Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"How do you expect to get a paycheck without having done the work?" The Paradox of Expectation

Many yogis and yoginis have a favorite yoga quote or aphorism. You know, something short and simple, something that reminds you in a few words why the practice is such a great thing, and why you continue to do it through life's ups and downs and twists and turns (no pun intended). Ashtangis especially have no shortage of such aphorisms, since guruji himself is well-known for such aphorisms ("Do your practice, and all is coming", "Practice is 99% practice, 1% theory", "Why fearing you?", "You take marriage, everything okay!", etc., etc.)
My favorite yoga aphorism came from a workshop I took with Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane in Miami a few years ago. We were working on Astavakrasana, a particularly challenging arm balance (it's in the third series). Many people in the room weren't at the point in their practice where they were physically ready for the posture. Eddie and Nicki had us get into the posture from a seated position, by first getting one leg over one shoulder, then lifting the body off the ground, and then crossing one leg over the other as you bring the chin and chest forward closer to the ground. Many people in the room were grunting and groaning; quite a number of people could not even get their legs over their shoulders.

Finally, somebody asked Eddie how to get the leg over the shoulder. Eddie's reply was classic: "How do you expect to get a paycheck without having done the work?" He then proceeded to lead us through a series of basic standing postures (utthita trikonasana, utthita parsvakonasana), all the while explaining that these seemingly basic, unglamorous standing postures contain the keys to opening the hips safely and effectively, enabling the practitioner to do the work of hip-opening that is ultimately necessary for getting into those arm-balances.

"How do you expect to get a paycheck without having done the work?" For me, this particular line succinctly expresses the universal justice of the yoga practice; while real-world employers may fail to pay you for the hours you put in at work, in yoga, you get what you put in, even if this is not always immediately apparent. It is this universal, unflinching impartiality that drew me (and still continues to draw me) to the practice.  

Many, however, may find this particular line to be rather mundane, even un-yogic. After all, yoga is supposed to be a journey that allows one to transcend the limitations of conditioned mundane everyday existence. When we step onto the mat, we are encouraged to leave behind the worries and calculating thoughts that characterize householder life. Seen in this light, the concept of a paycheck, of expecting something concrete out of the practice, seems to belong squarely in the world of material cares. Invoking the notion of a paycheck to explain the yoga practice seems at best crass and, at worse, to miss the point of the practice.

Indeed, the notion of a paycheck seems to be very closely associated with the notion of expecting something in return for some effort that we put in, and isn't expectation the root cause of suffering? After all, the Bhagavad Gita says,  "Let right deeds be your motive, not the fruit which comes from them." And Guruji famously says, "Practice, and all is coming" (and wisely says nothing about when exactly the "all" is coming).

So isn't it inappropriate to expect any kind of "paycheck" from the yoga practice? In my humble opinion: Not really. For one, if you happen to teach yoga for a living, you have to expect that you will make enough money from your teaching (which grows out of your practice) to put food on the table and pay the bills. Even if you do not teach yoga for a living -- if, like me, you are what Mr Iyengar calls a "householder" -- you still expect to get something out of the practice: Even if you are not expecting to "achieve" any particular posture in your daily practice, I think it is fair to say that you are at least expecting that you will feel better about yourself after you practice than before.

Hence, there seems to be a paradox inherent in the yoga practice (you probably have figured by now that I love talking about paradoxes): While it is true that having expectations can lead to suffering, we nevertheless need expectations to move us along, to get us out of bed in the morning and do our yoga practice, and to move forward in life in general. If we do not expect anything from anything, then we have nothing to look forward to, and we will be stuck in a state of psychic (and possibly physical) paralysis... well, at least I will be stuck; I can't speak for others.

Hmm... It seems that I have written myself into a corner, because I don't know what else to say! I'll end this post by stating the obvious: Either there is a solution to this paradox, or there isn't.

Is there?     


  1. Hmmm. And I followed you along all the way to the corner.... Ok, my take on this is that maybe the underlying message of the paycheck thing, is simply "give and you shall receive'... Seen in this light a householder might be better able to put food in the table if she is thinking about giving and trusting the receiving part is taken care of by universal intelligence, God, the Gita, etc.... As per practice yes we get a lot we also give it a lot, we change our lives around it and there is a promisse in our practice progressing that we might in turn inspire others... I think you do, with something as simple as your blogspot :-)

  2. I love this topic.
    I think the practice, as a tool, can be used in so many different ways, that the whole "paycheck" idea can work for everyone. If a student is greedy for poses and yet can't do what's needed to get to those poses, the lesson is patience and dedication to a consistent practice. If that same student still never gets to the pose she or he desperately wanted, then the lesson changes to humility and... resignation? Ha ha! The change is not in the body, it's in the mind. God, I love Ashtanga.

    I think anyone who practices consistently for a long period of time starts to realize that the benefits are things that never could have been predicted in the first place. Maybe the golden asana is achieved, but maybe not. Maybe it eventually doesn't matter and that is the biggest paycheck of all.

    What I find thrillling is that putting in the work seems to pay off no matter what. I think it's exciting to just plug along and see what will happen. It's like a life long experiment. If there aren't a whole lot of expectations, then everything is a pay off even if one never gets to Astavakrasana! whee!

  3. My Dad once told me that if working for a paycheck was meant to be a pleasure, we would be charged admission for the privilege. This always made sense to me until now. Apparently in Ashtanga, we pay to learn how to do the work so we can earn the paycheck. Wait, that's college... Great Nobel, now we are all cornered right in there with you LOL!

  4. Thanks for the great insights, everyone. So perhaps we get not one, but many, many paychecks from the yoga practice, starting from the moment we first step on the mat, from the way our life chnages as a result of committing ourselves to practice, and from whatever postures or siddhis we may aattain along the way... We cannot know when the paychecks come--they probably won't come once every 2 weeks--but they will come, and we have to try to have as few expectations as possible. Maybe gaining the ability to have few expectations, to be content with little, is a pretty big paycheck in and of itself. Intriguing, intriguing.

    fft: hahahaha [evil kungfu master laugh]! Indeed! And we thought we were done with the whole paying-to-learn-how-to-work-to-get-a-paycheck business... It turns out that ashtanga is a sort of "life college".