Playing the Edge

By Mark Stephens on Tue, 05/03/2016 - 07:27

Perseverance & Non-Attachment

As we come to the experience in an asana in which we no longer feel any significant effect or effort in being in it, we might simply stay there, being in it, or we might find ourselves opening to a variation of it or transitioning to an asana in which we find it takes some greater effort to find stability and ease to be just as stable, relaxed, and present. However, if we always practice asanas in a way that involves no effort—that is one path—we might be missing an opportunity to engender deeper awakening and change through the intensity and diversity of experience that doing yoga offers us, to really do Hatha yoga, which is most deeply and lastingly done with the self-discipline (tapas) it takes to fully show up to the best of our ability, breath by breath, asana by asana, practice by practice, day by day, exploring the edges of possibility and discovering what happens amid it all. With persevering practice—abhyasa— we do stay with it; fully committed to the practice, we proceed with deeper experience and reflection, opening to and learning from the intensity of the experience each breath of the way. 

This involves staying close to the edges of possibility in what we’re doing in our practice, an approach Joel Kramer, a pioneering innovator of contemporary yoga who significantly influenced the evolution of the practice in the 1960s and 1970s, beautifully and richly describes. As we begin moving into an asana, we come to a place where we feel something starting to happen, what Kramer (1977) calls “the primary edge” (I call it the “aha moment”).8 Going further, we come to another “edge” where the bodymind expresses pain, discomfort, or simply blocks further range of motion (I call it the “uh-uh moment”). In a persevering practice, we “play the edge” by staying beyond the “aha” but well enough within the “uh-uh” to have the space to slowly and patiently explore small refining intentional movements. Breath by breath, the edges tend to move—we open more space and create more sustainable ease, thus more easily moving awakening energy throughout the bodymind. If right up against the final edge of possibility or if moving too quickly, there is no space or time for this sense-based refinement and awakening; instead we’re likely to cause injury, reinforce unhealthy habits, or simply burn out on the practice.  

As much as fully showing up in the practice and playing the edges of possibility and refinement are essential in doing yoga, there’s another essential quality of the practice, what Patanjali gives as vairagya—nonattachment. In the practice of nonattachment we open to being in the practice with a sense that anything is possible, with spontaneity yet still with self-disciplined effort, all the while identifying more with the deeper intention in our heart—perhaps health, contentment, happiness—than with the performance of a pose or attainment of some static or predetermined goal. Abhyasa and vairagya are thus integrally interrelated elements of a safe, sustainable, and transformational yoga practice that allow us to progress from one place to another with steadiness and ease. Together they give us one of the most basic yogic principles: it’s not about how far you go, but how you go.