Finding Effortless Effort in Our Asanas

John Schumacher

In the three–sutra section on Asana in Sadhana Pada (II:46–48) of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says, "Prayatna shaitilya ananta samapatthibhyam" (II:47, "Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached"). –B.K.S. Iyengar

The question I want to deal with in this essay is: how do we find effortlessness in the midst of a physically challenging pose such as Virabhadrasana III or Kapotasana, and what does that even mean?

You may doubt that such effortless effort is possible given the physical demands of many–if not most–of the asanas. Yet you have only to watch B.K.S. Iyengar stay in Dwipada Viparita Dandasana or Kapotasana for five, ten, fifteen minutes or more and observe–or more accurately, experience–the steady, effortless quality of the pose over that time to understand that effortlessness is not only possible, but that for at least one person, Guruji, effortlessness in demanding asanas is a reality.

But before I dig into the subject, I want say that to a large extent, one particular event in my life led to the explorations that inform much of what I have to say in this article. This was the discovery, about five years ago, that my blood pressure had reached levels (140/90) that caused my doctor some concern. Although these levels are not alarming, my doctor was of the opinion that I should take a mild blood pressure medication to bring the levels back to normal before they went higher or inflicted long–term strain on my cardiovascular system. I am loath to take any kind of prescription medication for a variety of reasons, although I certainly understand that there are times when it may be absolutely necessary, and this didn't seem like one of those times–at least not yet. Besides, being a yoga teacher dedicated to using my practice to deal with the challenges of life, I felt an obligation to use my practice to work with my condition.

I began by trying the various Asana and Pranayama sequences that are advised for high blood pressure. I monitored my blood pressure using a standard blood pressure cuff to the point of obsession. I checked before and after each pranayama, at various stages before and after asanas, and at different times throughout the day. I became a little nutty with this, but it was also very interesting. The recommended sequences didn't work for me; in fact, they seemed to exacerbate the condition. What I did find that worked (my blood pressure is now around 120/80) was to become very finely attuned to the sensations in my sense organs and various structures of my head and neck (temples, throat, etc.) in my Asana practice, and especially in Pranayama. I had to develop a much more effortless quality to my practice before it began to lower my blood pressure.

Although this essay is not about the details of my blood pressure adventure, it is the exploration of this effortless quality of practicing that has helped me understand what little I do about Patanjali's and Guruji's comments concerning effortless effort and the perfection of Asana. It provides the springboard for the comments that follow.

Except for completely supported asanas such as Savasana, Supta Baddha Konasana, Viparita Karani, and the like, all poses require some physical effort. Even the simplest asanas use some muscular action to enter and maintain them. Seated poses such as Swastikasana and Virasana take the least energy, but even they need muscular effort to keep the spine upright and balanced. So let's grant that effortless effort does not mean "no effort." In some sense, then, we are talking about a question of degree. How can we do a pose, even an advanced asana, with as little effort as possible?

The first step in developing effortlessness is learning. Do you remember when you were first learning to drive a car, how exhausting it was, all that concentration and working the pedals and steering and watching the road and worrying about running into something? Do you remember first learning to do Utthita Trikonasana, so much to think about, to struggle with, to do? Well, you did your practice and you learned. I've heard Guruji refer to this as "donkey work." And donkey work is inherently effortful.

After a while, donkey work becomes "mule work." Mules are smarter than donkeys. They respond to verbal commands and get a lot more done. The pupil doing mule work catches instructions and responds in her body more quickly with less extraneous movement and energy involved. She uses less effort and achieves more effect.

Through persistence and devotion, the pupil's practice gradually develops into "horse work." At this point, she has acquired increased sensitivity, more intelligence, and greater refinement. Watch a horse move and compare those movements with those of a mule or donkey. Of course, the horse moves much faster, but more to the point, its movements seem easier, more graceful and fluid, more effortless.

As you know, one of the dividends of persistent practice is that the longer and more often you do it, the more skilled you become. And when you act skillfully, much less effort is required to do the same task that initially was exhausting. Now that you've learned to drive your car (more or less), you can drive, eat a Snickers, tune your radio, read a road sign, and talk to your companion, all at the same time, usually without smashing yourself to bits. A certain amount of effortlessness comes as a result of learning.

Another important element in finding effortless effort is your intention (sankalpa). Why are you practicing the asanas? If it is primarily to become stronger, to become more flexible, and to build stamina–in other words, if your goal is primarily physical–then the effort in your practice will be quite different than if your intention in doing the asanas is to bring your body and mind to a state of quiet equilibrium. You can become quite the whiz–bang performer of really hard poses and still be very effortful in the doing. Your poses will look spectacular to the untrained eye, but they will be far from perfection as Patanjali defines it. If you don't care about being effortless, if that's not what you're looking for, then it's unlikely that effortlessness will come any time soon.

Given what has just been said, one thing to keep in mind is that not every practice need or should be geared toward effortlessness. Sometimes you're trying to learn something new: a new pose or a new action in a pose. In that case, you will be using effort to learn what you're trying to learn. You will make mistakes and you will need to repeat things over and over. Even though you may be a mature practitioner, in that practice you are back to donkey work. Perfection is not at issue.

The single, most crucial element in your quest for effortless effort is to develop a quiet, receptive mind. This can come only when you have done your donkey, mule, and horse work and have decided that effortlessness is what you're looking for in your practice. As long as you're learning the mechanics of an asana and trying to build the requisite physical skills, the reflective mind necessary for effortlessness will be very elusive. You will busy "doing." Doing takes effort. Someone once asked the famous yogi Swami Satchidananda if, being a yogi, he was also a Hindu. He waggled his head a little, twinkled his eyes, and said, "I am an Undo." Just so. For your efforts to become less effortful, you must become skillful and intentional in your doing, otherwise, the grossness of your doing will disturb your mind. To go from doing to undoing, you must, then, become quiet, receptive, and reflective in mind and body.

In discussing the reflective mind, Prashant Iyengar has likened the mind to a pond or lake. He says, "The soil has to become steady and only then you get reflections. So, for reflection, your mind should be quiet, like a lake, then you get the reflection…. If you are constantly creating waves and ripples in your mind, there can't be any possibility of reflection."

The adjustments necessary to create a reflective mind and to reduce effort take place on a number of different levels. One level is familiar to all of us who practice Iyengar Yoga: the level that involves alignment. Alignment is important for a lot of reasons–safety, biomechanical efficiency, aesthetics–but it is also critical in facilitating the free flow of energy in the body. Misalignment creates resistance, and resistance impedes the flow of energy. Increased effort then becomes necessary to overcome the resistance engendered by misalignment. Furthermore, when the body is aligned properly, the cells of the body function in harmony. This harmonious functioning creates ease in the body and serenity in the mind. Both body and mind then can come more readily to a reflective state.

For the beginner, alignment involves effort, donkey work. He is learning what actions to take to bring about proper alignment in the pose. He isn't worried about effortlessness, he's just trying to get the alignment right. The minute he stops thinking about lifting his kneecaps, down they go. He is not reflecting, he has to keep thinking, he has to keep doing.

For the mature practitioner, the doing is done. His kneecaps stay up. And because he is capable of a reflective state of mind, the minute his kneecaps drop, it is like a pebble pitched into the still lake of his mind. He doesn't think, "Oh, my kneecaps have dropped. I have to lift my kneecaps." Instead, the cells of his body perceive the change and he adjusts intuitively. At this stage, alignment and adjustments don't go through the brain, which would disturb the reflective state and create effort. Rather, the misalignment is the doing, and the reflective, intuitive adjustment is the undoing.

This whole process happens with the breath as well. One way to bring the mind to a more quiet state is by being aware of your breath. It is also a way to monitor and adjust the effort you are using in your practice. Beginners often don't know when they're holding their breath. They have to learn to observe the breath as part of the doing of the asana. Assuming no respiratory problems, the breath should be as soft, steady, and easy as possible–in other words, effortless. Certainly different poses put different demands on your breathing. Your breath in Marichysasana III will be inherently more labored and difficult than in Bharadvajasana II. But within the context of any given asana, your breathing will change depending on how much effort you are putting forth. As you adjust your pose, be conscious of the effect of your adjustments on the quality of your breathing. Pay particular attention to your diaphragm and create as much softness and space there as possible. If and when you find your breathing labored or you need to breathe through your mouth, you know you're far away from effortlessness. As your adjustments bring your breathing into a soft, easy rhythm, you will find that your body lets go of some of its effort and your mind moves to a more reflective state; it becomes quieter and clearer.

This process is even more relevant to the practice of Pranayama. By focusing directly and primarily on breathing, you can bring your quest for a reflective state of mind to a more subtle level. One of the reasons we as Iyengar Yoga practitioners begin by doing Pranayama in Savasana is to allow ourselves the possibility of a relaxed body and a quiet, receptive mind, which are essentials for Pranayama.

Once you've aligned and relaxed the muscles of the body, and the mind has attained a receptive state, attention must be paid to the sense organs. The eyes, ears, tongue, skin, even the state of the mucus membranes in the nose and sinuses have to be brought to a highly sensitive state. I have found this to be easier to do in Pranayama than in Asana. The relative stillness of the body in Pranayama lends itself to our being able to observe the sense organs in a very subtle way. When you've sensitized yourself in Pranayama, then that sensitivity can be brought to your Asana practice.

As in relaxing the muscles, the relaxation of the sense organs is, at first, a matter of doing. You intentionally direct your attention to each of the sense organs, release grips and tension, and allow them to become quiet. The receptive mind perceives tension (effort) and sends a message to let it go. We teachers do this with our pupils whenever we teach them Savasana. Once you are skilled at attaining complete passivity in the sense organs, however, the mind slips from receptivity into reflectivity. The slightest change (which in a passive state inherently implies effort) in your eyeball pressure disturbs the reflective calmness of the mind and elicits an immediate response in your eye to relax that does not pass through the mind.

From the experience of effortless effort in the practice of reclining Pranayama, you can move on to developing a reflective state of mind in seated Pranayama (much more challenging). And even though Pranayama follows Asana on the eightfold path, the quality of effortlessness developed in practicing seated Pranayama then can be brought to bear on your Asana practice. And so, as you reach the fourteenth minute of your Dwipada Viparita Dandasana, your reflective mind remains exquisitely sensitized to the tiniest ripples your body creates and observes as the reflective nature of the cells of your body causes them to shift subtly to realign and release the unintended and unnecessary effort that disturbed them.

In a way, I have been talking about how to "do" the process of undoing, which would seem to be a bit oxymoronic. (I've been accused of worse.) But the phrase effortless effort is itself paradoxical. How do you do effort effortlessly? It may be helpful to deal with the conceptual conundrum of effortless effort by taking
a look at the relationship of abhyasa and vairagya.

Abhyasa often is translated as "effort." It is about doing. And vairagya often is translated as "detachment" or "dispassion." It is about undoing. Just as Pranayama follows Asana, so does vairagya follow abhyasa. But just as Pranayama can inform and refine Asana, so varaigya can, and indeed must, color abhyasa so that each has the flavor of the other. Yes, you may be working toward touching your head to your feet in Kapotasana (abhyasa), but you must be willing let go of the idea of the final pose when your sacrum signals you that it is not yet ready to move in so deeply (vairagya).

As Guruji says, abhyasa and vairagya are the two wings of the eagle of sadhana that carries us over the hills and valleys of the fluctuations of the mind to the abode of yoga where we can be, moment to moment, our true self, undivided and complete. At that point, prayatna shaitilya ananta samapatthibhyam has brought us to dvandvah anabhighatah (II:48), where we have transcended duality, where abhyasa and vairagya, inner and outer, effort and effortless, doing and doer all fall away. Then it is no longer a question of more effort or less effort or even effortless effort. Then, as when Guruji remains in a deep backbend for what seems like eternity, for that moment, we are the asana, we are the infinite present. Without effort, we simply are.

John Schumacher is the founder and director of Unity Woods Yoga Center, the largest Iyengar Yoga center in the United States. He has taught in the Washington DC metropolitan area since 1973. John has received Advanced Junior I certification from B.K.S. Iyengar.