Asana 2: prayatna saithilyananta samapattibhyam

prayatna-śaithilyānanta-samāpattibhyām

Asana should be attained by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite. PYS II.47

The second sutra on asana has further instructions for the yogi.  Or what can also be seen as a refinement of the previous sutra: sthira (steadiness) is to be done with a relaxation of effort (don’t try so hard!), and sukham (joy) is to be completely absorbed on an infinite level (embody down to every cell of your being!).  Or sthira is truly attained when it is an expression of a deep infinite well of stillness, and sukham when you have relaxed your habits of wanting and aversion, of efforting in the world to simply be in it – the true wellspring of contentment and joy.

NBT. 26-11-2008Relaxation of Effort
“…it takes a special kind of effort to achieve effortlessness” Chip Hartranft

“You make that look easy” – A statement generally following someone performing a physical feat the speaker knows required an enormous amount of effort to achieve, and yet the performer enacted it effortlessly.  In some cases, it is actually effortless, and it others the performer just makes it look that way. Generally this is born of months or years of toil, and constant dedicated practice. This is not what this sutra is referring to.

This sutra is referring to the way in which those months and years played out – not the performance at the end.  It is a step by step, moment by moment instruction for the way we choose to act (not do!) our lives.

It is experiencing stillness within motion, connecting the inner and outer.  It’s working in your life while connected to your element.  It’s cooking dinner with ingredients everywhere, timers going, your hands chopping and stirring, the oven generating heat and you’re conscious of your breath.   It’s balancing in tree pose, working to articulate all the alignment points the teacher is guiding you towards, and you’re using an inner stillness to balance, rather than the external point you’re looking at. That external point is just the center of your dristhi field, not the source of your balance. When you experience that – you have relaxed effort in asana. The relationship you have with the external world is not the only relationship you have going on – when you experience that, you have relaxed effort in life.

“Stillness is a reflection of our growing openness to the unpredictable unfolding of the world as it is, a freedom from the constant effort to bending things to our liking, to make them conform to our conditioned notions of good and bad.” Chip Hartranft

tumblr_mqw2xl7Zmm1ssyifho1_400Absorption in the Infinite

One of the best practices for touching on this instruction is incorporating nadam work into asana practice.

Nadam is the subtle sound of the universe; the nature of the universe. It’s going on all the time and pervasive to every nook and cranny, but unheard. Similar to the way you don’t hear your fridge, or the subway station outside your apartment, or the animal sounds that come every night outside your house.  In quantum physics string theory posits the fundamental nature of the universe is waves. Nadam can be thought of as the sound those waves make, if we could hear them.  Yogis try to hear them.

Hearing begins with listening – the active work of the ears.

So in asana – listen to your breath.  Begin, after chanting, your ujjayi breathing. Make sure you can hear it, but it is unnecessary for anyone else to. Then listen to it for a whole class. That’s months work of homework right there.

In life – listening begins with being quiet.  So take time to be quiet.  If we don’t allow for silence, we will only hear the loudest voice – our own or others.  As we know from personal experience, it’s not always the loudest voice we want to listen to.

And if there is sound, be mindful.  What we hear alters the physical makeup of the brain, unlike any of our other senses (“This is Your Brain on Music” Levitan).  As carefully and consistently as we choose what we eat, and how we decorate and the colors we use, we should do that with what we hear.

Listen_to_Your_Heart_by_cho_okaAt a fundamental level, this sutra is encouraging us to let go, and dive deep.  Echoing the Bhagavad Gita’s encouragement to let go of expectations, results, and goals as the motivation for effort, but instead to revel deep in the effort itself.  Or as the new Michael Franti song says “Do it for the love” of it.

Asana 1: Sthira Sukham

I was inspired to re-delve into the eight limbs from reading a passage of Dogen’s in the collection “Moon in a Dewdrop”.  It’s only fitting that in coming to the most popular of the eight limbs – asana – we investigate through Dogen’s lens with an excerpt from the Genjo Koan – Acutalizing the Fundamental Point. (Click here and here to read more about Sthira Sukham Asanam)

Dogen:

“A fish swims in the ocean and no matter how far it swims,
there is no end to the water.
A bird flies in the sky and no matter how far it flies,
there is no end to the air.
However, the bird and the fish have never left their elements”

fish sky The question arises; Have You? Have you ever left your element?

Which is not to ask; Have you explored outside your comfort zone? But rather; Have you gone past your beneficial boundaries? Have you overextended yourself? Have you spent an inordinate amount of time being your social self, without sinking into your original self?

Yes. We do it all the time. Usually, we are aware only after we’ve returned, when we say things such as, “I feel like myself again.”

So the next question arises; Do you know what nurtures you? What reinforces you being in your element?

When I personally think about things that do – for example, studying with my teachers, it’s not remembering the details.  It’s not, per se, their teachings, advice or philosophy.  It’s remembering how it feels to be around them, who I am when I’ve been around them, and how that extends out afterwards. It’s a place that holds space for me to both work on myself, and be myself.

Can we allow sthira sukham to be recast from a command to be steady and joyful, to a reminder of who you are when you are steady and joyful, when you’re in your element?

Dogen continues:

 “When their activity is large, their field is large, when their need or activity is small, their field is small”

fieldWhat is your field? Sometimes it’s the universe of the breath, sometimes the yoga mat, sometimes the neighborhood, sometimes it’s the whole world.  At those times, it’s not your office, nor your home. When it is your office or your home, it is not the yoga room.

Sometimes life is huge, and you are called upon to fill it all, and yoga asks you to  do so staying in your element.  You are party planner, host, mother of two small children, best friend of a friend in need, and wife all at the same evening event. You are a manager of employees, yourself an employee, responsible for the success of a project that is dictated by another, and need to figure out the IT situation preventing the work from being done, all in the same half hour.

How do we fill large fields, or let go into small fields, with sthira and sukham? First – find your element. From there –  realize that you act within your field for the sake of that action, with success or failure not mattering either way.  The Bhagavad Gita shares this wisdom.  But it’s only philosophy until you do it. Until you stand in honest presence before your field, grounded with both feet in your element, and decide the field and the whole way out to the horizon do not depend on what you get, or don’t get.

Try it on the practice field of asana. Internally stand before the pose (field), find your sthira sukham beginning with an exhale (element), and imagine doing the asana perfectly, but invisible.  No one will know, you will have no feedback or barometer for how it went. All you will be left with was how you existed in your element, in that field, in that moment.

Dogen:

Kusho_Humanity-Healing

“Thus the bird and the fish totally covers their full range and totally experiences their life”

Michael Stone says nothing obstructs steadiness and joy (enlightenment) more than believing it is outside of you and your life.

Rumi (2061) says

Give yourself a kiss.
If you live in China, don’t look
somewhere else, in Tibet, or Mongolia.

If you want to hold the beautiful one,
hold yourself to yourself.

When you kiss the Beloved,
touch your own lips with your own fingers.

The beauty of every woman and every man
is your own beauty.

The confusion of your hair
obscures that sometimes.

An artist comes to paint you
and stands with his mouth open.

Your love reveals your beauty,
but all covering would disappear
if only for a moment your holding-back
would sit before your generosity
and ask,
“Sir, who are you?”

At that,
Shams’ life-changing face
gives you a wink.

Sthira Sukham Asanam – II

sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46

The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful  -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.

In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).

Last month sukham was the focus, this month it will be sthira.

Sthira

Steady is a term which makes one think of statues, of tall oak trees, of houses with deep cement foundations, of things which are mostly, if not entirely, unmoving. It is this that gives them the strength to be steady.

Swami Satchidinanda says “Anything that makes us stiff can also break us. Only if we are supple will we never break.” The first step in practicing sthira, then, is to come to a new understanding of what steady means.  To find a definition that allows for flexibility, for motion.  Just think – tadasana, mountain pose, is the steadiest of all postures. A quick self-check while standing in that pose will reveal all sorts of movement – breath, blood, small balance adjustments of the feet, light swaying of the torso, micro adjustments to stay aligned, electrical impulses – not all of which can be felt.

Let’s look at an experiment. Matthieu Richard mentions, in his TED Talk, of an experiment performed using bombs. Intentional explosions would go off, and researchers would measure the reaction of participants – which were all varying degrees of flinches and the like.

Long –time meditation practioners were then asked to participate. The bombs went off. They did not flinch. Not even a little. Matthieu explains that it is not because the monks took as their mantra “I will not flinch”, or some other intention to be still.  Instead, they meditated as they always did – with an openness to whatever arises in the moment.

Steadiness, then, resides in that same deep place within us that joy does.  It’s when we tap into that serenity that lies below the surface of the deep ocean of our being, that we connect to both sthira and sukham, steadiness and joy.  Instead of separate experiences, they actually inform and support the other.

During asana and meditation practice, we naturally experience this place. But instead of just allowing it to arise by chance, by the luck of the savasana, this sutra encourages us to intentionally make these connections.  Repeated work here leads to more natural connections, more often.  Eventually, this steady joyful place assumes its rightful place not only in our inner lives, but outer ones as well. It doesn’t mean we have erased hurt, disappointment, anger, or other reactions and experiences of suffering. What we have cultivated is a state of being that makes the hurts last short, hurt less, and feel smaller. They joys, in turn, last longer, are enjoyed more, and feel larger.

Sthira Sukham Asanam – I

In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).

sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46
The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful  -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.

Sukham

Looking at a yoga sutra that comes just before this one, we see that Patanjali has provided a pathway to practicing sukham:

Santosad anuttamah sukha labhah
By contentment, supreme joy is gained.

To practice joy is to first practice contentment – santosa.  The origin of the word contentment is “contain”.  When we are in a state of contentment, we contain everything we need to be happy. Nothing is missing. Nothing. The heart of this sutra is not that we need to work towards being content, but that we already are. Right now, we have everything we need. We are whole.

This is sometimes expressed as the ability to want what we have, rather than have what we want.

We have all experienced this. Moments when we look around us and realize that there is no where else we’d rather be. Or we look at our companion(s) and realize there is no one else we’d rather be here with.  Nothing is missing. We are happy.

The sutra on contentment is asking us to stop leaving it up to luck and happenstance, to a perfect concentration of circumstances.  Instead, intentionally shift perspective to contentment, to nothing missing. Try it out. Even if you have to do so doubtingly, put aside the new job, the different apartment, the change in your partner, the place you’d rather be, and fully believe that right now nothing is missing.

A natural joy and happiness arises, without force, as a result of a moment, however fleeting, of contentment.  It is a shift in perspective, not a shift in circumstance, that allows for santosa and sukham.

Repetition is necessary, all aspects of yoga are a lifelong practice. Eventually, we develop a deep well of sukham.  In the analogy by Matthieu Richard*, we are like the ocean far out to see. On the surface we may have leaping waves dolphins frolic in or turbulent storm tossed ones, but deep down we have a still, steady, always present serenity and joy.

Sometimes we experience this in asana. When we experience the sthira sukham within each pose, instead of purely the external motions of the physical body on the surface, we notice  how the body is moving around this steady joyful source.  All the asanas begin to feel the same.  Our sukham – joy – begins to become steady.

Next month we will focus on sthira.

*Inspired by Matthieu Richard’s November 2007 TED talk.