Effortless Effort (& How Much Effort is Required to Actually Get There)
A concept that BKS Iyengar often referred to when discussing practice is ‘effortless effort’. I remember the first time I heard that phrase. It really struck me. I immediately understood it to mean a deliberate, well-intentioned practice, but without strain or aggressiveness. I love how the phrase captures the ease with which our practice should ultimately occur, but without suggesting that it should be ‘easy’.
In my own practice I’ve had glimpses of effortless effort, but more often than not, there’s a healthy degree of what I guess I would call effortful effort.
Especially in the early days of my yoga practice, I would wonder how much effort was okay. I often had teachers tell me, ‘Stephanie, don’t be so intense’. ‘You are working too hard’. I never really understood what to make of those comments. At the time, my reality was that I was suffering from debilitating and chronic back pain and yoga was the only thing that gave me slight relief. So yeah, I was intense about it. In fact, I clung to it like a lifeline!
However, despite my intensity, in my own mind I had established a very clear line between being committed to my practice and being aggressive in my practice. It basically came down to the distinction between ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’. Good pain was, for the most part, muscle pain. It was the pain that came from developing strength and stability. Bad pain was that pain that screamed, ‘Stephanie, don’t you dare do that for one second longer!’. It was sharp, intense, and felt inherently wrong.
Over the years, even as my spinal condition improved, this principle of distinguishing between good pain and bad pain has served me well. Teachers no longer tell me that I am ‘intense’ in my practice. I have found the Yoga in my yoga practice, not just the struggle. It’s a beautiful thing – that feeling of intention in practice, a sharpness and clarity in mind and body that expresses itself through asana. However, could I have found that clarity, that rhythm, that ‘effortless effort’ without first putting forth a committed, intentioned, & occasionally intense effort? Personally, I don’t think so. I feel it’s partly because of the struggle that I have been able to ultimately get beyond it.
I remember too, during my visits to RIMYI, being struck by how BKS Iyengar would train the younger teachers of the Institute. He would encourage them to feel, to question, to push new boundaries, to explore their potential. And they all worked hard, with shaky limbs, sweat, and some moans and groans as proof. Yet, when BKS Iyengar practiced, he was as serene as could be. Every asana I had the privilege of witnessing him in seemed to just ‘agree’ with him. He embodied effortless effort to the fullest. Yoga is a journey, and a life long one at that. Witnessing the progression from junior practitioners to the master himself really highlighted this for me.
BKS Iyengar in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana.
There are still many asanas where my body just does not want to cooperate, and in these asanas, my struggle continues. Virabhadrasana 1 for example, will probably forever be a challenge but does that mean I should stop demanding that my back leg straighten…of course not. Does it mean I should practice only Virabhadrasana I regardless of how much it hurts until one day it’s ‘available’…of course not, it just doesn’t work that way.
Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh helping me with my Virabhadrasana 1 from a workshop in 2013. I’m still working at it ;)
When I go to my mat, I ask myself, what is the intention of today’s practice? Do I wish to chip away at a pose or an action that is challenging for me? Or is today’s practice about consolidating the lessons my body, my mind, my whole self has accumulated thus far? In today’s day and age, we are so goal oriented that I think we forget and often undervalue what ‘consolidation’ has to offer. Consolidation, integration, penetration…these are the principles that in my mind make yoga, Yoga, and not just exercise.