Float or Fight
Stepping to the front of the mat and attempting to surrender to the idea that for the next 60+ minutes we are going to practice "relaxing effort" can present something of a conundrum in our practice. Since yoga is at least in part a physical experience we often assume that without struggle we wont reap its many flaunted benefits. So we hold on tight, contract our mental muscles and launch ourselves into the "work" of making it happen. Instead of floating, we bang and stumble our way from one practice to the next. I refer to this as the "hard work" paradigm and it is mostly about affirming what we already know about our physical experience? Since the effort we exert sometimes allows us to muscle our way through yoga postures that seemed unreachable a few months ago, this paradigm can be difficult to shake. Inevitably though we hit a plateau and begin to wonder why we are working so hard all the time. We begin to wonder if this is it...and for some of us it is. We have simply affirmed what we already knew - our bodies are finite structures. When I was swimming competitively one of my coaches, Jack Nelson, used to go on and on about how important it was to "swim smart". He employed many “fascinating” techniques to make his point (most of which ended with a fairly large portion of the team treading water). I thought I understood his point then but it wasn't until I began suffering through my yoga practice a few years later that his words really clicked into place. “Muscles can help you float or they can drag you down. Brute strength and effort don’t win a race. Efficiency and awareness can make a mediocre swimmer great. Swim smart!”
In life we often approach a situation with our full compliment of attachments, conflicts and preconceptions about who we are and how we are. Before we say a single word, take a single breath or make our first move we have predetermined the outcome of the experience. This is our story, the self-perpetuating tale we weave to maintain the status quo, and it can lead to a cycle of negative repeating behaviors.
Relaxing effort means that we allow the story line and its limiting internal definitions to fall away. Essentially we attempt to move or love or breathe or eat or work with intelligence. The key to this form of intelligent action is nonjudgmental observation. We watch, we notice and we make small adjustments that keep us asking questions about where we are. The real practice then is in learning how to allow the experience to live us so that ME stops getting in the way. I have found over the years that intelligent action can infuse an otherwise stale, flat practice with new life and tons of fresh energy. Suddenly we are like children again curiously exploring and playing through what we previously identified as “work”. So the next time you step to the front of your mat don't try so hard to be who you think you are, instead relax the effort and swim smart!