The yoga teachers I know have a certain way about them. They carry themselves with a practiced calmness, entering the warm studio with beatific smiles. They greet their students generously, like cult leaders, or with a laid back hippie vibe. “Welcome, yogis!” Their exclamation points land softly, and we practitioners gather our focus and close our eyes, before we have even begun to practice, feeling nurtured by the sunset colored walls, the solidity of the floor, the faint air of incense, and most of all, the fact that we are here, sitting still, doing apparently nothing. Ninety minutes of vinyasa later, we leave physically and spiritually refreshed, having reaffirmed the capability of our bodies and experienced the blessing that is turning off one’s otherwise incessant mental chatter. We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and we’re happier for it.
One of my favorite teachers is Zak, a handsome and guileless man who balances laughter with eager seriousness as he demonstrates increasingly complex physical contortions. Like all good teachers, Zak seems to take real joy in his class’ success; his appreciative and drawn out “Yeahs” are directed at individuals and at everyone. He’s also got the best playlists.
A typical class at my studio, Shakti Vinyasa, begins with a few minutes of meditation or setting an intention. An intention might be a single word or small phrase to guide one’s practice, such as “creativity,” or “open heart,” or it might be more directed toward a personal goal, such as improved relationships, in which case the intention might be something like “accept others” or “be authentic.” In any case, setting an intention is a brief act of awareness of the mind that the yoga practitioner can somehow both continue to make use of and immediately let go, as class begins, and awareness leaves the mind and moves to the body and the breath. The teachers urge that when we notice our minds beginning to wander, for example, that we are suddenly trying very hard to achieve a pose or evaluating our success, we return to the breath, keeping our focus there for as long as possible. As Zak says, stop doing. Just be.
It may seem a contradiction in terms. Imagine you are balancing on your right foot, your hips rotated skyward, knee bent, clasping your left foot above and behind you while your right hand stretches toward the floor: this is ardha chandra chapasana, or the sugarcane variation of standing half moon pose. The instructions you hear are complex: root all four corners of your foot down; lift the center of your chest to open your heart; find space between your right ear and your shoulder. In other words, there’s a lot to do in this pose, and all poses; however, if you’re really doing yoga, you’re doing the poses with a focus on the ease of your mind, letting your body be what it is capable of in that moment, not judging yourself, even when you fall. Just come back in.
John Tierny seems to get at the the same idea today in his NYT piece, “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying.” At first glance, the title might seem to smack of the sort of excuse-as-answer a projectless writer like myself might give in response to the question of “what are you working on?” I wish that, like others in my MFA graduating class, I were halfway into writing my second book of poetry, were working toward a self-imposed deadline of 75,000 words by March on my memoir, or even that I had some sense of direction as a writer; that there was somewhere I knew I wanted to go with my words. Maybe some day, those will be my answers. For now, I’m here, today, sitting at my desk, writing this. I’m taking notes in journals. I’m writing letters to friends, and meeting nearby friends at coffee shops to sit with warm mugs and laptops and to practice being a writer.
Though I haven’t seen the results of my writing practice yet, I do believe that eventually, if I keep it up, I’ll find that I write more words I like than words I don’t. Maybe some of those words will even be recognized by others as good or useful. I can believe this because I’ve seen the way getting up for 5:30 a.m. track practice yields greater endurance on the long runs and more power on the hills; how twelve hours with a guitar callouses my fingers enough to play B chords without muting the resonance of any one string; how yoga poses like arm balances and head stands, once seemingly outside the realm of possibility, are there for me, in the surprise of my newly capable body, after twenty, or forty, or ninety attempts.
Practice makes perfect, as they say. But Tierny’s article illustrates a more nuanced sensibility with regard to achieving goals. Tierney explains the work of University of British Columbia professor Edward Slingerland, who argues that since the dawn of civilization, humanity has been striving toward “effortless action,” such as that achieved today by top athletes and charismatic business professionals. According to Slingerland, central to the concept effortless action, or “wu wei” (“pronounced oo-way”), in Chinese, is its instinctive, or inherent quality. As Tierny explains, “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.”
Tierney describes how the tension in this concept played out, in ancient China, between the Confucians and the Taoists, the former of whom, according to Tierny, followed a “practice makes perfect” model while the latter eschewed striving as evidence of a lack of authenticity. To illustrate, Tierny quotes the Tao Te Ching, taking, as he says, “a direct shot at Confucius”: “The worst kind of Virtue never stops striving for Virtue, and so never achieves Virtue.”
Sixteen centuries later, in my tiny bedroom office, both versions of wu wei seem true. If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed. Eighty percent of success is showing up. Practice makes perfect. But also: runners run. Writers write. And the breath, as long as you live, will always be there, a reminder of how possible it is both to do and not do, and an invitation simply to be.