Coronavirus has turned me into an all or nothing kind of gal. Saturday I worked for seven furious hours, cleaning the house from top to bottom. Sunday I spent mostly horizontal, completely worn out. My emotional highs and lows are exaggerated. My will to exercise comes in fits and starts. I’ll make half a dozen check-in phone calls, until I’m emotionally depleted, and then go radio silent for days. Big bursts of productivity followed by paralysis. The pendulum is swinging wide, but I know that peace is found at center. So I come back to the yoga.
Ultimately, yoga is the journey towards, and experience of, a calm and undisturbed mind. According to the Yoga Sutra we achieve this state through a two-pronged approach of Abhyasa (Practice/Effort) and Vairagya (Dispassion/Release).The life of our practice is a never-ending quest for the balance of these two opposites. There’s good news and bad news: The good news is that most of the time we are trying too hard. We are excellent doers who have learned to equate our worth with productivity. The bad news is that for many of us stepping back and letting go is far more difficult than forging ahead and trying harder, even in the face of imminent exhaustion or peril. But all that efforting will only get us so far, and sometimes in the wrong direction.
Let’s step onto the yoga mat to explore this dichotomy more closely. We’ll use Virabhadrasana II (Warrior B) as an example. This pose requires quite a bit of Abhyasa. There’s the muscular effort…legs strong, quads engaged, arms reach wide in opposite directions. And then the mind goes to work on alignment details…front knee lines up with middle toe and stacks over heel, outer edge of back foot grounds, hips rotate externally, tailbone drops as pubic bone lifts, breath fills the full circumference of the rib cage (don’t forget the back!), neck elongates, drishti (gaze) extends beyond front fingertips. Now the outward expression of the posture is set, but how about the internal experience? Are you calm and relaxed, or are you judging yourself, over-thinking, struggling, straining, and muscling through? Usually we try really hard – we force and strain and huff and puff…and quickly wear out! But now add Vairagya…relax your glutes, drop your shoulders, soften your ribcage and the back of your neck. Surrender. Trust the strength of your legs and the alignment of your bones to keep you steady. Feel your breath animate every nook and cranny of your body. Notice the shift from a battle of brute force to an experience of ease and connection. Instead of holding the pose, the pose holds you. Now you’re doing yoga.
It’s easy to forget that yoga is a team effort – You and universal energy working together. You come to your mat again and again. You do your part to build a pose to the best of your ability, and then you hand off the baton. Then, not only will your mind quiet and your breath slow down, but the asana actually deepens as muscle and connective tissue let go. Try a quick experiment…lift your arms out to the sides, shoulder height…reach as wide and as hard as you can. Now drop your shoulders and relax.Chances are your arms extended even further once you stopped trying so hard.
I always feel sad when I see students leave class before Shavasana (Corpse pose). It’s as if they’d spent hours baking a moist, delicious cake from scratch, only to toss it in the trash instead of enjoying the fruits of their labors. We spend all that time doing all that work! And it’s great, but it’s at the end, when we lie back and let it all go, that the benefits of our practice burrow into our cells and souls and nourish the deepest parts of our being. Our job is to plant the seeds, give them water and sunlight, and then walk away and trust that they will flourish.