July's Gift: Balance
One of the great benefits of yoga is the opportunity to find and practice a balance between effort and ease. We can take what we learn in yoga about balancing effort and ease from our yoga mat or chair and find ways to practice this ever-changing individual dance in our often shaky and unbalancing lives outside of class. This spring as studios have closed because of
Covid-19, more and more of us are teaching and practicing yoga at home alone while watching our teachers and other students on an electronic screen. Virtual yoga offers an opportunity to practice while adding opportunities to find our balance in new ways. Back in March, all this new screen-time yoga seemed a bit intimidating and difficult. As a student and as a teacher I feared that the quality of my experience would be dependent on the quality of the technology involved. Nowadays I am logging into class with less trepidation about the technology and realizing that, as was true in on-the-ground classes, my experience is probably more dependent on what I bring to the mat or the chair than it is on the quality of my microphone or speaker.
My first experience with practicing virtual yoga was with my long-time favorite yoga teacher. Given that I was in Florida and she was in Vermont, the opportunity to practice with her in real time was a treat. I loved hearing her voice with her excellent guidance and seeing her so clearly demonstrate poses in my living room. Listening and watching on my computer, I decided this new-to-me technology was one of the rare gifts in a crazy-making world where I was feeling thrown off-balance with every newscast. By the end of the 75-minute class I felt more balanced and centered than I had for a while Since that first evening, I’ve tuned into this Virtual Gentle Evening Kripalu class nearly every Thursday at 4:45. (Check it out at http://www.embodiedvermont.com).
My first experience with teaching virtual yoga was a practice session I did with a small group of supportive friends who volunteered to be my test students. Nervously beginning the class, I fussed with getting people online, tinkered with sound, and fretted about whether or not people could see my head and my feet at the same time. So, concerned about “getting it right” on the computer, I felt a bit rattled in the yoga teacher seat. As my friends helped me check out at the end of class, I said “I don’t think I’m going to like this much. I feel disconnected and like this is more like a performance than a teaching experience.” As the last couple of weeks of teaching a virtual chair yoga class have unfolded, I’ve found the technology easier. As I had noticed as a student myself, I’ve heard from my students that there are some actual advantages to virtual yoga. One student observed that doing a virtual yoga class is like have a private yoga session. While we may miss that shared feeling we get from an in-person class, we can get to class no matter how far away it is and no matter what the weather is. We can end our own virtual class sooner or later than the actual class end time. We can mute ourselves and play our own music. We can turn off our video feed and not be seen by anyone else. We are less likely to be comparing our yoga to another student’s yoga. With practice, we can become better able to balance our effort and our ease as we become able to let go of too much effort with the technology and become more able to focus on relaxing into our our own yoga experiences.
BALANCE OF EFFORT AND EASE: The Concept
The balance of effort and ease was first described in three words in verse 2.46 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras over 1500 years ago. The words “sthira sukham asanam” mean that the “seat” in yoga should be steady and comfortable. “Sthira” means steady, stable, and aligned with the structure of one’s bones. “Sukham” means comfortable, ease-filled, and light. “Asanam” refers to the seat or posture. Yoga postures were not originally intended to be heavy physical workouts to do at the gym, but instead to be a way of best preparing oneself for meditation. This idea of a steady, stable base combined with ease-filled lightness provided a seat for introspection and meditation. One of my favorite ways to describe the balance of effort and ease in a yoga posture is to consider what it takes to hold a wet bar of soap in the shower. If you don’t hold the wet bar of soap with enough effort it falls to the floor. If you hold it too tightly it flies out of your hand. We all learn with practice just exactly how to hold the bar so that it does what we need it to do. In yoga, if we find just the right amount of effort, engagement and grounding we can begin to explore the lightness and move happily toward the sky. I heard another teacher recently refer to the “Goldilocks” place…the place that is “just right.” Finding this place over and over is a challenge and an opportunity. Once we find it, we know just where it is. Awareness of breath can help us ground and then help us remain in the “just right” place of grounding to move to the balance point between grounding and lightness.
TAKING THE BALANCE OF EFFORT AND EASE OFF THE MAT OR CHAIR
Maybe especially in 2020, every day seems to require finding some kind of balance. How deeply engaged can we be every day in helping to increase justice for all while we take good care of our children, our aging parents and ourselves? How vigorously do we need to clean the groceries we bring into our house while managing to maintain some kind of optimism that can help us care for ourselves and others without going completely off the rails? What can we control and what can we not control and how hard should we be constantly trying? Should we just stop watching the news and give up and let whatever happens happen? All this worry and wondering knocks us off balance continuously.
Grounding and steadiness seem to me the best way to begin to find some kind of balance on a minute by minute basis, both in yoga and in daily life. I love the fact that the word “asanam” means seat or posture but that it also means “dwelling.” If we think of our bodies and their very structure of bone and muscle as our dwelling, then we can think about making that dwelling strong and stable with healthy food, exercise, and rest. We can think then of stopping in our tracks and finding that “sthira” stability in any given moment. Once stable and finding our breath, we can connect body with mind and think of moving to an exploratory attitude of practicing “sukham,” reaching skyward with lightness. In this way we can follow the guidance of this ancient advice to move toward making our “seat both steady and comfortable” on and off the yoga mat. This balanced spot between effort and ease may only last a moment at a time, but sending balanced energy out from our dwelling into the world could make a difference for ourselves and others around us.
This month’s yoga pose: Vriksasana (tree pose)
This month’s yoga pose is Vriksasana or Tree Pose, demonstrated in the photo above by lovely Lindsay Smith. Tree Pose is the perfect opportunity to practice the balance of effort and ease. If you have issues with your hips or knees and want to try tree seated in a chair, that can work as well. You can also use a chair or a wall to help with your balance. Once you complete tree on one side you will move to repeat the pose on the other leg.
Before moving into tree, practice for a bit standing with all your weight on one leg. You can do this somewhat tentatively by just stepping off onto one foot and moving around a bit to see what it feels like. Decide if you want to be near a wall or a chair to help with your balance. When you feel ready to move into the pose, find a place in front of you that will not move and use that as your visual focal point or “drishti.”
- Choose which leg you will use first as the base of your tree. Find “sthira” as you feel the deep roots under the foot of your grounding leg and unlock the knee of that leg. Notice what it feels like to move into this one-legged stance. Let the muscles of your legs hug the bones as you use your mindful effort to get yourself really stable. Engage with effort as you engage your breath and abdomen and lengthen through your torso, finding the perfect balance in your body in this moment. Let your shoulders soften down, your arms hanging loosely at your sides. Imagine you could isometrically move your pubic bone toward your sternum to lengthen through your lower back.
- Slowly turn the other knee out toward the side (as shown in the picture above) and bring the sole of the lifted foot to rest somewhere NOT on your knee. The foot can rest on the ankle of your standing leg or against the inside of the lower leg or if it works in your body against the inside of the thigh. Wherever this is, notice that your leg gently presses into the sole of the foot as the sole of the foot gently presses into the standing leg.
- As you use your grounding and your breath and your visual connection with the drishti (focal point) out in front to assist with finding a strong stable base, notice your grounding effort and begin to explore the idea of “sukham,” ease and lightness. Lengthen your neck and keeping your chin parallel to the ground, lift the crown of your head toward the sky. Find the position that works for your arms. They can be at your heart with palms lightly together or you can lightly raise one or both arms to find the perfect position for the limbs of your tree.
- Notice what you notice about what it feels like to be grounded with just the right amount of effort strongly into the earth while reaching with just the right amount of ease toward the sky. Notice what this feeling of just the right balance of effort and ease feels like in your body in this moment. Pay attention to that feeling. Breathe and know that you can find this feeling of balance inside yourself wherever and whenever you need it.
If you start to wobble and begin to come out of the pose unexpectedly, without judgment remind yourself that yoga, like life, “is a dance between control and surrender and between pushing and letting go.” In both dances, you always have the choice to move yourself gently back into where you need to be. Observing how you respond to teetering a bit in a pose can give you information about how being off balance feels to you as well as information about how you typically respond to this loss of balance. Noticing your typical response to getting off center and exploring different possible responses can provide valuable information to use when you feel knocked off-center in the world.
5. Use the other leg to do tree on the other side of the body. Start by playing with balancing a bit on this leg and then move into tree on this side.
Namaste, yogis. Peace to my heart. Peace to your heart. Peace to all hearts everywhere.