Effort and Surrender

Yoga practice is a balance between effort and surrender.  In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali tells us:

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah
"Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness"
YS I.12 translated by BKS Iyengar

Abhyasa is repeated effort, or consistent practice and vairagya is detachment, or renunciation.  But how can we remain dedicated to earnest practice if we are detached?  Why would we try hard to do something if we didn't care about the outcome?  How can we combine these seemingly opposing attributes in one practice? 

The answer is that there is a balance between effort and surrender in all that we do.  Yoga teaches that we must fully engage in life, live wholeheartedly and try our best, but that this should be balanced by acceptance of the fact that none of us has control: the best laid plans can go wrong; nobody gets it right all the time; accidents happen.  It's not your fault; you did your honest best. 

Accepting that this is the case can be tough.  We might have learnt or been taught that if we work hard enough, then we can have whatever we desire.  We probably fear giving ourselves over to the natural ups and downs of life.  But good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people; there are car crashes and natural disasters; things go wrong.  None of us escapes the difficulties of life.  You are fooling yourself if you think that you can paddle fast enough to outrun the storms.

Asana teaches us a lot about effort and surrender: if we come to our mat with too much effort, there is a hardness to what we do, a sense of striving for something other than what we find in ourselves.  With too much effort we lose the fluidity of our practice and the joy of yoga.  If we come to our mat with too much surrender, then we might not bring enough fire to our practice; we might find ourselves giving up on poses instead of committing to our best version of them; there might be a passivity to our practice, a sense of not really giving it our all.

In life we all know examples of people who are all effort and striving: everything for them is a task of mammoth proportions requiring Herculean efforts of organisation, hard work and dedication.  Or those people who like to have control of every aspect of everything in an attempt to keep everything just so, and to avoid disaster or disappointment.  Conversely, we might know others who are all surrender: they let life float past them and find it hard to motivate themselves to act positively in the world, they might let people down consistently through their inability to commit to being there wholeheartedly at any time; they seem to think that since they have no power to change anything, they might as well not try. 

Of course what we are looking for is a balance between the two.

All asana practice; all yoga practice; all of life is a balance between effort and surrender.  Patanjali encourages us to work hard, dedicate ourselves to life and to living well, but to accept that ultimately we are not in control.  You do your best, but you are not always guaranteed the outcome you desire.  Moreover you learn how to do your best in spite of what the outcome will be; to detach yourself even from any mental image what a successful outcome looks like. 

When you let go of your mental image of how things will look when they are perfect, you are liberated; you are free to experience yourself as you are right now, with all of your wonderful perfections and imperfections.  You are free to enjoy the outcomes of your efforts for what they are, rather than what you thought they might have been.  You are released from the fear that you might not be able to do it, because you accept that it will be how it is, perhaps even better than you could have imagined. 

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