A Story And A  Sutra

A few months ago I was practicing with several friends and fellow yoga teachers during the studio’s open practice hours, and we were working independently but also fielding questions and suggestions from one another, trying to make use of the collective wisdom in the room. I was at the wall practicing Pincha Mayurasana {link} aka Forearm Balance, a pose I have long struggled with. I was resting between attempts and muttering to myself.

“This stinkin pose. I feel like I’ll never actually get into it. Gahhhrr, my stupid shoulders are just so tight. I can’t even get my shoulders into the right position because they’re so tight.”

A nearby friend nodded in assent. Her problem in the pose was lumbar flexibility, she said, while my limiting factor was shoulder tightness. Then one of the other practitioners piped up from across the room, “Your main issue isn’t tightness, Bear, it’s weakness. Your trapezius aren’t strong enough to lift your shoulder blades up your back to get into this shape.” (See {here} for an anatomical explanation of what all that means.) Whaaaaaa?!?! My internal monologue went wild.

“I am plenty strong enough to get into this pose I’m strong but not flexible and that’s my issue. I’m such a control freak; that’s of course what it is. Who does this person think they are, anyway? What do they know?!?!?!”

We went back and forth for a couple of minutes but I felt my emotions rising up, and so I exited the conversation as gracefully as I could (not very!) and continued on with my practice. But it gnawed at me for days, and I kept replaying the conversation in my head. Was I WEAK? Was I not as inflexible as I thought? Why did that conversation make me feel so many feelings?

Yoga Sutra 1.15 Drishta-anushravika vishaya vitirshnasya vashikara sanjnya vairagyam. Giving up your attachments consists of the decision to gain control over your craving for experiences, seen or only heard of.

This Sutra examines Vairagya, translated as non-attachment. Swamij.com explains it this way: “Vairagya involves learning to actively and systematically encounter, explore, and let go of the many attachments, aversions, fears and false identities that are clouding to the true self.” Part of being human is having attachments, and the flip side of attachment is aversion. Basically, we have stuff that we like, want, believe, etc, and stuff that we avoid, dislike, reject, etc.

It became clear to me that I was/am VERY attached to the idea that I am strong. And I am extremely averse to the idea that I’m weak. So I began to examine that. What does it mean to me to be strong? What do I lose if I consider that I might also be weak? Can I hold those two possibilities inside? What would it look like to choose to not be attached to the ideas of strength and weakness?

One thing that has changed since I opened myself to the idea that my shoulders might be simultaneously tight and weak (it’s a complex joint, this isn’t that hard to imagine, actually, once I got over myself/my attachments/my aversions), is that my Forearm Balance has drastically improved! I now work on shoulder opening for a while (what I’ve always done because I just knew that the problem was my tight shoulders), and then focus my attention in the pose on really working on lifting my shoulder blades up (new action inspired by the idea that my shoulders might also be weak). And lo and behold, the pose is much, much easier than it once was.

Letting go of attachments and aversions requires an openness of mind, and a softness of heart. Look around for those moments that push your buttons, and ask yourself, What am I attached to? What am I avoiding? The pull between attachments and aversions is where most people live most of the time. The point here is not to never like anything or always avoid everything always ever. The point is that most of our attachments and aversions make us suffer. And yoga offers us a way out of suffering: we can choose non-attachment. It’s an active process to get there--detaching--but once you’re there, non-attachment becomes a state of being.