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.
Relaxation 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
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.
At 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.