Reflections on practice and effortless effort

Tapas will power, discipline is the first element of the Yoga of action (2.1) described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras*.

We need effort to open the body, to extend tired muscles, to expand our chest and we need effort to stay with the practice. If that would the only story, we would burn out quickly! As we stick with the Tapas we are coming face to face with another aspect of yoga. Releasing in the middle of the effort. As we exert our muscles and quiet our mind, the pose we seek, will only bloom if we can relax into it.  “Be firmly established in a happy space” says Bouanchaud. It seems a contradiction in terms: how can we both be effortful and soft inside? This is the mystery of doing yoga. I learn to work to my own capacity with the limitations of my specific embodiment, as I reach for my toes, and feel my back muscles “screaming”, I listen to the voice inside or of my teacher to stretch my limbs to their full potential, and then I let go. As I learn to observe the sensations and identify the moment where I just need to exhale, I become the pose. Yoga is not only about the external beauty or esthetics of the pose, it is as well the subtle internal process of recognizing that now is the moment to accept and relax into the effort while maintaining it. It does not mean that I stop my effort, as I let the releasing wash over me in the middle of my effort that is when the pose exists within me and beyond me.  That elusive state might last a second or less, but it is a very potent moment as it brings illumination that can last for a lifetime and provide me with the faith I need to get back to my mat over and over again!  It is then; at that moment that I am learning what effortless effort means, that I accept the sweat needed and integrate the pose into myself.

We are not talking Herculean struggle, achieved only by luminaries; every one of us, working skillfully to their own edge, can learn to relax into that effort.  Then we can move toward sensing how this practice brings us closer to the infinite, the quiet within. The gift that this practice offers emerges when we relax into it. We need effort, observation and skillful actions no question about it, and we also need to recognize that all this effort without a relaxing breath, will not let us experience all what yoga can offer. Learning to catch this elusive state comes with practice. Some of us might have experienced uplifting feelings of grace in a pose. A month ago a very excited student texted me that she had had for a moment like that, she had the feeling of complete alignment of her spine, complete integration in her head stand. She felt immense joy washing over her and needed to share it.  I have had a few of those moments in my 20 plus years of practice.  During a backbend workshop many years ago after hours of “donkey work”, muscles screaming suddenly out of nowhere, as I ascended for my last wheel position, my heart opened, my head quieted,  and for a glorious moment I was the pose and I experienced a glimpse of what grace is. We all recall these precious moments, and not only during asana practices. When a newborn open her eyes for the first time and her gaze latches on yours, you know that you are just witnessing the mystery of life.

Yoga practice provides us an arena to practice so that when a moment of grace comes your way, on the mat or off the mat, you will just grab it and be thankful forever.

*2.1 Accepting pain as help for purification, study and surrender to the Supreme being constitute Yoga in practice. Carrera

 2.46 The posture and firm and soft.  Bouanchaud