Recently, I signed up for a free month-long trial of a fitness website thinking that it would be fun to change up my fitness routine a bit. For years and years, I ran long distance and did pretty hardcore gym workouts. When I discovered ashtanga yoga, I gave all of that up. I am not sure it has been always so clear in my mind whether this kind of yoga is something other than a fitness routine so I try to make it clearer by really being deliberate in doing both things separately. Yesterday I did something called “Black Fire”. It was 35 minutes of non-stop burpees, dips and sits ups. The entire time we were being led through this workout, a very muscle-bound guy was egging us on and pushing us to keep going. Then, every once in a while, he would say, “Go at your own pace. Don’t try to keep up with —– (the three people who were doing the same thing on screen)” Of course these encouragements fell a bit flat since he spent the remaining 34 minutes shouting at us to make it burn.
In any event, after I did that workout yesterday, I was driving into town to teach my Gentle Yoga class and got to thinking about how one of the main practices of yoga is vairagam (releasing any attachment to the fruits of our efforts). This is so completely counter to just about everything in our culture. That 35-minute workout was all about attaching to the fruits of my efforts – keeping track of repetitions, not really seeing the current workout as the thing but only as a stepping stone to the next (hopefully “better”) workout, keeping a goal in mind of a better body, etc.. No wonder it is so difficult to even imagine let alone practice vairagam.
There is nothing inherently wrong about working towards excellence or having goals. We would never get out of bed if we didn’t! But I wonder about the striving part. How is that serving us? Is there another way to get things done – and done well – without striving?
Yoga teaches us how to do that. You know these fruits that we so love to attach to? They aren’t our’s to begin with. When I make a beautiful work of art, it’s because I (the little “s” self) stepped out of the way and allowed the communication to flow through me, unhindered. The moment those thoughts start to creep in, “hey, this looks amazing” Whomp-whomp. It’s over. As someone in my meditation group so beautifully said, “The minute I started to think that I had let my thoughts settle, they stopped being settled!” Same with art. Same with everything. If one looks closely at striving, it is taking the act of doing something and then adding something extra to it. It adds a wanting, a kind of longing for whatever you feel you don’t currently have – a better result, a better body, a better life. And seriously, can suffering really be far behind?
Can you imagine living in a way where you do the things that you need to do as well as you can but without adding that little bit extra? It’s that little bit extra that makes everything feel so personal. But it’s not personal and that, in its essence, is vairagam.
One reason it is so crucial to practice this over our lifetime is that we have this one, large release looming over all of us. As a Zen master once said, “Being born is like getting on a ship leaving the harbour that you know will sink.” Our body, our history, our material goods, our families, friends, jobs, pets – you name it – all one day will be released whether we have practiced vairagam or not. How much easier might it be if we have practiced with small things ahead of time. Just make breakfast without worrying if it is good or not. Enjoy your children with no idea of their future success. Do a burpee for the pure joy of moving your body instead of a notion of future, perfect abs. When we stop striving, life doesn’t become less intense, more beige, as a result. It becomes more clear, vibrant. More itself. Hint: and so do we. We just need to allow it to be so.
It’s not personal. Nothing is personal. And really, thank goodness for that.