Sometimes, in pursuit of that initial feeling of bliss and stretch, we can go too far, too soon for our intricately connected bodies. Whether in pursuit of a “magazine perfect” pose or just a feeling we remember from our early yoga days when stretching was new and shiny, we can all go too far at times. When your yoga teacher encourages you to “push your edge,” what exactly are you going for? Where is your edge and how will you know when you reach it, how to push it, and how far is too far?
Yoga teacher Erich Schiffman formalized the distinction between minimum and maximum edges in his canonical Moving Into Stillness, published in 1996. The edge is “a degree of stretch that is in balance: intensity without pain, use without abuse, strenuousness without strain,” according to an article entitled “Playing the edge” on Schiffman’s Freedom Yoga website. So what is the distinction between intensity and pain, strenousness and strain, use and abuse?
Stretch happens gradually, from the almost imperceptible to the point that is clearly too far, and the point of playing edges is to completely avoid the place too far. After all, you come to yoga to feel better, not worse, to heal and not injure. Understanding edges from the inside out helps you to find the place of “Ahhh!” and avoid the place of “Arggggh!”
We all know what pain is, or at least think we do. But then we come to certain points and question ourselves: “Is this really pain, or am I just looking for an excuse out? Aw, I’ll just go a little.... ouch!” That was pain. Pain is anything sharp, shooting, cutting, electric or anything that makes you feel like staying and definitely going farther is not advisable today. Pain is distinguished from intensity. Intensity may be uncomfortable, but does not hurt. You may not want to stay in a place of intensity for a long time, but can be a place to explore. Intensity comes in gradations and sometimes backing off from a place of great intensity makes that same place more accessible when you approach with mindfulness the next time.
The first edge to find is your minimum edge: the place where you just begin to have sensation in the area or muscle being stretched. This probably will be a little further than the initial motion, but not if the area or muscle is tight or strained or unused to motion. Begin very slowly with open awareness of your bodily sensation and stop at the very first feeling of stretch. This is your minimum edge. Stay and breathe while this feeling changes before proceeding to the next point of sensation. Your maximum edge is the farthest place you can possibly go without injury, and it is not necessary that you ever find this place. If you suspect you are in or very near your maximum edge, consider backing off mindfully and working inside that boundary.
As you can see, there will be a rich continuum of points between the minimum and maximum edges, offering you many places to explore any given pose from the inside out. Aside from avoiding pain, playing your sub-maximum edge is more effective for actually increasing flexibility and function of the muscle. By stopping at a point of intensity, well before the muscle is stretched to its capacity, you maintain functional use and awareness of the muscle. By working at points along the continuum you gradually and effectively mobilize the muscle in lasting ways.
Counterintuitively to some, one of the most effective ways of increasing flexibility is to stop at your minimum edge and begin to apply awareness and focus on your breath there. As you identify sensations of stretch and opening, spread your awareness over your entire body to integrate the feeling into your entire being.
As you find places of pleasant intensity where you want to stay in a pose, begin by focusing on the breath. Spread your awareness of sensation from the specifically located feeling outward to the rest of the body. Notice as you breathe how the sensation isn’t static over time. Try mapping the area of intensity, as if you were drawing its boundary with a marker on your skin. Does the boundary stay put, or is it constantly changing?
Working with intensity between the boundaries of minimum and maximum edge is a powerful meditation on how things change and on the stability of the consciousness that bears witness.