When I first heard this phrase “Right Effort” from my meditation teacher a couple decades ago, my ears pointed up sky-high. What did she mean? What could possibly be more expected of me than … just showing up? I was there, wasn’t I? I was sitting on my cushion, spending time with a great master of mindfulness — wasn’t that enough?
Well, according to the Teacher, no.
Just showing up ain’t enough, sorry to say. Don’t be discouraged. Just let me explain. I learned this from the greatest spiritual teacher I could find, and I searched high and low until I found her. I’ll explain using the same approach that I currently teach my students how to achieve a balanced and beautiful yoga pose.
When we first learn how to move our body, the temple of our soul, into a new position for the purpose of strengthening and stretching, a good enough reason to start a yoga practice, I start with a simple approach. I teach the ABCDs, and this automatically develops mindfulness. Whether you’re interested in the physical, mental, or spiritual aspects of life, I hope you check out yoga (which means, simply, “union”), Right Effort, no matter what your approach to life, is easiest to achieve if we remember …
Always, the BREATH, the CORE, and the DRISHTI — these are my ABCDs! Always comes first the …
BREATH — naturally, it’s the easiest to do because without breathing, we’re dead. So our job as aware and awakened individuals (and those who are just starting out, wanting to be more conscious of life’s great mysteries) is to watch ourselves breathing. Nothing more. Just focus your attention as you breathe In, mindfully, fully, with the intention that this is the “key” to developing an uplifted perception of life (the goal of meditation/mindfulness). And as you breathe out, continue to maintain that same watchfulness, witnessing yourself breathing. Until, after many breaths In and Out you discover — your breath is breathing YOU. I know that sounds funny, but once you get used to working with your full awareness riveted on your breathing, nothing else is in there, your mind I mean, where your thoughts and distractions originate. Everything becomes stilled through breathing, and you, in cohoots with your breath, become … calm. This is crucial to any practice. Whether you’re training as a singer, an athlete, having a baby, or … driving a car. If your focus is diverted (hello, text and phone addicts!) you will never have the pleasure of inner peace. Period. Just won’t happen until you shift that need of yours to divert attention every which way — and focus it on the breath. Next … comes the need to be aware of your …
CORE — by this great teachers, in yoga especially, mean the mulabandha, the “root lock.” In the gym world, the core is what people think is what you see on the outside, which is, in reality, only the outside set of abs, the abdominal muscles. This is just superficial stuff. This is NOT the core. A six-pack of abs means just that. It doesn’t mean that core strength is engaged. When the core is engaged, there’s an interior engagement of the entire pelvic floor, known in the medical world as the perineum. This engagement of the entire internal structure of many combined muscles, ligaments and connective tissue and fascia — this is your core. How does one know it’s there, and how can you “engage” it? The best way to explain is a little childish, but, hey, anything to get a person more interested, focused, and on their way to attaining a higher perspective of life. The best way to engage the core is to pretend you have to pee, and you squeeze “down there” inside, like we’ve done since we were kids, controlling the pee from not leaking out. This is the core. This is the mulabanda. In hatha yoga, the physical aspect of yoga, a balancing pose is impossible to do without the mulabanda engaged. In meditation, after focusing on the breath, being mindful of the core adds to the “effort” one makes, and increases your focus (helping thoughts to dissolve). So engage the core, just to say “hello core!” if nothing else. It doesn’t have to be a big engagement. It could just be a mindful, thoughtful awareness of the core being there. Squeeze it a few times as one settles into a comfortable meditating pose. Or … just feel your ability to engage an invisible, internal “lock.” These bandhas, or locks, are important to yogis, and there are at least two others that are useful for maintaining more active, steadier poses. The second lock (coming UP from the root one, the mulabandha) is around the navel. The other, ascending the spine, happens when the chin meets the throat. But … the mulabandha is the most important. And if you at least have an awareness of it, your efforts will be greatly rewarded. That, by the way, is the payoff, the benefit, the great grace of practicing Right Effort in the first place. Sort of a spiritual “more bang for the buck” philosophy. The last focusing tool I’m sharing today is …
DRISHTI — the “gaze.” This final crucial engagement of one’s spiritual/mental/physical abilities is most evident when you look at a person’s face. For a seasoned yogi/ini (he/she) has their eyes fixed on one spot at a time, even during a vinyasa (continuous movement) series. Along with the “fixed-eyes” is a pleasant expression, and a slight upturn of the mouth into what is known as “the buddha smile.” If you walk into a gym you can see right away the basic difference between yoga and weight training. The people who use machines or weights are looking all over, wincing, grimacing, grunting, high-fiving, butt-slapping, sometimes making more primeval sounds (although most high-quality gyms have signs saying “no grunting” so that at least limits the jungle-like noises that weight-training individuals like to do; I know because I’ve indulged). If you walk into a much quieter yoga studio there’s usually only the sound of a soothing chant, and maybe everyone’s combined breathing, especially if the instructor has urged people to use the ujjayi breath, engaging the muscle used for whispering/candle-blowing located at the base of the throat that results in what’s called “ocean breathing.” When you’re in a room full of individuals doing the ocean breath you feel like you’re in the middle of a meditative beach walk, even though everyone is holding seriously challenging physical poses (asanas) … Their breath is regular (same amount of In breath and same amount of Out breath) … And, most stunningly different from the weight-lifters, their faces look unstressed. In yoga we focus on a point, called a drishti point, that can be a speck on the floor, the ceiling, a wall, a leaf outside. And if a pose changes direction, so does our drishti point. In meditation and in more restorative poses (held for longer times, in a relaxed manner) the drishti point is held inside. With eyes closed, our “gaze” is internal. But still, we have a steady gaze. We’re not “looking” all around even if our eyes are shut.
When a person remembers these ABCDs, Always the Breath, Core, Drishti — Right Effort comes naturally. Without remembering these focusing tools, a person will have a much harder time stilling the mind, balancing the body, and “becoming one” with a pose. Using these tools, also makes one’s practice a lot of fun!
Because sometimes a pose is a mental challenge (how many times I’ve heard “I can’t do a headstand, I’m too scared my neck will get injured!” A good teacher can show that in headstand there’s no pressure on the neck at all, that the triangle formed from the forearms takes the weight of the upside-down body). Sometimes a certain pose presents a spiritual hurdle a person is not ready for, yet (heart-opening back bends are especially challenging for people who have emotional issues they’re not ready to address). And sometimes, a pose presents a real physical challenge (such as a person with extremely tight hamstrings, tight hips, tight shoulders, all of which un-tighten if anyone decides to, little by little, continue with their yoga practice).
Little by little, the body opens. When a muscle, or a group of muscles, or a tendon has become tight, it slowly unloosens from stretching. A seasoned yogi has kept their body as loose as they were when they were a child, that’s all. Or … they began with a once-tightened body and slowly unloosened it, little by little. Anybody can, if they make that choice.
Right Effort, by the way, is also about not going too far in the opposite direction. In a recent workshop about the fascia I learned, from a real scholarly yoga teacher, that once a person’s fascia has been over-stretched (such as happens with all the extreme poses yogis are doing these days, my goodness!) there is real danger that, later in life, injuries will happen. Why? Because if there’s too much stretching, the fascia — the interlocking channel of connective tissue that literally holds our skeleton in place, and our entire physiology together — will get over-stretched. And if that happens, it never comes back to “normal.” Think of your favorite sweater that got stretched out at the neck, or the elbows, and how the individual knitted loops just won’t go back to that sweater’s original shape that you adored. Well, the body’s interlocking fascia (the myofascia) is just like a sweater that encompasses everything within our physical structure. Including our organs. If an extreme yogi goes too far in their stretching, they are risking the danger of over-stretching their fascia — and that wrong effort will endanger their physical health later in life.
Right Effort, like so much in a mindful practice, is making our lives balanced. We don’t want to put SO much effort into things that we become OCD, or … our fascia gets permanently over-stretched, and woefully damaged. Or, like I have done in the past, by going too far in a pose: experienced vertigo when my neck nerves got pinched from a too-deep side-or-back neck stretch pose. Today, I’m mindful about putting my ABCDs into practice, and … thankfully not killing myself by going beyond my body’s limitations.
Hope this post is helpful.
Please tell me your experience about Right Effort. I’d love to hear from you.
Your pal sending much love to ALL, Lord Flea, aka teZa Lord
ps. Watch for my Right Effort now underway in social media, and other internet communications. I’m readying to indie-publish my first book and I’m practicing all that I’ve spoken about above.