My yoga teacher here in Chicago has a unique way of expressing himself, especially when it comes to imparting bits of insight and wisdom. To the casual observer, he might sound like Yoda, the sagacious character from Star Wars who counsels Luke Sykwalker. But with my yoga teacher, as with Yoda, there’s much more to it than speaking in oddly constructed sentences.
Lately, my teacher has been talking about a different way of conceptualizing “doing a yoga pose.” More specifically, he encourages us to “let the pose do you” instead of the other way around. The first few times he said this, I didn’t think too much of it. But the other day, something about this shift in approach struck me as being rife with meaning. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but here’s my take on the significance of “letting the pose do you.”
Superficially, my teacher’s suggestion just amounts to a grammatical rearranging of object and subject. That is, he’s asking us to swap “x does y” with “y does x.” This might seem trivial, but it’s not. The difference between “I do Tree Pose” and “Tree Pose does me” goes straight to the heart of yoga. The first sentence places “I” in the subject position, and makes “I” — the ego — the central point from which action emerges. The second sentence reverses this order, arguably diminishing “I” by making it the recipient or object of action.
So why is this perspectival shift important? And how does it pertain to yoga philosophy in particular? For some folks, the point of yoga is to diminish or exterminate “I” (the ego or self). In doing so, one can achieve some sort of union with the universe. I won’t go into the complicated metaphysics of this approach to yoga, but suffice it to say that for certain practitioners, “letting the pose do you” could be understood as a first step towards letting go of the self and merging with Universal Atman, the One, etc.
For those practitioners who are more secular, so to speak, “letting the pose do you” is still very relevant. To my mind, it’s about letting go of control. Or at least a certain kind of control. Sometimes, it’s okay to just trust in the process, and maybe even allow the process to do the work, instead of constantly trying to be in the driver’s seat. Each yoga asana is designed for a specific purpose, or range of purposes. Sometimes, in order to benefit from a pose, you need to let the pose do what it was designed to do, instead of straining excessively like you’re trying to squeeze the last drops of juice out of a lemon.
If you’re into basketball or football, you might be familiar with the concept of “pressing” — i.e., trying to force something to happen. Pressing is essentially the opposite of “being in the zone,” where everything seems to click in a seemingly effortless manner. Yoga, whether you approach it as mere sport or as something more, is very similar. Maximum effort to the point of straining is not generally beneficial. A better approach is to find the right sort of effort, and to strike a balance between acting and being acted upon.
As with a lot of lessons in yoga, the significance of “let the pose do you” goes well beyond mere asana. It’s relevant for everything we do in life, whether it’s our careers, our relationships, or how we go about our basic, day-to-day activities. When you’re stuck in traffic, for instance, imagine how much less stressful it would be to simply let the traffic move you, instead of fighting to get through or around the traffic. Navigating your way through traffic is a process that is only partially in your control. Yes, you can do some things to make your commute shorter. But constantly switching lanes, cutting people off, honking your horn, etc., is not only ineffective, but it places you in a position of contention with others, as opposed to one of coexistence or even cooperation.
When it comes to asana — the physical postures of yoga — it’s easy to fall into the trap of ego-centric thinking. This has consequences. The thought “I am doing Tree Pose” inevitably opens the door for judgements like “I’m no good at Tree Pose.” Not surprisingly, this can result in feelings of frustration, competitiveness, or jealousy. But when the pose is doing the doing, so to speak, these ego-centric feelings are less likely to arise. Personally, I’ve only experienced a few fleeting moments of such clarity and freedom in my practice. As my teacher reminds me, though, the practice will do the work if you just get out of the way and allow it to do its thing. To paraphrase a famous yoga saying, “Let the pose do you, and all will come.”