Yogic Paradox

It’s not often I look to the Yoga Sutras for inspiration. Not for any hugely profound reason but more as I tend nowadays to be inspired by texts and books on (mostly Western) philosophy or psychotherapy.  However, I knew I wanted to write about the idea of paradox in yoga and as soon as I thought about this, one of Patanjali’s sutras immediately came to mind: ‘sthira sukham asanam’ – the idea that poses should be practised with both firmness and ease. A contradiction in terms you might say.  It is the idea of practising yoga with effortless effort. A paradox. More on this later.

Eastern philosophy is rife with paradox in a way that the Western world often struggles with. We have developed many ways of distorting how we perceive the world and one of the ways I see the most is the idea of all-or-nothing or black-or-white thinking, a grasping for certainty that leads to a kind of Cartesian anxiety, where we find that anything that isn’t 0% or 100% definite is difficult to comprehend.  I see this a lot in my clients that have problems with misusing drugs or alcohol, the misuse being a symptom of something much deeper (such as trauma) but a mind set that often accompanies the drugs or the alcohol is this all-or-nothing thinking, the idea that if you’re going to drink, you might as well make it a three day bender or once you’ve given up the drink, you’ll never be able to drink again. The thought patterns continue even after the drugs or the alcohol have been put down: people grasp for certainty as a way of reducing their anxiety and making themselves feel safe.  Certainty is less anxiety-inducing than existing in the shades of grey.

In yoga, particularly for me Ashtanga Yoga due to its sequential nature and sameness each day, we see paradox written all over it and both seeing and understanding the paradoxical nature of the practice can teach us to be comfortable with contradiction and learn valuable lessons that we can take into our daily lives. It can be an incredibly demanding practice but learning how to breathe and surrender to the poses whilst still exerting the necessary amount of effort (and not more – which includes frowning and screwing up your face in poses – as far as I know, this doesn’t help) can take your practice to a deeper level. All too often I see people pushing themselves through their yoga practice, veins standing out on their foreheads whilst they grunt their way from pose to pose, people taking inconsistent and rapid breaths which incidentally places more strain on the nervous system, taking us more into the sympathetic nervous system and creating tension in the muscles rather than freeing them as it is the sympathetic nervous system that prepares us for ‘fight or flight’.  Just breathe… and bask in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for, amongst other things, rest and relaxation. Another paradox is realising that the practice can play an incredibly meaningful part in one’s life (the health benefits, the impact on lifestyle, the sense of community) whilst realising how essentially meaningless it is (does it really matter if you can get your leg behind your head? Life still goes on and then sadly you realise it isn’t a shortcut to Nirvana) can again help us find the shades of grey soothing rather than scary.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the antidote to all-or-nothing thinking is ‘both-and’ thinking. As someone who was afflicted by all-or-nothing thinking for a large part of my life, this was revolutionary! I could be both a yoga teacher and enjoy a glass (or several) of wine! Up until that point I had carried with me a slight guilt when comparing my more hedonic lifestyle to other yoga teachers that seemed to exist on a diet of sprouted seeds, green tea and chakra opening. I could both find incredible meaning in my Ashtanga practice and feel OK to have the odd lie in every now and then, and not have to follow the somewhat over-zealous and rigid approach that can be found amongst some practitioners of Ashtanga yoga. I finally understood the concept of effortless effort. It’s not something I can say I manage throughout every second of my practice, particularly towards the more challenging poses I’m on, but it’s something I aspire to and aim towards.

To finish we journey back to the East with the picture in the header of this post, and the Taoist concept of yin and yang – an image that has become somewhat clichéd but one that symbolises so eloquently the balancing and interconnectedness of opposites, each side needing its opposite to exist but both existing in harmony and being complementary to each other. And back to the West, or rather Iceland, with this incredibly beautiful song by Björk which espouses a way of being in both our yoga practice and life in general. A lullaby for living. A journey unknowingly hinting at wholeness. Again.

It’s not meant to be a strife
It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill

It’s not meant to be a strife
It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill

You’re trying too hard
Surrender
Give yourself in
You’re trying too hard
You’re trying too hard

It’s not meant to be a strife
It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill
Sweetly
It’s not meant to be a strife
To enjoy
It’s not meant to be a stuggle uphill

It’s warmer now
Lean into it
Unfold
Unfold in a generous way
Surrender

It’s not meant to be a srife (surrender)
It’s not meant (undo) to be a struggle uphill (undo)
It’s not meant to be a strife
It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill

I’m praying
To be
In a generous mode
The kindness kind
The kindness kind
To share me

It’s not meant to be a strife
It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill

Undo
If you’re bleeding
Undo
And if you’re sweating
Undo
If you’re crying, darling
Undo

Unravel

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One response to “Yogic Paradox

  1. Pingback: Refining your practice I: Finding the sweetness | Bob Bharij·

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