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Calm, Clear Mind

Often, we cling to joy and run from sorrow, but the practice of upekkha—"equanimity"—can help us embrace every experience.

By Anne Cushman

In fact, we may start to recognize that the desire to generate good feelings and avoid bad ones is a powerful—if largely unconscious—motivator for our practice. After all, that's often what lures us to our mat: We are stressed out and want to be relaxed; we are sluggish and want to be energized; we are flabby and want to be fit; we are ill and want to be healthy. We want the thrill of balancing in Handstand and the buzz of a deep backbend; we want to be loved, and we fantasize that will happen if we look like the model on the cover of our favorite yoga video. With its inevitable emphasis on working toward an ideal by correcting what is "wrong" and striving for what is "right," even the best yoga instruction may insidiously support this fixation on results.

But as we move through our yoga practice, it soon becomes obvious how much we can't control, in our bodies and in our lives. If we're handicapped by strength, flexibility, and youthful good health, it may take us a little longer to learn that vital lesson. It may seem, at first, that our efforts always bear the intended fruits: The harder we push, the sleeker we get; the more Sun Salutations we do, the more glorious our Downward Dog becomes. But sooner or later, we all hit a wall.

After all, many factors influence the state of our bodies, most of which we can't control: a virus lingering on a doorknob, a bus hurtling through a red light, the slender physique of our Asian grandmother or the stocky one of our Russian grandfather. Our back might go out as we're picking up a sack of groceries; we might tear our knee cartilage meditating; we might get pregnant with twins.

And when such things happen, we have the opportunity—like it or not—to practice the fine art of equanimity: to continue to get on our mat and do our practice, while relaxing our attachment to the particular rewards that enticed us there in the first place.

If our practice has been soaked with ambition, a shift of attitude away from such striving can be terrifying. We may wonder, "If I am equanimous, will I ever make any progress? Won't I just lounge around on my mat like a cat by a fire?"

But practicing upekkha doesn't mean that we stop putting our full effort into our practice and our life. (In fact, for me, equanimity is most possible when I know I have given my all in a situation—when I have put myself wholeheartedly into my backbend, my parenting, my marriage.) It simply means our effort is fueled not by obsession with the outcome but by the integrity of the effort itself.

In the practice of hatha yoga, equanimity is about paying exquisite attention to the motivations that color all of our actions. It's about arching into a gentle backbend again and again, even if we know that our own particular body will never achieve the spectacular drop-back of the model featured on our yoga calendar. It's about learning to greet with equal interest whatever experiences emerge—whether the sensual satisfaction of a silky forward bend or the pain and frustration of a cranky knee—knowing that good or bad, one thing is certain: This too shall pass.

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Reader Comments


What a great article! Love the conclusion - we all have such wisdom when we are in little packages :)
I often think yoga is about refinding all the wisdom we are born with before fear and pain make us doubt ourselves, in our bodies and our souls. Bet the author's son does a beautiful shoulderstand too! x

Kim Tierney

That was beautifully said. Thank you.


We need some calm in our lives.
I remeber those days when my daughter went to kindergarten. I was crying my eyes out when she left me. Now that she is in high school, I am now teaching her and my son how to be calm from yoga. They both enjoy it as well as I do -

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