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Sutra II.47 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says:
Prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam
Yogacharya. B.K.S. Iyengar in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translates this as follows:
Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.
Perfection in Asana is reached only when effort ceases, instilling infinite poise and allowing the finite vehicle, the body, to merge in the seer.
This is very intriguing since we do experience a lot of effort in the practice of asanas, especially when trying to expand our limits, get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves with new demanding asanas. So what does it mean and how does it transpire that the “effort to perform it becomes effortless?”
In sports or gymnastics, there is great emphasis on effort; sportsmen never talk about effortless – and that is, in my mind, what is so special and unique about yoga – asanas are not merely physical; yoga is not another form of body culture; it has much farther reaching goals.
It’s not also that we should avoid effort in asana practice. Patanjali does not talk only about shaithilya (relaxation or effortless) – he says: prayatna shaithilya – effort and non-effort, and this is very interesting: How can effort and non-effort co-exist? How does effort turn into effortless? How can we balance effort and letting go in our practice?
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In a talk given in 2007 B.K.S. Iyengar explained so beautifully:
“What is Sthira Sukham Asanam?” .(See Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 8 p. 152)
He is referring mainly to sutra II.46, but he also addresses II.47 when he says:
“Prayatna means effort and saithilya means laxity… For me it coveys effortless effort. When the effortful effort fades out, effortless effort sets in… Asthira and asukha end only when effortful effort transforms into effortless effort… prayatna shaithilya has to terminate in ananta samapatti. Ananta is the soul. Samapatti is the transformation in which chitta gets transformed to its original form. This sutra is proof enough to know that asana is not limited to the physical level and it should not be looked at on the physical level only.”
Asthira is instability and asukha is discomfort (the prefix ‘a’ in Sanskrit denotes negation).
Toward the end of the talk, he explained the correct alignment of the inverted poses and concluded that “In the perfect presentation of an asana there is stability in body, mind, intelligence, and consciousness. As such it becomes an auspicious moment. This is the true experience of prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam.“
In the book Core of the Yoga Sutras Iyengar writes:
When asanas are practiced with effort for years, then the sadhaka (the practitioner) reaches a non-dual state of body, mind, intelligence, and consciousness, where the effort seems effortless.p. 149
Christian Pisano writes in his book: The Hero’s Contemplation:
Hence, all effort has its source in and disappears into non-effort. If tension is observed passively, we are not the tension but the space from which it appears spreads, and disappears… Ultimately, effort as psychological intention must die away, devoured by the intuition of the infinite.p. 201
A Different Perspective on Performing Asanas
In an asana there are actions that we must perform; the muscles are working, we hold the pose – but, as we mature in our practice and become more skilled, we learn how to balance this effort with relaxation. Instead of overusing the muscles, we work on the level of the skin. This changes our perspective – the muscles are still working but in a much more subtle way. The pose is held by the bones – the skeletal structure allows for stability and concentrating on the movements of the skin reduces any tension that may be in the pose. When we reach the correct alignment, there is no extraneous effort. For example in a building, if each block is perfectly placed on top of the other; additional structures are unnecessary to shore up the building; it can stand on its own. In our own bodies we must initially exert a fair amount of effort to address our structural and alignment imperfections, but as we advance and overcome aspects of these structural challenges, finding the right alignment leads to a feeling of balance that is effortless. This frees up our energy, or life force to penetrate within, instead of expending it outwards. At this stage we don’t experience our actions as effort anymore. Instead, we experience joy – the joy of exploring the depths of our own body-mind – we want to stay in the asana because we experience a state of wholeness and surrender. There is no need for willpower to hold us there. On the contrary, if somebody (a teacher for example) instructs us to come out of the asanas we feel that we are missing something we could have gotten by staying more. This is what it means that the psychological effort has completely ceased.
Effortlessness in Life
Effortless effort is a principle that applies not only to our practice but to life in general. There is certainly effort in life, but, if this effort is done out of some kind of struggle, then it’s wrong, and we should look into it and find out what are we struggling with. Effort does not inherently imply struggle. We have to apply some effort in order to keep life going, but if in our daily life we constantly experience hardship, then we invest too much energy. If we easily become fatigued and need to tighten our jaws to hold on – then we probably haven’t yet learned the principle of effortless effort.
By coming back to our daily asana practice and observing effortless effort in our practice, we can gradually learn to live with more ease and with a balanced flow of effortless effort!
Iyengar continues his interpretation of this sutra with the following inspirational words:
The sadhaka can be considered firm in his postures when the persevering effort is no longer needed. In this stability, he grasps the physiology of each Asana and penetrates within, reaching the minutest parts of the body. Then he gains the art of relaxation, maintaining the firmness and extension of the body and consciousness. In this way he develops a sensitive mind. With this sensitivity, he trains his thinking faculty to read, study and penetrate the infinite. He is immersed in the boundless state of oneness which is indivisible and universal.”Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali