The practice of yoga is more than just a physical activity. We know this because whatever pose (asana) we are faced with during a particular practice we will have an opinion about, an expectation. We will want to push our bodies to test our strength and flexibility, dancing around our breaking point for the sake of achieving what looks like an elegant back bend or deep, hip-opening lunge. We combat the rest that is aching to peak through in a pose in order to achieve our own ego’s yoga aesthetic. This can prove difficult to maintain, all the while breathing fully and completely, just as the teacher instructs. At times we unconsciously hold our breath in response to the buzzing of our mind, our judgments of everything, and the role yoga itself is supposed to play on the speeding train that is our daily grind.
We can observe yoga as a series of movements, whether still or connecting poses in a flow. Either way, we guided by the breath’s rhythm. Yet when we move through vinyasas, or rest and restore, our practice is accompanied by the repetitive lesson to truly live in the present moment, which is largely preached, in tandem, with the concept of surrender. So how to we achieve this ‘letting go,’ while attempting to balance all the energies that are blasting off inside our body and mind? How do we feel the lift-off of alignment?
We are obsessed with achievement, whether mastering a pose, project, relationship, or even life itself. We all know that moment during practice, when sheer will is what it takes to stand the heat in the room or the bubbling volcano in your gut. It’s an Ashtanga (flow) class, perhaps. We’ve just done some version of Surya Namaskar (salute the sun) and our legs are burning. In and out of planks and lunges we have flowed, and now, it is peak-pose time. We know we’ll have to feign that illustrious effortlessness, and even though everyone in class in concerned with their own appearance, the drive toward projecting internal balance is the strongest desire we know. And it hurts.
Now, here it comes. We are guided to put all our weight on the front foot, root the heel, move that front hand to the block or the floor, and just float up, they say, into half-moon pose (Ardha Chandrasana). As simple as the moon rising in the evening, you hear and resent. Although this moon is rising so close to the earth, seemingly against gravity. And you feel it. Your muscles shake. Your chest sinks against the pressure. Does the actual moon feel this heavy tacked up there in the sky? We wonder. Who knows where the breath is now because your lungs are frozen in space, trying not to fall towards the knees.
“Surrender,” the instructor says, from the comfort of their seated posture. It sounds more like a command than an invitation. “Find ease,” is the suggestion that usually comes next. Suddenly, the monkey mind bounces on our shoulders, causing our fingers to twitch and jaw to clench. Five seconds seems an eternity. Forget about five more breaths. Sometimes we can already see ourselves falling, and pretty soon we have detached, but not in the ‘enlightened’ way. It’s the kind of consciousness dislodge where we don’t understand our body anymore. Where there once was ease there is now pressure. The mind is just too busy, telling this story, wanting to achieve perfection. The harsh image of a slivered edge of a window pane crosses our mind’s eye and it causes us to feel wobbly and heavy. Pretty soon you don’t even hear the instructor anymore, caught in the web of tension that is your body at this precise moment.
Tension or stiffness in the body is a sign that our connection to Ishvara (our soul supreme, our “special” self, our inspiration) is lessening, growing more distant, or has faded. This is a stressful thought in and of itself until we remind ourselves that bridging that connection to our deepest self is like lifting off a par of sunglasses to take in the sunshine. In yoga classes there are many esoteric principles and ideas that sneak its way into our practice and serve as a guide for our moving meditation.
We want to receive the wisdom we read about in our favorites stories and mythology, but we are so caught up in the whirlwind of self-doubt and fear that we freeze, just before the embodiment, or ‘awakening’ rather, of this elusive concept–connection to the divine self–takes hold. We have pushed its inherent meaning (yoga, aka to “yoke” toward yourself) behind our desire to make everything all about our failure to fly, to blame it’s absence for our stagnation. Who we are, that which we call ourselves by, becomes the most important thing, instead of connecting to that aspect of the self that is just beyond the shadows, waiting to be acknowledged. When we try to push that part down thinking that is what stands between us and a ‘perfect’ practice, we achieve nothing, but more tension, more blocks, and probably an achy back.
Joseph Campbell supposedly stated: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasures that you seek.” In order to find that which we deem valuable, it is the fear of failure, injury, or embarrassment that stands in the way. Yet notice, none of those things are concrete reasons not to take a risk or push your edge in practice. I guarantee, the other side does not hold more suffering, even if physical balance is not yet achieved.
How can we possibly hold on to our bodies when we are asked to relinquish all effort? How to we lift the body away from the earth while imagining ourselves being supported by it? Why is the teacher making me do this? The thoughts don’t stop.
We fail to dissolve the agitations of the mind. We lose the belief that we even have something to offer, let alone give it freely for the sake of letting it go without thanks or compensation. This sensation may be brief, but when it rises up it practice, it is a heavy block. It is powerful. And it is very apparent when we encounter it in our yoga practice, but off the mat it can remain a hidden hindrance to pranidhana (surrender).
We see surrender as giving up, the last resort, when our posture has become a mountain to climb, something to conquer at the edge of the Cliff of Tolerance. And this is what Hindu philosopher Pantajali (author(s) of the Yoga Sutras, among others) referred to the separation from source. That is, our connection– not to a god outside of us–but to a god within.
Bracing, a thought catches us. It is frustrating, but also reassuring:
It is an image of the moon waxing. With each inhale we imagine our body syncing with the moon, meshing with it, observing sensations. An inner call telling us to wax brighter, to inhabit the light and the space around us, and letting gravity’s pull steady us.
We can approach each breath as a brush stroke made on a digital screen that evaporates after it is drawn, or a chalk mural washed clean on a rainy day. This is mindfulness. We are alive. Up we go.
So, fly and fail. Offer your heart and mind by simply exhaling. Trust me, it’s enough. For now…