Yoga teachers, you know the type: the over-eager student who can barely sit through your centering and can’t wait to get moving. This is the high-achieving student whose intensity is apparent from the sparks flying from their fingers in the first Downward-Facing Dog. This person pushes it to the max in every pose. The idea of ever choosing a less intense variation of a pose? Out of the question! And then, there is the other end of the spectrum. This is the reluctant, overly-cautious student, who might just choose to lie in Savasana for 90 minutes given the choice. I’m exaggerating, of course, but most of us tend to lean toward one of these two extremes in our approach to practice. Not only that, we might also see a bit of both in ourselves. It’s not always so obvious how to balance our effort in practice.
How do you know if you’re trying too hard in yoga? Or not hard enough? How do you know when it’s right to persevere? When it's time to let go? In navigating the path of creating, and re-creating balance, these are questions to ask ourselves repeatedly in order to fruitfully direct our efforts in practice.
“Not too tight, not too loose.”
There is a story about the Buddha during the time of his sadhana when he was known as Siddhartha Gautama. It was a period in his spiritual journey when he was practicing many intense austerities, yet not experiencing the fruits of his efforts. One day, he was reflecting on his lack of progress, feeling frustrated at his lack of attainment and wondering what he should do. Suddenly in the distance he heard a band of musicians tuning their stringed instruments. He went closer to them and listened as the master musician taught his students how to do this. “If you tighten the strings too much, they will break. If the strings are too loose, they won’t create any sound.” As Siddhartha Gautama heard the master’s instructions, he knew these instructions were meant for him and had answered his question about how to proceed in his practices.
Like the Buddha, we can seek to find the middle way, the balance between “not too tight, not too loose”. As usual in yoga, this takes a willingness to inquire into and honestly examine our tendencies in practice (which, of course often carry over into other areas of life.) Do we tend to be the student who tightens the strings too tight, or leaves them too loose? What are our challenges to balancing effort with letting go?
Finding the Middle: Balancing Sun and Moon
“Within every pose there should be repose.”
On the mystical level, the term Ha-tha, as in Hatha Yoga, refers to the polarity of the sun and moon, the active and receptive energies within the subtle body. The practices of Hatha Yoga, then, were originally aimed at balancing these active and receptive forces within us. Within the metaphor of sun and moon we also find a method for evaluating and balancing our efforts in practice.
One of the hallmarks that distinguish asana from other forms of movement is self-reflection. The mindful attention with which we approach movement, action, and breath is one of the elements that turns postural practice into yoga. This awareness itself is what is meant by repose within the pose. It’s the being within the doing, the reflection within the action, the moon within the sun.
It is a pulsation of acting and reflecting back, pose and repose, that fuels self-awareness. This is the key to fine-tuning our efforts in practice. Balancing what we “do” in practice with learning how to “be”, we reflect. We listen, sense, and observe. As we reflect, we learn. We apply the information we capture to the next moment of doing. In this way, we create an interactive feedback loop that informs how we proceed. This is a powerful way to refine practice over time, both the moment-to-moment experience of asana as well as our overarching attitudes toward practice. Seeking the delicate balance of right effort in practice provides a framework to deepen our curiosity, sensitivity and awareness.
How do you find the balance between being and doing in your practice? How does it carry over into the rest of your life?