“I go to yoga to relax.” We hear that one a lot. Late in the game I realized that all yoga asanas are a precision of concerted effort. And effort is contraction and contraction is a sort of tension. We squeeze the fist of yoga and the release is how we relax. We relax by tensing ourselves first. But not in a gross way, but in a very specific, deliberate way.
I like to teach the poses in a way that students start to identify where effort, aka, tension, is needed but also to start to recognize where it isn’t. “We don’t do this pose with our jaw or our furrowed brow”, for instance, is something I say. Right effort is the key to perfecting the pose. Sthira and Sukha- steadiness and ease- in equal parts. To strike this balance on and off our mats, in our poses and in the stance of ordinary living is the true art of this practice.
I once had a book full of short bios of hundreds of modern artists. Their bios included a statement on their work and what compelled them to make art. One of these artists whose name escapes me was interested in portraiture and tried to capture the unique tension that each individual holds. This intrigued me and has stuck with me many years later.
I was running the other day and came across and dead thing. I forget if it was a chipmunk or a bird or a frog but it was long dead, flat, deflated, dried out, and more two dimensional than three. Completely void of the tension it had once held. I could not really know the essence of that animal, that creature in this state of zero tension. The tension is what defines it, what makes it who it is. Our tension is who we are and it is our aliveness. Excessive tension of course is not but a certain level of it is.
We can seek to ‘relax’ and to rid ourselves of tension but we must also remember that some of our tension is baseline and holds us together in the steadiness of who we truly are. We can seek to completely rid ourselves of it but what defines us is some of it. Our ability to exist in this permanently unresolved state of tension is what makes us alive and defines our humanity.
I have an almost teenager whose favorite word these days is ‘awkward’. It’s as if she is living to avoid this feeling of tension at all costs but in the process of doing so I see her becoming a bit more diluted in who she is. I want to help her see that some tension, in this case in the form of awkwardness, is what makes us unique; our ability to hold tension in this certain way. Allowing some of the awkward in - as long as we can hold steady. Of course, at her age, it may rob her of some of her ease to do so in which case she may be making the right choice for her at this time to minimize her tension. Steadiness and ease. We can’t have too much of either. We must have some of both. It’s a recipe for honoring our perfect uniqueness. And it’s constant work to stay in balance and hold tension while relaxing other very specific parts of ourselves.