How much effort should I put into the practice of yoga?
Yoga is less about effort than it is about grace. I’m not talking about grace in the aesthetic sense of “being graceful” as in a beautifully flowing bodily performance like you see in ballet or gymnastics. I’m talking about grace as an unearned and unexpected gift. You put yourself into the practice with good intentions and do the best you can. But in the end what yoga yields is an unmerited gift no matter how much effort you put into the practice.
Many people have difficulty accepting grace because they think they have to earn everything they get. The 16th century Protestant reformers called that “works righteousness”—the idea that justification comes from personal effort or “works”. That’s really self-justification. There’s a lot of similarity between classical yoga, especially the bhakti tradition, and the Christian understanding of grace.
The Christian understanding of grace owes a lot to the North African church father and bishop, St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine came to the conclusion in his Confessions that at each stage in his life, even when he was just seeking his own pleasure (whether sensual or intellectual), God was actively at work in ways that became clear to him only later on. So, too, in yoga we often discover the gift yoga confers only after practicing it.
To this I would add the understanding of faith proposed by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. He came to the conclusion that he couldn’t earn his salvation by performing a lot of good works to merit God’s favor. He came to see salvation as an unmerited gift of grace. He just had to trust God’s promise. So, too, in yoga we have to trust that we will receive what it promises just by practicing it. Faith in the sense of trust is how we are open to grace.
This understanding of grace has light to shed on my practice of yoga and I have discovered that it’s also in the ancient yoga tradition. Whether it’s in the yoga studio or in life, grace comes from letting go of your own efforts and trusting that you will experience the benefits of your practice. I think this is particularly difficult for men because we tend to switch into the competitive mode when it comes to physical activities. This is especially seen in sports, but we’re also competitive in other aspects of life (even in sex). Even when working out alone, like in running or lifting weights, we compete against ourselves. We want to beat our own records. So we tend to put ourselves full force into everything we do. I have a teacher in a men’s yoga class I have joined who combats this male competitiveness by saying, when he demonstrates a more difficult pose, “if you get this far, that’s your pose.”
Wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) is beautiful to behold, but not easy for the beginner to get into. Can you let go of ego and forego force in favor of being aware of your body’s limitations, exploring the architecture of the pose, and not worrying about how high you can lift your torso from the floor?
Let me clarify that grace is not a matter of tit-for-tat, that I do so much and grace supplies what is lacking. Rather, look upon yoga as a means of grace (the way Christians regard sacraments). As long as you use the sacrament in faith, you receive what it promises. So, too, as long as you practice yoga — even a few simple poses with simple breath work — , yoga yields its benefits. The amount of effort is irrelevant, although intention counts a lot.
Crow pose – one of the first balancing poses new yogis try. I can’t even do this because a shattered left elbow received an elbow replacement and I can’t put too much stress on it.
My teacher, Nick Beem, co-owner with his wife Lela of Grateful Yoga in Evanston, has emphasized stillness in yoga poses (see www.gratefulyoga.com). Grateful Yoga Evanston advertises itself as offering “a mindful practice that’s a balance of effort and ease in a peaceful, uncompetitive environment.” The balance of effort and ease is a major concern of traditional yoga, and it is produced by emphasizing control of the breath (pranayama).
I remember my first private session with Nick shortly after I began attending classes at Grateful Yoga. I had been practicing yoga mostly at the YMCA and I thought I needed to “catch up.” What should we work on? We didn’t do any asanas at all. It was all breath work. I left the session disappointed. But you have to trust your teacher. Only gradually through experience did I come to see that the whole difference between yoga and other types of workouts is the use of the breath.
I admit that I’ve been a twitchy mess getting into and out of poses and trying to hold my balance while in them. I can only imagine what it’s like to practice next to me. Nick encourages us to find a way in which you can calmly hold the pose through even in/out breathing. Even if you don’t think your pose is perfect, you will still get a benefit from doing it. By trying to eliminate all extraneous movements once I’m in a pose, I harness more grace in my practice. (Yoga teachers are always saying, “relax the jaw, it can’t help you by clenching it.”) Whether it’s in the yoga studio or in life, grace comes from letting go, from being detached from your effort. This is the view reported in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:45-47 (translation by Barbara Stoler Miller).
“The posture of yoga is steady and easy.
“It is realized by relaxing one’s effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity.
“Then one is unconstrained by opposing dualities.”
This is all that the Yoga Sutra has to say about asanas. Only 3 verses out of 195! Asana is achieved by being stable and comfortable. This is realized by relaxing one’s effort, using the breath for support, and being at rest. Then duality does not interfere and the mind and body are one. This kind of steadiness and ease can even be achieved in a difficult pose like this eight-angle pose pictured below. (I take this on faith since it’s not a pose I can do!)
Yoga is not an abstract philosophy; it is an experiential science. The experience of yoga is that grace—the benefit of the practice—comes in the release or surrender of excessive muscular effort, and the result is that the muscles actually become stronger and more supple. The breath (prana) is an extremely useful tool to show where your mind is or is not during the practice of yoga. Our minds can work against us. Our mind may tell us to put more muscular effort into the pose. I’ve experienced that when muscular effort is excessive, raggedness in breathing is usually the first side-effect. It may be a sign to back off. Maintaining a smooth, even rhythm in your breathing (for example, a ratio of 4:4 seconds inhale/exhale) is a useful reminder not to overwork the muscles. And the paradox is that by not overworking, yoga yields its blessings.
It is no different in our relationship with God. While yoga is not a religion, it is not unrelated to religion either. If the lessons of religion can be applied to yoga, the lessons of yoga can be applied to religion. Grace is received when we cease our efforts to attain God by our own works and simply surrender to divinity. Both the Kath Upanishad and Mundak Upanishad (3:2-3) say:
“God cannot be understood through study, debating, intellectual application or mere listening. When a soul surrenders to God wholeheartedly, he receives God’s grace, and with God’s grace, he attains God.”
In the Bhagavad Gita (11:53-54), Krishna revealed His divine form of omnipotence to Arjuna, and then He explained,
“Arjuna, the divine vision of My form that you just experienced is not the result of studying the Vedas or performing the austerities from the paths of jnana and yoga, it not the result of performing good actions, Vedic rituals or following religious rules and regulations. This is only the result of My grace, which you receive when you have exclusive devotion for Me.”
“Exclusive devotion” is the translation of ananya bhakti — singleminded devotion or worship. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard taught that if we want to know God we have to take a “leap of faith.” Faith is an act of commitment, of devotion, of singlemindedness. He wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” To will to do good for the sake of reward, for example, is to be double-minded, and the heart is not pure. We must simply will to do good for its own sake.
Bhakti is the sanskrit term also used for worship. People tend to judge worship on the basis of what they get out of it. The spiritual truth is that you get something out of worship when you stop looking for what you can get out of it and just give glory and honor to God because the God of grace is worthy of your worship. (The English word “worship” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for “ascribing worth”.)
Upward-facing dog — opening the heart, the center of commitment, devotion, love, worship.
Yoga is not unlike that. Yoga will yield what it has to offer after you’ve detached yourself from the effort and surrendered to the breath, to what I call the indwelling Spirit (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, prana in sanskrit). This is a very hard lesson for all of us to learn, especially because we are taught in our culture that reward comes from our own striving and devising. The lesson of grace that one can learn in the practice of yoga counters that cultural assumption.
Oh, yes, there’s always the well-appreciated final savasana (corpse pose) in which we absorb the efforts of the practice — a final gift of grace that comes from ceasing all effort.
Pastor Frank Senn