Letting go of expectations in yoga asana

It started when the yoga teacher said she was ‘managing expectations’ when she told students who hadn’t pre-booked the class that they were unlikely to get a place in class.

For my part, I came to class full of expectations. And I didn’t manage them all that well.

  • I expected my hamstring to be tricky to work with and it was, but I was prepared and managed that expectation as well as I do.
  • I expected the physical tension I’ve been increasingly carrying around this week to magically melt away on the mat this morning.
  • I expected my concentration to unite with my movement, and my breath (but only because I wanted them to, not because I habitually achieve this).
  • I expected my practice to lift me up and restore me to the world just that tiny bit more liberated from my daily concerns and the unhelpful patterns by which I live.
  • I even had expectations of certain asanas, based on habitual experiences: I expected my warrior 2 to feel strong and my warrior 1 to feel weak. I expected my crow to deliver a powerful shot of euphoric “I can!”. I expected my sidecrow to be unsteady, but I certainly didn’t expect a “good!” from my teacher passing by as I did the most graceful faceplant ever — a gentle, oh so gentle, slow descent until my cheek came to rest on my mat. I couldn’t have done it better if I’d tried! (Ironic that the part of class that was most memorable, most brings a smile to my face as I write was the asana that went wrong! Guess that’s why I’m ‘babycrow’ and not ‘accomplished adult crow’!)

dangerous-expectationsSo under the weight of all these expectations I found myself struggling through class. Really struggling with voices in my head that were louder and more insistent than usual. I shouted back. We had such a great slanging match in my head that I stopped in my practice several times, trying to bring my mind back to the job in hand, just to practice asana. I even had to leave the room and gather myself for a few moments outside.

This went on all through class. Finally after class I found a quiet spot, giving myself time and space to sit and watch all this going on without trying to stop it. Just letting the thoughts and feelings play themselves through until I came to a point of quietness within all that emotion and desire. All that expectation. It was simply exhausting.

In sitting meditation I am more used to watching with detachment. In asana practice I find this so much harder. Of course this begs the question, why don’t I just meditate rather than practice yoga? I think part of the answer is that I find my yoga easier to take off the mat than my meditation. I can carry my yoga more easily through the day with me, and it therefore has a greater effect on those in my world, hopefully in good ways. The static posture of meditation translates less well into positive actions for me. Plus physically moving feels awesome…

BG coverSo now I wonder: is the relinquishing of effort and expectation what it means to let go of the results of your work? I had always interpreted this famous message from the Bhagavad Gita in the context of karma yoga. The ‘better to give than receive’ line of thought. Act without expecting anything in return. I try to do this daily, in small (sometimes not so small) acts of kindness to those around me: bothering to ask the bin man at work how his day’s going (he has a beautiful smile, but he looks so weary), helping a mother manoeuvre her stroller down the steps… You know the stuff. We all do it. And a smile is nice in return, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because we’re decent and have been brought up to hold doors open and not talk with our mouths full, but we also do it because it feels good inside us and we hope it might make someone else’s day just that fraction easier if they need it to be.

So back to my thoughts about renouncing the fruits of one’s actions and yogasana. Of course I don’t really expect my asana practice on any one day to achieve anything grand. “Practice practice…” I get it. It’s an ongoing effort. Abhyasa, Patanjali calls it. But he also couples abhyasa with vairagya (non-reaction)”: “Both practices abhyasa and vairagya are required to still the patterning of consciousness” (YS 1:12). So Patanjali is saying that not only do you need to do the hours, but you need to let go of the expectations and the striving. Let go of the emotional reaction to your efforts, don’t get disheartened by apparent lack of progress, don’t get attached the highs when you ‘nail a pose’ that was previously out of reach. Accept it all with equanimity. None of it is that important, it’s just parts of a journey. Keep faith in the journey, even if what that means is difficult to articulate.

I believe all this. It’s not really the getting somewhere that brings me onto my mat every day. Sure, I want my practice to get better, to be better; there are poses that I can’t even attempt yet that I’d like to, and poses that I want to extend. But actually deep down I know the process of discovery is the reward.

dandelionBut why is it so hard to put into practice? I guess my life before yoga has been all about achievement and reward. Difficult to turn that off. But I can choose to practice another way. I could try to renounce the fruits of my actions every time I step on the mat. I could choose to maintain awareness of mind and body, to take care in my alignment, to heed what my breath is telling me about how much effort to apply, and just to do my best within the discipline of those parameters — and then just let progress happen as it will. Evolution not revolution. Tortoise not hare.

Can I actually do this? No. But ‘no’ is really just another way of saying ‘not yet’. After all, getting far enough in side crow to be able to faceplant used to be a dream and now all of a sudden it’s my reality. Enjoy the faceplanting stage, because soon that will transform itself into holding longer, stronger, higher, and than add some fancy modifications or transitions. Hello yoga treadmill! All this will happen, I know. And if I let go so hard with the expectations I could enjoy that.

The final irony I realise in this: that for me letting go of expectations and results is HARD. Far harder than the discipline of daily practice, more difficult to bear than knocks and bruises, more humbling than a dozen public faceplants. It requires a gentleness and compassion that life has steeled me against. Now it’s time to soften those muscles — especially the one between my ears.

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