Have you ever heard the phrase “surfing the edges”? I just finished an incredible book called Yoga Beyond Belief, by Ganga White, and I learned about this phrase there. I was using it as a theme in my community vinyasa class yesterday morning, and then was thinking about how relevant it is to other aspects of our lives off the mat. And maybe even especially for those of us in cancer treatment or recovery.
So surfing the edges has to do with navigating different levels, or “edges”, of intensity or engagement in yoga postures and practice. For example, working at our edge refers to our maximum edge, or that place of effort at which we could not go any further without exhaustion, pain, or potential injury. Our minimum edge, on the other hand, refers to that place on the continuum of effort at which we very first start to feel some resistance or exertion. And the intermediate edge is midway between those points, and there are all variations of edges in between.
In another level of complexity, White describes various types of edges that we might explore, including edges of strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, fear, and pain. I found this list particularly interesting for cancer survivors, as we face our own sorts of challenges in all of these realms on most days.
Back to the general idea, the point is that yoga is a practice in which we don’t always need to operate at our maximum edge, unlike some other forms of exercise or sport. In fact there is much growth and benefit to be had by operating somewhere between our minimum and maximum edges. While there are advantages to sometimes pushing ourselves to our max edge to see where we can go, there is also much to be discovered at an 80% edge or a 50% edge, where we can use more energy exploring alignment or endurance or focusing on the INNER EXPERIENCE of the practice. As White mentions, working at a lesser edge can also increase the level of enjoyment and ease we feel in our practice, which is another important type of edge.
I capitalized inner experience in the last paragraph, as I think this is a huge key to unlocking some of the gifts of yoga. Becoming aware of our inner experience on the mat is an amazing mindfulness practice that trains us to be more aware of our inner experience off the mat. And becoming aware of our inner experience is the first step in cultivating true balance in our bodies and our lives. If we don’t even realize we are off balance, how would we right ourselves? Once we learn to tune in, and we observe how our bodies and minds feel as we play with these various edges, we can learn so much and really feel our way into balance.
We live in such a fast paced, achievement-focused world, that it is easy to tend to operate at our max edge, or sometimes even beyond it, always trying to do more. AND we judge ourselves harshly if we can’t keep up this pace. Sadly this mindset often results in burnout and exhaustion. Learning to explore our other edges and really see, on each new day, what edge feels best and most nourishing is a deep practice in self-compassion. Some days we may feel energetic and amazing, and on those days maybe we do explore that max edge, to see if we can push ourselves to become stronger or more flexible. But on other days, we need to learn to be content with and committed to working near those other edges, not judging ourselves for not being at max capacity 24/7, and loving and respecting ourselves no matter what level we find ourselves in each day.
As I was thinking about this practice of surfing the edges, I realized that it translates beautifully into a new area of exercise I recently picked up, called hill walking. I have found myself really having to adjust my walks day to day depending on how I’m feeling. Some days I feel amazing and can push for a little more speed or a little longer distance. Some days my legs feel heavy or my breath less efficient, so I feel myself needing to back off. And honestly, I think I learn more on those challenging days, when I really have to cut myself some slack, slow down, and bring my focus back to my breath and to finding balance.
And we can bring this theory into so many aspects of our lives. This is especially important as we are going through cancer treatment or healing from treatment, which places so many new stressors on our bodies and our minds. We can surf the edges of productivity in our jobs. Some days we rock and get all sorts of things done, and some days we need to just look out the window. We can surf the edges of how we use our mental and emotional energy with others. Some days we feel social and engaged and want to do all the activities, and some days we need to just veg out by ourselves and not talk to anyone. You get the idea.
So, both on your mat, and off, I invite you to explore this idea of surfing the edges. Notice when you feel yourself pushing to the max, or when you’re not even feeling like the min, and consider that much of the time, there may be much to learn somewhere in between. If you just tune in and listen, your own body and mind will teach you how to most effectively ride the waves with balance and joy.
(Incredible paddleboarding pic of my friend Lori, a 3 time cancer thriver, at my very first yoga for breast cancer retreat in Puerto Vallarta almost 5 years ago! I love the strength and joy in her body language.)