Effort and Ease

One of my favorite principles of Yoga that I’ve come across is the duality of effort and ease.  Patanjali mentions this concept in relation to Asana in two specific Sutras.  Sutra 2.46 translates to, “Posture should be steady and comfortable.”  The following Sutra 2.47 translates to, “Such posture should be attained by the relaxation of effort and by the absorption in the infinite.”  Relaxation of effort.  I love that.  

So let’s be reminded that the physical practice of yoga has one main purpose and it’s to prepare our bodies for meditation.  The poses are a means to an end, not an end in themselves, which is why it becomes so important not to wrap our minds up in the ego of perfecting the poses.  The physical component of the poses strengthens and stretches all our muscles, corrects bone alignment, regulates digestion, and stimulates the nervous system in a way that should allow us to eventually be able to sit in an upright position steadily and comfortably in meditation so that the body is not a distraction during meditation.  The mental component of the poses is where the real challenge comes in.  A steady pose, as Patanjali states, means no movement.  Movement of the body is understood to be a distraction to the mind.  A comfortable pose means “the poses must not cause trouble to the yogi” (p.287 Edwin F. Bryant translation of The Yoga Sutras).  And herein lies the best part.  The poses may be difficult and require strength and stability, but as soon as we allow the mind to waver and lose focus, it’s our mind that becomes troubled with our physical efforts and the pose is no longer comfortable (if it ever was).  Challenge of a lifetime.   

So here is a more concrete example.  Maybe you’ve heard a teacher mention that Down Dog is supposed to be a “resting” pose . . . The first time I heard that, I thought, “Resting (!!!) pose? My triceps are on fire right now!”   Resting is a misleading word because it equates to relaxing, and Down Dog is not a relaxing, passive, restorative pose.  It’s active, intense, and requires a lot of strength in various parts of the body to maintain alignment.  So, we can safely say to maintain steadiness in this pose requires a lot of effort.  While holding this pose, your mind’s script may look something like this, “OMG my arms are tired, when are we going to sit in Child’s Pose? Why is the teacher still talking? Does she realize we’ve been here for two minutes already?  I should put my knees down, but I’m in the back of the room so everyone will see me, I hate this teacher.”  Meanwhile, you’re wiping sweat off your brow, pulling your shirt down, and still pedaling out your feet.  Sound familiar?  These are all methods of distraction to take you away from the physical effort you’re having to apply.  You’re in an unnatural and difficult physical state of being so you’re naturally going to fight it.  The moment we stop fighting and resisting and surrender to the effort--give in to it, accept it--we allow our minds to just be present in the pose focusing on our being in that moment.  That is the comfortable part, the ease.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about balancing effort and relaxation.  This effort and ease duality is often misinterpreted, especially when taken out of the context of the physical practice and applied to daily life.  The prevalent interpretation is that effort and ease oppose each other as opposite sides of a balance scale so that there’s a give and take, a push pull relationship between the two. Assessing which areas of our lives need a break and which need work, we may decide to place less effort into our 70 hour a week work week and more emphasis on ease and comfort with self healing alone time, restorative yoga, meditation, etc.  Yes, we should definitely do that.  But that’s not what we’re discussing here and that’s missing the most beautiful part of the whole concept: Relaxation OF effort. The two don’t exist as separate entities, rather one can be found within the other.   That’s the key nugget.  It’s not about placing less effort into your challenging relationship with your sister, it’s about surrendering to what it is--it’s challenging--and accepting that.  You’ll find that your demeanor and your approach to your sister or even just the thought of your relationship to her will soften as you become less resistant.  It’s not about placing less effort in Down Dog so it can be comfortable and easy.  It’s about letting go of the fight, of the resistance so you can find the ease within the effort of the pose.  Ease, not easy.    

I truly find this to be such a comforting idea, because life is never going to be easy.  But we can find a way to allow it to be more easeful.  Maybe that’s where joy is found, the unwavering peaceful and meditative state of being that exists among life’s hardships, allowing us to move through them and still look forward to tomorrow.

Think of an area in your life--a relationship, a chore, part of your job, an errand, anything--that you are fighting, resisting, placing so much effort without any return or let up.  Imagine what it might feel like to surrender the fight, let go of your resistance, and accept the effort.  Imagine how your relationship to this area you have chosen may change with a newfound ease.

Keep practicing.