Effortless Effort

When I tell people that I am a yoga teacher I get a wide range of responses. Some people think I might have joined a weird cult, others whilst interested feel guilty that they don’t do it themselves the most amusing of all is the response ‘Oh that must be very relaxing’. Of course yoga can have the effect of relaxation, but is often difficult and sometimes very challenging. Being a student or a teacher requires a great deal of dedication and commitment and there is a long road to travel before it becomes as Patanjali describes  it ‘effortless effort.’ How do we get the balance of making effort especially when trying to expand our limits and limiting effort so it becomes effortless.

One of the things that can really bring change is to establish a daily practice. Yoga is a toolbox for self exploration and discovery and can guide you to unknown parts physically mentally and spiritually. When you first start yoga there is a joy in going to class, sharing your experience with others, following the teacher’s instructions.

Often there is a great sense of camaraderie and you become friends with your fellow students. The teacher looks after you for an hour or so and you finish the class with a sense of well being and then go home or to work. Can those same criteria be recreated at home in your daily life? We are told to practice and self practice is an important part of the yoga journey, but it is a hard discipline to establish and hard to motivate and re motivate yourself into a daily routine. It took me years before I could establish a good discipline of self practice.

At first I would think I know I should practice but I don’t know what. What was I going to practice for a whole hour. At first when I was working from the book Light on Yoga I would follow the course outlined at the back and just go through the list. Then when I started to go to more regular classes I would see that as my practice. It was only when I realised that quantity was not so important but improvement was that I started to experiment. It is always better to choose a level of practice you know you can maintain. Once established it is hard not to do because you develop a need for it.

Sutra 1.12 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says ‘Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah’

BKS Iyengar in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translates this as

Abhyasa – by or with practice, repeated practice. Vairagyabhyam – non attachment by desirelessness or dispassion neutrality or absence of colouring, without attraction or aversion. Tat – of those through that of nirodhah – control regulation channelling mastery understanding stilling quieting setting aside of. BKS Iyengar

Abhyasa and vairagyabhyam are the two core principles on which the entire system of yoga rests. It is through the cultivation of these two that the other practices evolve by which mastery over the mind field occurs and allows the realization of the true self.

Sutra II.47 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says: prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam B.K.S. Iyengar in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translates this as follows:

‘Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached’.

The sadhaka can be considered firm in his postures when persevering effort is no longer needed. In this stability, he grasps the physiology of each Asana and penetrates within, reaching the minutest parts of the body. Then he gains the art of relaxation, maintaining the firmness and extension of the body and consciousness. In this way he develops a sensitive mind. With this sensitivity, he trains his thinking faculty to read, study and penetrate the infinite. He is immersed in the boundless state of oneness which is indivisible and universal.” Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Edwin F Bryant ( 2009) writes in his commentary of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali –  ‘The essential idea is that by the practice of asana, the body should be so relaxed that the yogi ceases to be conscious of it at all, and the mind can thus be directed toward meditation without any bodily distraction or disturbance’.

In an asana there are actions that we must perform, the muscles are working as we hold the pose and we have to apply effort – but, as we mature in our practice and become more skilled, we learn how to balance this effort with a stillness, a quietness. Instead of over using the muscles we work in a much more subtle way. The pose becomes stable and without tension. When we reach the correct alignment, there is no extra effort. At this stage we can experience the joy of exploring the depths of our own body-mind. There is no need for will power to hold us there.

To learn the principle of effortless effort we have to let go of aggressiveness and be in the power of the moment. By coming back to our daily asana practice and observing effortless effort in our practice, we can gradually learn to live with more ease and with a balanced flow of effortless effort!