When I got home from Cruise Ship X, I asked my yoga teachers to be particularly tough on me while I’m here. My thinking was, I haven’t had a real class in several months, and while I’ve been practicing regularly, I’ve probably picked up bad habits, and don’t want to keep them, or worse, teach them. Let’s face it, we all have habits. The best of intentions are rarely a match for short-term convenience or the power of inertia. My teachers certainly haven’t disappointed me; I don’t tuck my tailbone enough in many standing poses (though I can almost hear my mother saying incredulously “Wait a minute, you HAVE an butt?”), I could engage my upper arms more wheel pose (urdhva dhanurasana), I need a more active leg position in shoulderstand, etc. Honestly, much of what I expected, and I’m grateful for all their help. This is why we go to any kind of teacher, ultimately.
However, one teacher picked up a habit I didn’t expect- I’ve taken to crunching my brow when I’m exerting in a pose. Crunching a lot, to the point that I can start to see a dreaded worry line forming on my forehead even when I’m off the mat. I don’t know why I do it- it’s an unconscious habit I probably picked up well before I started practicing yoga. It may be from music- I sometimes think that many jazz musicians try to communicate emotion onstage as much by how they contort themselves as by how they play.
More likely I’m subconsciously buying one of our great western fallacies- we can muscle our way into success or happiness. (Another way of being addicted to our tension) When I crunch my face like that, I may or may not be engaging my leg more, or going higher in a backbend, but it FEELS like progress, like I’m working hard and building strength. And while I was away, I did see progress- poses I couldn’t hold have opened themselves up to me, I can go deeper in more familiar poses. But if I do it by scowling, it’s just creating more tension, or just moving it from my leg or my back to my face. And that’s only an illusion of progress.
Yoga talks a lot about balancing effort and surrender, which is critically important. Hard work is good, no doubt, but clinging to the work ultimately creates suffering- when you can give your work everything, then completely let it go, you can then receive what you really need from it. Only now, ten years into practice, am I physically realizing what that means- when I let go of my face, and only work the muscles that are actually engaged in the pose, there is a openness, a surrender in the passive parts of the body that can be absolutely blissful, even when the legs or the arms approach agony. Effort and surrender, yin and yang exist at once, at home in the body.
So why tell annoy you of tales of my aging brow? I invite you to check your own patterns- where are you unconsciously, needlessly holding tension- in your face, your hands, your posture? Can you work hard without turning it into a production number, “Hey, I’m WORKING?” Most times no one notices anyway.
Put another way, is your neutral posture- the place your body stays when it’s not consciously working- really neutral and relaxed? Is it really doing you any good, or dragging you down, to a place where you’ll wrinkle prematurely? Challenge yourself to sail, not prod. You’ll like the results. Right now in my own practice I’m not going as deep into poses as I can, but am trying to go with no extracurricular physical activity- and it’s more challenging than I expected. More ego to let go of. But as any seaman can tell you, sailing is definitely more fun.