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Effortless effort

From time to time, students will ask me, “how do I know what my edge is?”. The question has typically arisen during a yoga asana (postures/positions/movements) practice, and where a student is exploring a range of movement that is challenging to their present state of experience. In the midst of the challenging experience, the student wonders internally how far they can go within the given shape/posture, and what the real limit is.

Through a series of conversations, some more concise and others more lengthy, with students over the past few weeks, I felt compelled to write about some of what we learned through that process.

The short answer to the question is to develop what I call the insight and practice of “effortless effort”. On the surface it may appear that the two statements cancel each other out, but to really understand one needs to apply buddhi, or discriminative intelligence. In Yoga, this is understood as a higher faculty of the mind and is not achieved or experienced through mental analysis alone but instead through spiritual wisdom and patience.

To assist in writing about this, we turn to the Bhagavad Gita for further guidance (quoted from a translation by Eknath Eswaran):

2:71: They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of “I”, “me”, and “mine” to be united with the Lord.

2:72: This is the supreme state. Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality.

Here it suggested (by Krishna as he counsels his student Arjuna) that in essence freedom comes when the attachment to identifying as “I” dissolves. In the practice of yoga asana, this is the dissolution of being attached to achieving a particular shape in the body because a student believes that this is what they are supposed to do. The “should” is antithetical to non-attachment. It stems in part from social and cultural expectations; conditioned thinking of what the body is "meant" to look like, or how it is "meant" to bend. These expectations are what society would have one believe is the path.

Said another way, if I’m not dripping in sweat or can’t wrap my arms around my body in a seemingly impossible shoulder stretch, then am I really at my edge?

As I often say, awareness is the first step. Just asking the question of knowing "what is my edge" implies a certain level of readiness and willingness to begin to look at the entanglements of samsara or illusion.

Turning to the Bhagavad Gita once again (quoted from a translation by Eknath Eswaran):

4:18 The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action. Their consciousness is unified and every act is done with complete awareness.

One way of looking at this passage is to say that the more one relaxes, the softer and more pliable the body becomes. The more tension, resistance and contraction that is held in the body, the less it is able to move with ease.

It is the same in the mind. The more the student is ruled by the whims and fantasies of the mind, its likes and dislikes, the less calm and steady is the mind. And what happens in the mind is reflected directly in the body. A tense, scattered, busy mind that is not relaxed will show up as various tensions, pulls and contractions in the body.

As a child, I admired philosopher and martial arts master, Bruce Lee. He said, “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”

It has been my experience whether in my practice of meditation or yoga asana, that the less the ego is involved, the more I relax and surrender the ego to prana (life force). This is a type of trust and deep inner listening that takes place between the personality and the body-mind complex. As "I" surrender, less strain and effort is involved. It feels effortless to practice, like a feather carried by a soft summer breeze.

This does not mean that there is no challenge. It is an approach of tending to the various components that make up the dimensions of one’s human personality, emotions, thoughts and karmic seeds with a compassionate heart. The way a farmer knows when to till the soil and when to harvest, the farmer knows equally when to work, and when to rest.

If we therefore look at the same question again, “how do I know when I have reached my edge?”, what is the new insight and perspective that arises within you?

Speaking in purely physical terms, it’s the place where effort is balanced with a smooth-flowing and steady breath.

When the breath becomes labored, the brow on the forehead is furrowed deeply that creases indent themselves and deepen into the skin. The mind begins to shut it doors to block out the light of the experience, one has arrived right at or past an appropriate edge.

The practice of yoga teaches one to let go of the adage that there is no pain without gain. Here, suffering is a choice.

The teaching here is an expansion of the subject of non-attachment and ego-dissolution. It does not mean that one should ignore pain of a serious nature whether practicing yoga asana or in other life circumstances. If anything, pain is the body trying to get your attention because awareness is not there. So make sure that you are listening to those messages too. As a result of these conversations, one of our class mantras so-to-speak has become:

"Less is more". We practice with less ego and more listening, with less competition of Self and other and instead with more kindness, with an attitude of present moment awareness instead of wondering what is next. We practice with more simplicity instead of trying to "pack it in". And we simply show up in the beauty of all that we are.

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