Editorial

Finding Balance

Most of my new students arrive at yoga class ready to exercise.

They are ready to stretch, to balance, and maybe sweat a bit, so they can change, or fix, or maintain their bodies.

Then I ask them to breathe.

Over and over, I ask them to breathe. Finally, we move a bit, but I ask them to move slowly, or gently, or gradually.

This is not something most adults are used to doing. Especially in an exercise class.

But I wouldn't insist on it so strongly if it didn't work so well.

You see, yoga is not like other types of physical exercise.

Or it least, it ought not be, because it was designed to work differently. Yoga is about being able to direct the mind, because great change is possible (inevitable, really) when our perspective is cleared.

And as far as yoga is concerned, the mind and body are linked together so strongly, that moving and placing the body in a specific way is a very good preparation for meditation.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra gives the properties of yoga postures:

Sthira-sukham-āsanam.

Posture (āsana) is steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). Yoga postures have support and adequate strength, and they do not create pain or exacerbate medical conditions.

Prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām.

It is a perfect balance of effort (prayatna) and effortlessness (śaithilya) combined (bhyām) with complete and endless (ananta) concentration (samāpatti).

This feeling of perfect balance is so different than what we do in exercise and other physical work.

In exercise, we are encouraged to push beyond our limits, to lift one more, run faster or farther, and to get the job done. It's a test of will to overcome your physical limitations.

But will and tenacity can be misguided. They are directed by the ego, and can drive you full-speed in directions that you thought you wanted to go, but end up bringing you frustration or pain, upset your life or relationships.

I'm not denigrating exercise or physical fitness. But yoga is in a different category of activity. It's in the business of helping you see clearly. And letting you perpetuate habits of overworking, overcompensating or avoiding conflict is not in the program.

In my own practice, sthira-sukha is the absence of certain habits.

There is no setting of my jaw, no determination to achieve or prove something, and there is no reaching or pulling further. It feels like there is an internal engine giving me purpose and strength, but it's not willpower. It's a steady, feeling, quiet focus.

When I teach, I see too much sthira when my student's faces become hard around the corners of their eyes and lips. Their body language becomes rigid and closed. Their breath is loud or stops or moves in a sudden whoosh instead of a soft, steady stream. They seem to be pushing or holding on fiercely.

I see too much sukha when a student's spine looks collapsed. When their bodies surrender and suddenly look too heavy for them to hold. Their breath is uneven or too faint or quick. They are disengaged, and their attention flits from one thing in the room to another.

When my students achieve sthira-sukha in class, I can see their eyes and faces are calm. Their bodies have a sense of endless inner strength. They are fully invested in the practice, and move and breathe with a purposefulness that brings the work to a deeper level than just their bodies. 

Until they have sthira-sukha, they are doing exercise. Yes, it might be useful exercise. But when they have the balance of stability and ease, they are doing yoga.

If you've ever been in the room during one of my classes, I'm sure you have felt the difference.

When people are really doing yoga, they have presence and a deep power about them. They aren't just going through a series of motions, or following instructions to get somewhere. They are completely engaged, and they get more benefit from the practice as a result.

What they are learning through their bodies becomes a part of them.

It takes repeated practicing over a period of time to know what sthira-sukha feels like, and to be able to find it again. That's why I encourage students to practice, every day. It doesn't have to be a full 60-minute sequence to be incredibly useful. Five or ten minutes is enough to remember how to be stable and easy in your body. And eventually, that feeling becomes the norm.

When it does, then you are no longer distressed (an-abhighātaḥ) by conflict (dvaṅdva).

Tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ.

When you have mastered this feeling of sthira-sukha, you know it so well that things which caused stress before no longer bother you.

You know you are capable of meeting challenges directly, without strain or avoidance.

You no longer worry about what will happen, because you feel safe, strong and easy inside.

The feeling of steadiness and ease has become a part of who you are.

When the Yoga is Hard

I consider myself a beginner at meditation. I've been practicing and teaching yoga for years, and for a long time successfully convinced myself that striving for mindfulness in asana or general day-to-day life was sufficient.

And I suppose for a while it was. It helped me feel better in my body and made my stress levels go from "I HATE ALL THE THINGS. WHY IS THIS SO HARD?" to a tolerable "I've got this. It will be OK. I'm sure it will."

Most of the time.

There was still a lot of impatience there though. And if things weren't just right, a lot of frustration and an unnecessary (and unhealthy) amount of effort trying to get them there.

The thing was, I didn't know the frustration and effort fueled by my perfectionism weren't an appropriate response. It made complete sense to me that if my husband shrunk my wool sweater in the dryer I should be annoyed and share that annoyance with him so that he understood what he did wrong. Of course I should be so concerned about how perfect our food is that I don't enjoy sharing it with my family. And if I didn't have time to do something perfectly, then why bother doing it at all?

I'm sure you can see how a tendency toward perfectionism was impacting my life.

At a certain point, I'd gone as far as I could with this way of thinking. I was worn out trying to impress people. I was so tired of trying to do everything the right way. There was no joy. And very little peace.

When I started a daily yoga practice that prepared me for and included meditation, I started to notice that this tendency of thinking was perhaps unusual. And I started to see that it wasn't really helping me, and limiting my happiness much of the time. Not to mention causing stress and unpleasantness to those closest to me.

So now I'm in a place where I see the habit. I'm not exactly pleased with it. But there's a part of me that still holds on so tightly to the identity of being right, good-enough, and perfect-as-possible.

From Wikipedia, here are The Four Stages of Competence:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence: Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence: The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence: The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

On the yoga path, you could say there are four stages though which we move toward consciousness* as a life skill:

  1. Unconsciously unconscious
  2. Consciously unconscious
  3. Consciously conscious
  4. Unconsciously conscious

* I wish I knew who to attribute this to. I only know my teacher said it and it was useful, but I don't know who said it first...

So here I am, at level 2 with my perfectionist perspective, and feeling extremely uncomfortable.

This is really not a pleasant place to be. My yoga practice has gone from a feel-good, stress-relieving respite from daily life, to a place where I confront (one of, I'm sure) the roots of the habitual responses that put me at conflict with the world around me. There's a part of me that's urging me forward, and I know that doing the work to get through this hard part is going to bring me to a better place. But there is a stubborn, very loud part of me that says, "NO, YOU CAN'T! YOU'LL LOSE EVERYTHING WE'VE WORKED SO HARD FOR."

But I trust the practice. I trust myself. The path ahead of me is lit by the experience of all the teachers and masters who have gone before and beckon us toward the promise of fulfillment and joy.

Every time I practice is a step forward. Some of the steps are harder than others, I'm beginning to learn. But they say it's worth it, so here goes.


The Promise of the Gita

Arjuna was overcome by grief and despondency, and thus he spoke with a sinking heart: ‘When I see the field of battle, life goes from my limbs and they sink, and my mouth is sear and dry; a trembling overcomes my body, and my hair shudders in horror; my great bow, Gandiva, falls from my hands, and the skin of my flesh is burning.
— Bhagavad Gita, 1.27-29

The first line of the Bhagavad Gita sets the scene on a battlefield of an epic civil war. It also places the scene at "the field of Dharma," and reveals the deeper context of the Gita: a discourse about how to live a meaningful life.

As he heads into battle, Arjuna represents our taking on the challenges and choices we face. Arjuna carries his bow (his mind) and arrows (directable thoughts) into battle. His chariot (body) is led by five horses (senses).

Arjuna has wisely conscripted Krishna (higher consciousness) to drive the chariot into battle. But when he reaches the center of the field, he faces a quandary: how can he perform his duty when it means battling friends, honored teachers and family? When it means disrupting the order of the kingdom?

In confusion and despondency, he throws down his bow and arrows and sinks into the chariot. He refuses to engage in the war.

Arjuna's confusion is the same we experience when there seems no right choice. Second-guessing and doubt render us inert, unable to move in any direction, let alone the right one.

Without direction or purpose, we disengage from life. We lose ourselves in mindless diversions.

We watch television for hours. We shop for things we don't need. We create drama, fear, pain, and stress in our lives because we aren't equipped to deal with the real choices before us and issues within us.

The Bhagavad Gita shows us how we can face our lives with confidence, conviction and skill in our actions.

It tells us that the path to peace and fulfillment is to know our purpose for living--our dharma--the natural expression of our true Self. This knowing is developed through the practice of yoga, which awakens us to the truth of our own nature, gives us faith and informs our actions.

As the wisdom of the Gita unfolds, Krishna reveals to Arjuna his true nature. He explains how the world works, humanity's purpose in life and how we can fulfill that purpose to reach our fullest potential. He shines a light on a path toward freedom, meaning and happiness.

This is the promise of the Gita. That we have purpose, and our lives are an opportunity to discover and fulfill it.