Don’t ‘Do’ Yoga

This was contributed by Satish Ramachandran

We sometimes approach the mat with a desired result, a desire for something on a given day. It could be to attain mastery over a certain pose or poses, get further in the sequence of poses, it could be calmness we seek, maybe a feeling from a prior practice, a deepening of the practice perhaps, a softness maybe. 

With that intent seeded in us, we raise our palms in the first Surya Namaskara, and with an in-breath we start striving towards said goal(s). The practice then unfolds as the intent plays itself out as a sequence of goal pursuits. 

Each pose then, becomes a transaction. 

With the end result established, the struggle to get there begins. For example if a perfect forward fold was the intent, touching the toes and landing the chin becomes a struggle, the mind standing in judgement, muttering with discontent, the breath straining from stretching too hard, the muscles tense, the state anxious – will I make it or not? 

A series of pushes to achieve an end. 

To make matters more interesting, the mind wanders carrying the breath with it, and poses lapse into complete inattention. Upon return, the inner dialogue begins – Man, I should have stayed with the breath, today the practice is tough, should have got more sleep, somehow I have to pull through, am I getting too old for these poses, I wonder how David Roche did it, I can’t wait for the practice to end and a cup of sweet tea, ah that pose feels nice and open, but oh where did it go…oh how I wish…and on…and on… 

Does this sound familiar? 

It happens to me all the time. 

And… it sounds, just like the rest of the day , just like the rest of the days , just like life off the mat…the eternal ping pong between desiring something and rejecting something else, coupled with inordinate periods of inattention. 

An endless conflict between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. Samsara

I ask, won’t such a transaction oriented practice just reinforce our conflict filled existence?. Our existing habits. Deepen our mind patterns, our conflict ridden, conflict normalised conditioning? 

If this is what transpires on the mat, how can it lead to ‘ Chitta Vritti Nirodha’ (freedom from habitual mind patterns/turbulences) ? How can there be ‘ dvandva an-abhighatah’ (freedom from dualities)

The means after all have to be in line with the end. If that stands, then what should the attitude towards the practice be? 

What if one did not to ‘Do’ Yoga but instead Yoga was ‘Done to one’

Let us examine the notion of ‘Doing’ for a minute. Doing implies there is a state of being done, which is different from the present. Secondly, Done always has two flavours minimally – Done well and Done badly. Both are tricky fellows. 

The first one, steals the focus on the present and puts it on the state of being done. In the forward fold example – the focus would no longer be on the movement towards the toes with a steady fluidity of the breath, but would have moved on to the Toes while the body is being pushed to get there. 

And secondly, there is the checking if one succeeded, if it was perfect, if it was done Well or Not, how it compared to yesterday etc…The evaluation and judgement and of course the happiness or disappointment based on how it turned out. 

Both these struggle filled transactional outcomes are undesirable. 

What does it mean then to have Yoga Done to oneself? 

It means one is really not the Doer as in one who Does something and arrives at a Done state, but is someone who is dispassionately ( Vairagya ) aware of the present moment as the body and breath put in the effort along the continuum of the present and the pose that evolves is whatever it is on that day. And from there the dispassionate effort moves onto the next pose and the next one, until one rolls off the mat and the effort moves onto the needs of the day that beckons, and onto the night and on… 

It is the simple recognition that each day, the same pose is different from the day before and different from the one the day after, simply because the person showing up on the mat is not the same from the previous day (or even the one from the previous moment). It is a unique one-shot, with no replays. It is practicing in the present without expectations. 

It means one calmly accepts each asana to be what was given that day and lets it go when it is done with no residue . It is not an attitude of seeking or achieving, but one of receiving each pose with gratitude (i.e. yoga is done to oneself) , without judgement, without dwelling but simply putting in the effort and most importantly moving on. 

It means one witnesses the mind-body-breath doing the asanas with complete attention as the engagement of effort happens in peace, without reaction, with ease, without suffering. There will be physical effort, quite a bit, in a tough bind like Marichyasana D or a hand-stand, there will be some physical discomfort or pain but there is no mental pain (suffering) due to the rejection of the current state but just a calm observation of the process of a pose unfolding

In general, it really helps to examine the forehead, the back of the neck and throat for stress and of course the breath is a great indicator. The recognition of stress and not reacting, but just placing a calm attention on it, I find, results in release. 

For those in whom Bhakti resonates, it might help to think of the practice as a prayer, as an offering. Focusing on establishing the intent of choiceless awareness at the beginning of the practice and reiterating it as needed helps. 

In a way, time on the mat then becomes a practice of vairagya , of non-reactive observation of the movement of a continuous present, a choiceless awareness, a flow. 


ps. As always, much gratitude to all my teachers. This article was triggered by a quote from Prashant Iyengar (paraphrased here) – “Don’t do Pranayama…instead receive the breath”. 

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