“…Don’t try to control [the] energy experience, we’re free to surrender to the wave of sensation, of feeling, and of energy. In these remarkable moments of freedom, we can let life touch us as it is, because at our core we know everything is already OK.”
- Stephen Cope in Yoga and the Quest for the True Self
I’m working on softening my yoga practice and it’s not easy. A lot of us guys struggle with muscles that get in the way. Big shoulders, tight hip flexors, football quads. Not only does this make the physical practice of asana challenging, the mental side is not tipped in our favor either. Many of us grew up in an athletic culture that values pushing your self to extremes to maximize physical ability, capture a league title, or make an all-star team. Digging into yoga philosophy over the past seven years has exposed me to very different values.
Selfless effort. Let go of the clinging. Chill out. Breathe. While you’re at it, contort your body into seemingly absurdist shapes. Literally and figuratively turned upside down, I have learned that to expand my asana practice and access some of yoga’s professed fruits – less fear, anxiety, judgment, I need to slow down and soften my the struggle. Anusara Yoga calls this process Open to Grace.
When I over-effort in class my friends hear me grunt and my teacher sees me stare intensely. I squeeze my muscles as if trying to choke the pose from my body. I am always determined to give the poses everything I have got, undoubtedly a positive trait. After all, I grew up pushing my body through intensity. However, “open to grace” is revolutionary for a guy like me. Venturing into foreign territory, I am scared to surrender control.
My teacher, Annie Adamson of Portland, Oregon’s Yoga Union, recently asked me to demonstrate Handstand to Uttanasana in front of class. Immediately, I felt desire, the need to force myself upon the pose, well up inside me. It was as if John Cafferty plugged his guitar into my head and started singing his song from the training montage in Rocky IV, “Hearts on Fire”. I wanted to go big, rely on the passion that helped me succeed in sports. Kicking up into handstand, I was fairly steady, no easy feat for me, one that took months of dedication to approach. As I began to lower my legs sweat poured from my face. effort. Let go of the clinging. Chill out. Breathe. While you’re at it, contort your body into seemingly absurdist shapes. Literally and figuratively turned upside down, I have learned that to expand my asana practice and access some of yoga’s professed fruits – less fear, anxiety, judgment, I need to slow down and soften my the struggle. Anusara Yoga calls this process Open to Grace.
“Slowly”, Annie said.
I began to exert more. Grunting deep breaths and firmly hugging my arms toward each other, I fought to complete the challenging transition. Landing with a thud, I felt relieved. I accomplished my task. I “stuck it” to use gymnastics parlance.
“Now do it softly, without grunting.”
I laughed. The most vibrant part of asana practice, and yoga in general, is the daily reminder of how much I have to learn. When recently my Anusara Immersion teacher, Sianna Sherman, asked me to breath like “soft moonlight” during practice it became abundantly clear. Open to Grace, Chris. Trust there is support. You don’t have to struggle and do it alone.
Anusara Yoga’s first principle asks that we surrender the effort of ego and have faith in the power of a buoyant and compassionate spirit that surrounds us. Open to Grace requests we literally trust that the universe is inherently good and begin every posture, and in turn every day, with an open heart. I recognize trust this deep is hard to come by. A lot of terrible things happen in a world supposedly so supportive. It is challenging to fully dive into a heart-centered practice like Anusara but this choice is ours to make. We can see each moment and all experiences as opportunities to expand consciousness or we can try to push through with a single-minded focus using our individualized determination. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of moments that call for forceful and decisive action. Moments when you’d better act and skillfully navigate real danger. Nonetheless, can burning passion alone, that “heart on fire”, access “yoga”, the state of integration between mind, body, and soul? Can I will myself to God?
The trait I never want to lose seems like the one I need to transform the most. I will not dissolve or decrease my passion but rather radically expand it by infusing a soft and agile flexibility that supports a dance with life rather than a struggle against it. If I am not mindful the same fire with which I aim intensely at handstand will entangle me in hardening and contracting mental habits of ego like judgment, impulsivity and craving. These traits confine perspective to a limited view that is too often reinforced by culturally appropriate achievements in education, employment and financial gain. In the name of more holistic growth, I am learning to notice these egoic moments and consciously breath into their intensity. The power of a single full breath, of opening to grace, is astounding. These moments soften my tendency to over effort and offer unparalleled support in shifting from tense and rigid to fluid and open.
It’s simply a hell of a practice. The hardest thing I have ever done. I am asked not to “try” less more but to try differently. I can grow the most radically when trusting the vast sweetness of grace instead of ignoring it and charging headlong into the next challenge. Small glimpses of grace tell me that when we strip away the anxiety and ego that permeates our day to day functioning, human experience is rooted in a universally connected web of pure love so potent its impossible to fathom.