~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Embodying Ease

September 27, 2012
I walk into the room with a plan. But as one student after another throws down a yoga mat with a heavy sigh, I realize that my agenda for class will never do. So much angst and volatility has trailed into the room along with my beautiful students. Emergency action is needed!

I rummage around in my bag of yoga tricks, in search of a more appropriate response to the tight, breathless energy that grips the room. And then the words of yoga master Erich Schiffmann bubble up.

"Relax," he cajoled us at a recent workshop. "Grow as tension free as you can be."

Yes, I think, that's just the advice we need this morning.

We settle onto the floor and surrender to the earth. I share Erich's mantra and encourage my students to drop their loads, to loosen their grips, to soften.

"Tension free, that's our motto for the day," I tell them. Several bodies sigh in relief.

As we rest on our mats, we survey our bodies, noticing the knots we hold and the rocks we carry even when we're nestled onto the ground.

"Any tension here is extra," I remind my students, as we surrender to earth's embrace. "We can let go completely and there's no place left to fall."

We consider the possibility of loosening tension. We watch it. We breathe into it. We welcome it even, as some sort of messenger from the world. The room settles along with the bodies within it, as each of us remembers we're in yoga now, in a safe space where we can let go of our armor, where we can let go of the habit of bracing ourselves against the world.

And we consider letting it go. I share my wise mother's wisdom that so often we work harder than we need to just to get the job done. Why is that, I ask the class? And what happens if we let go of the need to make everything so complicated?

What happens if we let go of the notion that everything - our bodies, or efforts, our lives - has to be so difficult? We're all used to working so hard that this advice somehow seems so radical, even in a yoga class.

After spending several moments on the ground considering the possibility of growing tension free - or at the very least releasing some of the excess tension in our bodies - I sense we need to move. I remember Erich carrying this tension-free possibility into bridge pose in his classes, and decide to explore the possibility here.

We bend our knees and place our feet on the floor. We nestle our feet into the ground and allow our pelvises to rise upward just an inch or two. And then, in this teeniest of bridge poses, we stay. We consider the possibility of letting go of everything we don't need. We consider softening hips, back muscles, thighs, bellies, shoulders, throats, and we watch what happens. We commit to only activating the muscles that are necessary. And we're all amazed by just how much extra baggage we are able to release.

We rise a little higher into bridge pose, pause, and let go of everything extra again. And again, and again. We imagine the possibility of hanging out in this pose all day. How simple could we allow it to be? How relaxed? How easy and effortless?

I remember Picasso's words that "art is the elimination of the unnecessary," and invite my students to think like an artist and let go of every thought, every fear, every emotion, every holding that isn't needed right here and right now.

Soon enough we move ourselves toward standing, in order to carry this tension-free possibility into a few more poses.

"Let go of everything you know about mountain pose," I suggest to my students. "Let go of all the rules about what goes where, and just stand in a way that feels as free of tension as possible."

We reposition our legs closer together and farther apart. We shift our hips forward and backward. We root downward, we rise upward, we sway and release and re-energize. Looking around the room, I see that the shapes of the bodies in the room no longer look like the textbook version of the pose, but they somehow look more honest, more balanced, more whole.

We hang out, we readjust, we refine. We explore the notion of standing like a mountain all day long. What could we shift in our bodies and our minds in order to grow so at ease in this body, in this shape, in this moment, that we could just stay? How efficient, how elegant, could we let this simple standing posture grow? What are we holding onto? And what can we let go of?

In my own body I notice that most of my extra tension isn't created by muscles in my arms and legs, but rather by the thoughts that rattle through my brain. As I tighten my grip around my expectations - my judgments about what's right and what's wrong, about what's perfect and what's not - life grows hard, both physically and mentally. And as I release my expectations, my sense of who or where or how I should be, I sense the tension slip right off my home-grown mountain into puddles at my feet.

My students and I decide to carry the possibility of replacing tension with ease into other familiar yoga shapes. We drop the rules we have learned so well and focus instead on the energy - on lightness and freedom and ease. Bodies readjust, forming their own unique interpretations of the poses we know so well. And I sense expectations, efforts, wills, agendas, slipping away breath by breath.

Inside of me I hear yoga teacher Victor Van Kooten suggest that we should do less, not more. "You only get a headache when you try your very best," he once said.

Isn't that amazing? Doesn't your whole body tumble into a softer place when you are reminded that life it doesn't have to be so difficult? Triangle pose doesn't have to be so hard. Backbends don't have to be so filled with strain. And neither do our days, our relationships, our whole lives. Oh, how we complicate ourselves so, and so unnecessarily!

My students and I head toward warrior pose, a majestic shape that feels to me like a song of praise. As I look around the room I am stunned by what I see. These forms don't look at all like the poses in the yoga books. The stances are a little narrower, a little softer, a little less extreme. Some arms reach up to the heavens, some settle onto hips. Each body stands just a little differently, and each one of them is absolutely perfect.

Each is so beautiful, so filled with presence and honesty, that I want to cry, or at least cry out in amazement. My students have taken a known form and then rather than slam their bodies into it, they've reshaped it into their own expression of their own bodies in this very moment. And in the process, they've become beauty, art, life incarnate.

As I gaze about the room, I realize that the postures look like the shapes of Vanda Scaravelli, a legendary yoga master who counseled her students to look for ease and effortlessness within each pose, each movement, each moment of our lives. In our own exploration we seem to have found ourselves in just the same space. Winter's bracing harshness has melted into spring.

Our exploration of letting go continues. Eventually, I realize that even naming the postures creates a certain tension, a subtle hardness in our bodies and our minds. We may be moving organically in a way that carries us toward child's pose or cobra pose, for example, but then as soon as we name it, the fluidity begins to slip away. As expectations and external rules seep in, the tension reappears.

And so, inevitably, we let go of even the known yoga postures and begin to create our own. We move in various shapes without names. We just move and breathe and release. We explore the possibility of ease in our bodies, in our breath, in our lives. We ride the energy we find when we let go, once we stop bracing ourselves against the moment.

And with this exploration, the energy in the room comes alive. Brows unfurrow. Breaths soften. Bodies grow light and fresh and filled with softness. Tension transforms into ease. Resistance shifts toward acceptance. Lifetimes of shouting "no" slip into one beautiful "yes" after another.

Looking around the room, at last I see the embodiment of ease. My students have shown me with their bodies how the release of tension makes room for vitality to flow like a river undammed. Watching this feels like a blessing and a gift.

Finally, we carry our easy bodies toward the floor for the end of class. We let go again. We surrender to the earth. And then just before sounding the closing bowl, I survey my students one last time. All around me I see beautiful bodies at ease and at rest, unburdened of the angst they brought in and now filled with a slow-burning glow. And then I, too, exhale into ease and let out one last sigh of glorious relief.