"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
I have a complicated relationship with ease.
What I mean is, I struggle to seek ease. I have always equated ease with laziness, and associated effort (tense, tight, forced) with rightness, with a proper work ethic. This is certainly cultural, to an extent, but I think theres an extra dose of this ideal running through me on a subconscious level. And even intellectually understanding that this isn't so, theres a kernel of my mind that simply can't contend with not trying, and trying hard.
I have a sharp, short memory of myself at eight or nine years old in elementary school track practice, poised at the starting line for a race. Coach Joanie was showing us proper starting technique, arms bent and staggered, ready to spring into motion. Wanting to show her that I was trying, really trying, that I was doing it right and therefore I was good and worthy of praise, I clenched my fists and tightened all the muscles in my sinewy girl-arms. Coach Joanie stopped near me and said something simple and corrective like, “Relax. Don’t work so hard.” I did as I was told (of course), but my mind protested; why wouldn’t I work as hard as I could? Wasn’t I in acute control of every inch of my body in that moment, shaping it to match the form she showed? How could I possibly be doing it wrong?
I didn’t get the message. Fast forward to countless voice lessons and yoga classes and acting workshops, where this scene has been replayed in all sorts of variations:
In theatre school, as I struggled to react with truth and presence because some part of me couldn’t shake the idea that whatever came to me in the moment couldn’t possibly be better than my pre-planned, calculated acting choices.
In my early-morning yoga practice before university classes, as I tightly contracted every muscle in extended side angle pose when I felt the teacher’s gaze on me.
In voice lessons and performances, as I stood outside myself and critiqued each wobble and imperfection while I sang.
In yoga teacher training, as I dramatically swelled my abdomen, ribcage and upper chest to demonstrate my mastery of three-part yogic breathing, instead of simply allowing the breath to fill space.
The overarching instructions were always focused on letting go of tension and control, and though my eager-to-please self took in and understood and parroted this directive, my body and other facets of my ego stubbornly refused to obey.
There’s a fear deeply rooted somewhere in me like an old, stuck weed that says if I stop trying, pushing, fighting, I will fail by default. And failure would place a stamp on my forehead reading, “UNWORTHY OF LOVE.” This fear is very sure that I am not enough. My perfectionism forms an armor which protects me from exposure and vulnerability. Truth and goodness are messy (and beautifully so). Life and love are wild forces which don’t submit to control by the likes of me. These forces require a loosening, a crack to slip in through, if we are to live with presence and fullness and joy. I know this, but it scares the shit out of me.
My fiery tendency toward effort over ease is not a missed mark so much as a tipped balance. In the right proportion, this energy is positive and powerful. The imbalance can be addressed from many perspectives. In Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, it’s a prevalence of Pitta dosha; in Taoism, it’s a case of too much Yang and not enough Yin. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a roughly 2,000 year old collection of aphorisms widely considered to be the authoritative text on yoga, reference this balance in a famous passage: Sthira sukha asanam. The first word, sthira, can mean firm, compact, strong, steadfast, static, resolute, and courageous.
The second part of the passage is what I tend to neglect, at least subconsciously. The yoga term sukha can mean easy, gentle, sweet, pleasant, and comfortable. What an attractive definition! Sign me up. Of course, certain personalities tend to drift farther in this direction, favoring the smoothest and comfiest paths and eschewing nearly everything that looks like hard work. This isn’t balanced, either, but man oh man could I use some of that excess sukha.
We all make choices that lead us toward or away from balance. I’ve been conscious of my habit for forcing my way through this life for years, but have only experienced small spurts of balance between sthira and sukha. Recently, practicing yoga outdoors, I’ve taken inspiration from one of gorgeous nature’s abiding truths: trees don’t try to grow. Sprouts don’t muscle their way through the soil into the light, buds don’t burst open out of sheer will, and leaves don’t unfurl by contracting. Gazing at the leaves bravely and vulnerably opening themselves toward the sun, happily moving with the wind as their big mama trunk stands firm and strong, my armor cracks and softens. I am inviting in the experience of gentle expansiveness, and it’s working some potent magic in my life on and off the mat.
It’s not that I’ve poured the proper amount of ease into myself and am now wholly balanced, but I’m becoming more and more aware of my reaction to each moment. Am I clenching or releasing? Am I closing or opening? What can I let go of that I never considered I could? And chink by chink, the wall comes down.
The word “yoga” means union, between our selves and the eternal, between our inner and outer worlds, between breath and movement, between strength and softness. My journey lately is to pay more attention to the aspect of ease, gentleness, and softness in that union. But seeing sthira and sukha as two sides of one entity is useful and potent. Maybe it’s not about traveling away from what I tend toward, but turning to see what I’ve been ignoring just on the other side of it.
My stubborn self is working her way toward finding more sukha, more ease, but you better believe it’s a slow slog. Even then, it’s softness that she needs, not frustration. Gentleness in the midst of struggle, to make space for all the possibilities we breed through the hard work of trying something different. For me, that's letting go. If, instead, you need some strong and steady sthira, make room for that.
I wish each of you playfulness and courage on your path toward balance today.