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit or call (815) 968-9642.

From the Dec. 25-31, 2013, issue

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