by Barrie Risman
I live on the South Shore of Montreal, across the St. Lawrence river. Like many of my students, I often take the Champlain Bridge to get to the studio. Of the three ways to access the bridge, the most direct route from my home is usually the least crowded and easiest.
Many mornings as I get onto the bridge, I see the other two approaches backed up with traffic. I think to myself, “If they only knew there was another way”. The drivers would only need to go past their usual exit to another, much easier entry point. “Oh well”, I conclude, “they have no way of knowing”. Besides, they would have to be willing to let go into the unknown to see if another, better way was available. It’s probably too much to ask for during a morning commute.
It occurred to me that this phenomenon can also be seen as a metaphor for the nature of effort in yoga and, therefore, in life. Our usual notion of effort is likely something like making things happen, taking action, doing, even struggling or forcing. In yoga this often translates into ‘muscling your way’ into a pose.
In this type of effort, while the outer form of the pose might be achieved, feeling is lost, sensitivity is hardened and awareness is blocked. The end result is often increased tension both physically and mentally, and sometimes injury.
Yoga teaches us that there is another way. It is the effort of expanding our capacity to feel, deepening sensitivity, and refining awareness. We do this in many ways: pausing, taking a breath, softening our outer effort to feel more. We direct the senses inward to expand our awareness of a pose. We partner this internal approach with the outer effort needed to perform the poses.
This is one way to think about what is known in yoga as “right effort”. We balance our action with softening, sensitivity and awareness. We equalize doing with being. In asana, by applying this type of effort we can learn to sense subtle misalignments, adjust and correct them. Then with greater ease, and often less physical effort, access a deeper place, a more expanded experience of a pose. In this type of effort, we might find we are able to access poses we could not have otherwise.
This is reflected in a common experience among yoga students: ‘When I stopped trying so hard, I was able to do it.” When our effort is directed in this way postures, situations or projects might not look easier from the outside. We won’t necessarily have to work less for something we want to achieve.
However, when we are able to apply greater sensitivity and awareness, we learn to sense where the energy of a situation or a project wants to move, and go with that. In doing so, we tend to move through challenges with greater equanimity and grace. This often means letting go of our attachment to how we think things “should be” and surrendering to how they are.
The result is that our vision is expanded, released from our expectations and sensitized to the moment. From this perspective, we can often find another, more easeful entry point into a situation. Like getting onto the Champlain Bridge, this takes a leap of faith and a willingness to let go of your usual approach.