How Trying NOT to Try Can Improve Your Yoga Practice

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Do you ever find yourself sailing through a pose that you usually struggle with, say balancing with ease in Tree or Warrior III? There’s a good chance that your sudden agility was because you really weren’t trying that hard.

According to Edward Slingerland, author of the new book Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, which mines ancient Chinese thought for tips that can boost your performance anywhere from the yoga studio to a first date, the trick is less overt trying and more just being—in the zone, that is.

“We run into the paradox of trying not to try whenever we are consciously pursuing unselfconsciousness or spontaneity as a goal: we are essentially trying to use our conscious mind to shut our conscious mind down,” explains Slingerland, a professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia.

It’s challenging, but if you can achieve this state of effortless action, which the ancient Chinese referred to as wu-wei (pronounced “ooo-way”), you just might find yourself making progress in all sorts of arenas that may have eluded you in the past, Slingerland says.

“[Wu-wei] refers to a state of total ease, in which you become completely lost in what you’re doing, feel no sense of exerting effort, and yet everything works out perfectly,” he explains. “When you are in wu-wei, you are maximally effective in the way you move through the world, and you emerge from the experience feeling relaxed and satisfied.”

This effect may extend to your social life as well. “We like spontaneous ease in others, and tend to trust and be attracted to those who exhibit it,” Slingerland says. “The early Chinese called this attractive aura de (pronounced “duh”), or ‘charismatic power.’”

Wu-wei sure sounds like something we would all want. But how do we get it?

According to the Chinese masters, there are four ways, Singerland explains.

“Carving and polishing,” or trying really hard until the trying falls away—like practicing Half Moon Pose every day until you no longer need that block under your bottom hand.

Forgetting or actively rejecting effort Deliberately rejecting any effort and trying to get in touch with basic, natural tendencies.

“Cultivating the sprouts,” or nourishing positive habits and tendencies within us. For instance, introspecting on a moment of genuine compassion and trying to extend this compassion to places where you should be feeling it but are not, e.g., the homeless person you pass every day on your way to work.

Letting go of conscious thought and getting fully present and carried away in the activity at hand.

“Typically when it comes to a skill like yoga, the ‘carving and polishing’ effort is required in the beginning, but then there’s a point where a letting go or forgetting needs to happen if one’s to really get into the zone,” Slingerland says.

In fact, “conscious striving” in a meditative practice like yoga can actually interfere with our ability to relax into the state we are seeking, he adds.

We’ll remember that next time we’re in Tree Pose.

— Jennifer D’Angelo Friedman