Give me enlightenment and also give me great abs.
When we move there are many opportunities to examine the relationship between cause and effect, action and consequence and in so doing to discover the motivation. In many cases with a whole body movement such as a handstand or a squat, the motivating forces come from close to the core of the body and are related to an intelligent and integrated pelvis. That is to say that when done well this is the case, when done poorly or with a questionable motivation, the movements related to these two postures can be more peripheral. A handstand can put high stress and demand on the arms and shoulders if the core and pelvis is weak or misaligned and a squat can be unhealthy for the knees, shins and ankles if hip strength and mobility is lacking.
So on a literal level, if we are interested in doing dynamic movement that is healthful, satisfying and joyful it is essential that we spend enough time conditioning the prime movers such as the pelvis, core and shoulders. If these are weak and even a simple posture is attempted, the motivating forces may not be clear and a stress or injury might occur.
On a more psychological level it is also true that an unclear or misplaced motivation will create a lot of stress. For example, there are many unclear and often peripheral motivations for conditioning or developing the body. Unclear not in that any motivation is inherently bad however, that like a poorly executed handstand or squat, they recruit peripheral aspects of the person rather than being generated from his or her core.
A well rounded, well informed and well attended to movement practice provides a lot of benefits both related to the core and peripheral elements of the body. In the same way such a practice can create a deep, lasting sense of satisfaction while also providing auxiliary benefits. The auxiliary benefits of a movement practice are many and can include: aesthetic (you look good), health (you feel good), community (it’s fun to move with other people) and the list goes on. The problem emerges when these concerns are the only motivators. One reason for that is that the further we go from our center the greater the fluctuations are. For example, when I teach handstands one of the most common cues for me to give is “point toes.” Part of the reason for this is that the toes are farthest away from the core and a challenge to control. Until someone has grown confident in their handstand it is common for their toes to move in chaotic and unpredictable ways, often without them even realizing. Similar fluctuations can be seen in one’s relationship to motivation. For example, one of my student might think his body looks really good based on all of the work that he’s been putting in until someone more muscular and lean shows up at the studio and causes him to doubt his progress. Another client might derive great health from their movement practice only to contract an unrelated disease that depletes their energy or has a training injury that forces them to slow down. These are simply theoretical examples yet such instances do often occur and can be quite discouraging.
So the question then becomes, how do we motivate ourselves in a way that is steady and helps us to adapt to adversity?
I don’t believe there to be an easy answer, partially because it is an intensely personal question that relates to every individual in a unique way. What I can offer are two qualities that transcend the ups and downs that are inevitable to one’s journey.
Equanimity and Joy
Why these two qualities? The first, equanimity, relates to a sense of independence and freedom. As long as our practice relies on external markers or reference points it will be susceptible to fluctuations that lead to discouragement. Equanimity is a physical and mental exercise in letting go of those reference points and connecting to a source of focus that transcends them. Equanimity is balancing on one foot while closing the eyes, it is maintaining a calm breath when practicing a difficult pose and sitting in silent meditation while the mind produces thought after thought. It is also showing up to class on a day when the weather is bleak, things at work don’t go one’s way and it seems better to just go curl up in bed. In order to grow in our physical practice this quality is needed on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale, sticking with a difficult pose and showing up in the midst of good or bad feelings. A strong sense of equanimity also has the power to transcend our practice and provide calm and focus in difficult life situations.
The second, joy, refers to a deep sense of satisfaction rather than of fleeting excitement. While it is certainly fabulous to experience the rush of mastering a new posture or attempting a difficult acrobatic move, these feelings are temporary and somewhat unreliable. Joy in this sense refers to the joy of embodiment. The experience of having synchronized the mind and the body so that tasks like climbing stairs, folding clothes, taking a shower and making love are expressions of one’s true nature. Of enjoying the face and body that one sees in the mirror. Of feeling ready for the day in the morning and satisfied with one’s work at night.
The reason I am writing this is not to discourage anyone from setting goals like weight loss, strong abs, learning to do a press handstand or wanting to spend time with other interesting people. I think, especially when a student is beginning to grow their practice, those goals are crucial to providing the motivation to show up. I am writing this to balance what I see as a cultural hyperfocus on those markers to the extent that they can feel like the end goal. Ultimately it is the inner qualities of equanimity and joy that sustain us in our practice and our lives and radiate to those around us.
At The Yoga and Movement Sanctuary it is important for us to feed the core and peripheral aspects of both our bodies and of our personalities. Our movement instructions include ways of strengthening and mobilizing core and distal elements of the body and in our philosophy we attempt to encourage our students to accomplish both superficial and deeper, more meaningful goals. At our studio you will find teachers and students who recognize that a practice can be there during the ups and downs of life, steadily providing connection to joy and equanimity along the way.