Three types of effort in Yoga
Navtej Johar

Through years of practice and teaching of yoga, the one thing, apart from consistency in practice, that has emerged as something integral to practice is the “quality” of effort applied in practice. The result of the practice is in exact proportion to, not the quantity, but the quality of applied effort. We can say that skill, or yukti that actually defines yoga, lies in the qualitative calibration between the slipping-and-sliding shades of effort; how much, when, and where to push, resist, give-in, hold back, just-watch, just be, or soak-in in order to forge through, when and where to become ready, willing and passively-available to the “calling” of the next dimension of experience, are all different phases and facets of yoga practice.

On the outset, as practitioners, we need to realize that the times we live in are marked by the ideals of production, purity and perfection. Thus, we live in times that valorise strife and are necessarily unkind to the body. Moreover, the vision of these times is somewhat limited as it does not have the permission to easily go beyond the rational. While yoga, at least in essence, categorically embraces both, a) a deep and abiding kindness to, for and within the body, and b) the realm of magical inspiration that lies beyond form, language and even grammar. The processive definition of yoga is to temper the body-mind condition in order to sift it from sthula to sukshma, i.e. from gross to subtle. But what needs to be also remembered is that in doing so, it is already envisioning an even subtler, irreducible state of “being” called para, or that state of “the beyond”, where none of the rules, morals, or grammar applies. In other words, the aim of this yogic distillation is to effortfully-calibrate the movements of the body, mind and breath for the purpose of arriving at that effortless, condition-less state of care-free abandon of blissful “beyondness”. But making the “self” available to the invitation of this empty beyondness requires both inspiration and allowance that is laced with a casual-kindness for the body and self, as well as an openness to the infinite, though unverifiable, possibilities that lie within the body. For me, the effortful practice and even pedagogy of yoga thus must necessarily include the dream of that effortless-beyond. Letting the “breeze” of every breath within the mindful yogic practice bring a waft of such a promise—both distant and immediate—upon the aspiring landscape of the yogi’s body. Making yoga a desirous pursuit of a pleasurable nothingness—a state empty of both virtue and value.

What I am saying is that within the times we live in, the promise of yoga, which is “freedom”, has been castrated from the practice; and that yoga—both in practice and definition—has become both limited and literate and thereby not-yoga. Subsequently, making the practitioner quite literally “destitute” in terms of freedom, abandon beauty, poetry, and power—all of which are either the handmaidens or the properties of the para-state that yoga promises.

Going back to the point of effort, we can see that there are three broad perspectives that have historically come to inform the practice of yoga—and which in turn determine its systematic embodied pedagogy—these being Patanjali (roughly 2nd century CE), Tantra (around 600 CE and onwards) and Haṯha (1100 CE and onwards). Let us begin with Haṯha because that is what is most popularly available to us today. The two phonemes of the word haṯha , ha and ṯha, are said to denote the opposing hard and soft energies of the moon and the sun that abide both in the body and the universe. In common parlance, the word haṯha means forceful and persistent exertion that is almost obstinate in its commitment to forge through, come-what-may. 

And for that reason, the haṯha practitioners have been historically referred to as hatthis or simply “hard-workers”. Therefore, from the outside, the word haṯha suggests an obstinate approach to yoga which is quite distinct from the word yatna that was proposed by Patanjali, almost a millennium earlier, to describe the variety of effort required for the attainment of the ideal state of kaivalyam. Yatna is the effort that qualitatively negotiates between the give-and-take of abhyasa and vairagya, meaning assertive-practice and detachment respectively, as the sutra, 1.12, abhyasa vairagyabhya tan nirodhaha, suggests. It denotes a trying effort that is clear in intent but equally cognisant of the fallibility of both the flesh and the mind; it thus remains tentative, tenacious, and even surreptitious as it attempts to snake through the in-betweens applying apposite measure. There is an element of askance in yatna, and this askance can even be beseeching in nature making the word yatna the stuff of love poetry that swings between desire and powerlessness. Interestingly, the dialectic of abhyasa/vairagya proposed by Patanjali out of which quite literally sprouts yatna, mirrors the opposition of ha and ṯha of haṯha. Therefore, both these efforts are being applied for the purpose of something other, haṯha for the purpose of attaining Raja Yoga, and yatna for the sake of entering kaivalyam, both of them being para-states.

What is important to note here is that both haṯha and yatna are varieties of effort, thus, they both imply doing. But it is a skilful variety of doing for the purpose of bringing the body-mind to a point of availability or deliverance to someplace beyond effort and form. However, becoming “available” calls for a different attitude and orientation in practice, one of “not doing” and becoming passively available to suggestion, inspiration and invitation; and this can be said to be the position of Tantra, that liberally relies upon the intelligence and sensitivity of the body to become sensorially attuned and available to the call of the void, the aakasha or vyoma of consciousness that is all pervasive, formless, boundless, and “beyond”, i.e. para. 

Thus, we have the bodily-determinate practice of haṯha, the cerebrally-calibrating practice of yatna, or the abandon-full practice of becoming available to the calling or pukaar of the void. And even if each of the above-mentioned schools of yoga highlights each one of the above as their respective positions, all three schools include all the above three varieties of effort in the repertoire of their respective practices. In other words, they are common to all of schools of yoga, just the terminology and sequentiality varies, and thus they are available to us, present day practitioners as well. Except that there is no space of becoming passively-available to invitation and inspiration within our current milieu.

Therefore, I aspire to incorporate all three aspects in my practice and pedagogy. Doubtlessly, I need to determinately abide by my commitment to bring my body to the mat and sustain certain bodily shapes with haṯha and yatna; I also want to exercise the skilful ability to snake and steer my attention through the variety of in-betweens within my body and mind with clarity and autonomy; and then equally, I wish to come and poise myself at the precipice of my imagination waiting to be taken, where my body and mind can freely shed the burden of my reservations, morals, values and even designs, in order to fecklessly become available to the propelling void. If any of these three is missing, for me, it is not yoga.

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