More on balance

More on balance

I received the following question (shared with permission) in regards to yesterday’s article on yogabhyasa and health

“When offered a challenging asana, if I maintain my breath but with a bit more enthusiastic effort than what total ease requires, is that too rajasic? I understand that if I can’t maintain the breath, I should rest; however, if I can maintain it with a bit more effort, should I move forward into the asana? I feel that challenge is part of growth so maybe I should move forward mindfully? “

Before we even get into the details lets start with a reminder: Patanjali is clear that no right effort made is a waste no matter how mild. Such good news! The texts help us to clarify our intentions as much as they teach us about the process. Like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (which we will get into tomorrow), we need to hear and think about these principles a lot before they settle in (sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkaradarasevito drdha bhumhih). Connecting new dots in old pattern territory takes time. Even then we must return to them as reinforcement. So let’s reinforce 🙂

First let’s return to the principles of effort AND ease: 

Effort itself is not wrong. Lack of effort is characterized by tamas/inertia. So effort is required in abhyasa and therefore asana. The question uses a helpful qualifier “enthusiastic.” So yes enthusiastic effort (virya) is helpful for yogabhyasa- energy that is sustained/interested. However, what kind of enthusiastic effort are we pointing to? Efforts to get what we “want” are pravritti. They may result in us getting what we want or not but either way if it is founded in the changeable then any satisfaction gleaned will fade leading to more seeking and duhkha. Efforts to get rid of or avoid what we don’t want are nivritti. We may escape and avoid what we don’t want but there will always be another thing that upsets us if our sights are set to external aims. Two sides of a similar coin. So Jivana prayatna is the way: Sustained efforts to support our life and our journey inward. Seeing the asana as an act of devotion (as in the surya namaskar) may also shift the perspective. These efforts are not defined by raga (desire) or dvesa (aversion). These actions are not attached to results. If the attachment is not there then we can have the natural experience of joy that comes when we play with more challenging asana (in the moment) without holding on to those experiences. Experience is not the problem, the attachment to it is.

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”


Regarding ease, language may be getting in the way of the meaning. Ease is not the same as inertia. Ease is not the same as lethargy or sleep (nidra). Ease is more like adaptability and equanimity; a state of mind that is fully present. Ease can be found standing our our head as much as it can be found lying on the floor. We can find ease in play as much as we can in stillness.

Asana is defined as the marriage of the two seeming opposites sthira/stability and sukha/ease (Sutra 2.46). The result of mastery in asana is defined by Patanjali as the ability to stand directly between them in harmony (Sutra 2.48). So not “total ease” or total stability”. Both.

It is also of note that each asana has a different quality to observe. Some are generally more energizing like our bow series, others more enveloping like posterior stretch. There is intensity of focus in others (like the maha mudra and sirsasana). Different asana effect different musculoskeletal structures. The aim is not to have the same exact experience in each asana- that sounds more like detachment. Rather, as we move through the asana experiencing all of these differences can we maintain a mental attitude that brings ease when we are challenged and stability when we could easily check out?

Second the aspect of “moving forward” in an asana. 

In vinyasa krama the breath is the marker for moving forward. if we are able to maintain long SMOOTH breathing and attention on the breath throughout then the body will naturally move into the asana from a position of sthira/sukha. If those qualities are missing then moving forward isn’t ideal. First get back the breath, there is no rush.

The krama here holds the other opportunity for observation. An example is in the sirsasana (headstand). We begin with appropriate preparation in vinyasas and lead sequences with long smooth breathing. The asana itself has several vinyasas to set the foundation and fluidly enter the posture. If there is imbalance of sthira sukha it will be clear in the attitude and therefore the activity. If the attitude is tamasic the mind stops and avoids moving on. If it is rajasic then the mind skips a note or two and pushes ahead (maybe kicking up or forgetting the breath as the legs rise).

”Just as music without proper pitch (sruti) and rhythm (laya) will not give happiness, yogasana practice without the observance of vinyasas will not give health.”

Srivatsa Ramaswami

This might come from anticipation, frustration, maybe fear or another manifestation of the ego but either way if we are not honoring the krama and observing with as much depth and respect the preparation, the entry and the ascent into sirsasana then we can easily push past the point of presence making a highly beneficial asana a liability. If there is a question of moving forward it cannot always be answered in the final presentation but must be observed earlier on via our breathing and quality of attention throughout the preparation. This is also why svadhyaya is important. Understanding the why as much as the how helps us to move forward healthily. The medicine can also be the poison if not integrated with care.

Last the aspect of growth. 

Growth towards what in particular? In asana the effort is characterized by sthira (stability) sukha (ease). So if by growth we mean cultivating this balance in all aspects then sure! However, if by growth we mean a preconceived idea of what the asana looks like that’s a good time to take pause. If I can stand on my head but i’ve thrown out the parameters of the activity that make this yogabhyasa (namely prayatna shaitilyananta samapattibhyam and sthira sukha) then in what direction am I growing and in what direction am I regressing? Growth in yoga often evolves towards simplification, not accumulation. Growth can look as much like learning a new asana as it can look like learning to rest when needed. Growth in yoga is not relinquishing efforts, it’s relinquishing the results (more on this later).

Ultimately this is a continued conversation with yourself. It requires a steady support of inquiry and practice. The concept of perfection in the task is often a detriment and leads many of us to either use our practice as self flagellation/himsa or to give up all together. These too are opposites and asana is meant to bring equanimity as we stand between the opposing forces of nature (tato dvandvanabighatah 2.48). Where are YOU in the asana? Much like this body, asana is merely a container; an expression. Asana practice is a worthy endeavor, a boon to a healthy life, a helpful preparation for subsequent limbs, and yet not the whole package.

The meaning and placement of abhyasa in the yoga sutras is important. It refers not to asana or pranayama or any one of the lower limbs. That is assumed to be part of the mix already. Abhyasa is used in the Samadhi pada and so it is referring to the mind. Everything we do in yoga is ultimately to prepare the mind to stay in samadhi and eventually nirodhah through repeated attempts (tatra stithau yatno’bhyasah 1.13). So while practice of any of the limbs with right effort breeds results, ultimately abhyasa here is samadhi abhyasa. Overall the aim is not perfection of the object (prakriti) rather a relationship to the subject (purusha). Something to consider.

See you tomorrow,



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