“A country proverb says, ‘Not every hole has a snake.’ You may happen to see a snake going into the hole; fine, remember that not every hole is free from snakes. But don’t look for a snake in every hole you come across. See each one individually.” – *Swami Satchidananda
Letting go of expectations brings us peace and calm. It grounds us in the present moment of what is actually happening instead of trapping us in the past of what is gone or the future of what might or “should” happen. The strength of letting go serves us in daily life and in our yoga practice.
In the physical practice of yoga, moving through postures AKA asanas in a class or alone, students frequently “should” all over themselves. I should be able to do this pose! I did it yesterday. Or, I should be able to listen to and follow instructions because I am known to be a good listener. Or, I should be able to do what the student next to me does because I am younger and fitter or, maybe, because I am older and wiser. Or, I should be able to relax and just breathe in savasana. I do it every second of every day! I should know how to breathe! Ahhhhhh!
Teachers, too, may fall prey to “shoulds.” I should not fall out of this pose because I never did before. I should demo perfectly. I should radiate calm. I should be able to adapt my teaching to whoever is in the room. I should have a great following of students because I give it my all. I should be able to leave every student better off than I found them. I should leave the world outside the door whenever I teach. I should be thinner, fitter. I should have an amazing, awe-inspiring playlist. I should be able to answer all my students’ questions. I should be a vegetarian. I should meditate daily for me and to set a good example. Ahhhhhhh!
The mat is a place of learning by experiencing and observing. Trapped in the labyrinth of expectations, we will find it difficult if not impossible to gather and begin to comprehend all the inputs our body is sending or to assess the emotions that may be releasing. If a pose causes pain or deep discomfort, we deserve to modify it in order to get the benefits of the pose without paying too high a cost. Perhaps we will use a block or a strap to assist. Perhaps decrease the angle of rotation. Perhaps keep a toe tip on the floor instead of lifting the foot off it entirely. Perhaps we will simply honor our body’s feedback by taking a break in Child’s Pose or Knee-to-Chest Pose. Perhaps we will keep our eyes open during final relaxation. It is always yogi’s choice! And, tomorrow may be different! We cannot know. We can only explore.
Being free of expectations serves us in The Real World, as well. Time on the mat can pay benefits forward.
Expectations or “shoulds” can also be self-defeating limitations. They may limit our actions and our interactions. A person may think, “I am not athletic. I should be. I will be most uncoordinated and the worst in the room. I should be better. I will be ashamed, frustrated and possibly mocked. It happened all through school. I am fat. No one wants me there. I should stay home. Safe. I don’t care.” Say goodbye to socializing through sports or games or dance. Say goodbye to improving your coordination and enjoying the emotional and physical health benefits of doing so. Chained to the painful place of what was. Fearful of the potential pain of what could be. Prisoner of expectations. I should succeed in the way that is defined and controlled by others, otherwise don’t even try.
Prejudice and bias also limit our options, ranging from the intensely personal to the more abstract global. Sometimes prejudgment or rigid expectation of bad outcomes reinforces what feels like wise caution and righteous anger. Fire burned me! Wisely never touching it again may, with enough fear, cascade into fire is bad, stay away from fire, never let friends or family get near fire. Excluding burns from fire but also excluding sitting by the fireplace or a campfire or bonfire, grilling out, candlelit dinners, watching action movies fraught with explosions, helping put out a fire at a neighbor’s home and/or marching with torches to scare the bejesus out of Frankenstein.
Moving from the metaphorical to the practical, perhaps a person has been betrayed, deeply wounded by a trusted friend or spouse. Fear cries out, “Never trust again! See where that got you?” Avoiding that pain may feel safer in some ways. With the expectation that relationships wound and will always wound, one can sound a retreat. Run away, run away! Or, perhaps, pick a fight and end it early because it’s going to end anyway and why not be in control of when it happens? Fight-flight before anything has actually gone wrong in the present moment also cuts one off from the healing of allowing old relationships to deepen or new relationships to form. “No problem!” some cry. “I will pay that price in order never to be hurt that way again.” Since humans are made to bond, to connect, a part of the new price to pay will likely include poorer emotional and physical health.
Many social scientists say that humans have some natural instincts to distrust and even dislike those who are notably different. One of the strengths of a tribe, after all, is that you are a community who protect each other from outside attack. As you should! People with bad intentions are real, not just a construct of one’s anxiety about difference. But as Swami Satchidananda wisely explains, not every hole has a snake in it. And, as Uncle Monty in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” knows, not every snake is poisonous or aggressive. The line between caution and fear exists in calm. We are safer when calm, aware, in the present moment, informed but not controlled by the past.
The rise of nationalism in any culture grows out of fear of others. Fear grows and feels uncontrollable. Too many unknowns are terrifying. The ability of seemingly global forces to destroy an individual or a way of life feels much too overwhelming. “Shoulds” that one believed in seem in danger of dissolving, with no replacement supports in sight for the fearful ego. Traumatic events replay the fight-flight tape constantly in the central nervous system, even when no threat is currently evident. It might come back! It could come from anywhere! It could take my children, assault my spouse, burn down my house, destroy my livelihood, deny me my faith, force me to submit, enslave me, cost me my life… A bad thing happened. It could happen again. Do something. Do ANYTHING to prevent it happening again. Even if it isn’t the right thing and doesn’t really protect me, I will have had the moment’s comfort of feeling that something was done and in that moment I believed I was safe.
This may be the slipperiest slope that expectations can offer the human experience. Fear cutting us off from people who might be friends and allies. Fear expanding into hatred. Fear expanding into violence. History records mankind falling prey again and again to these false expectations that grew out of fear and expanded into all-encompassing generalizations and grew into violence.
Sometimes the fear was not even legitimate. Fear of “otherness” was exploited by a cynical manipulator who recognized a useful scapegoat. And, so, someone may call Jews “Christ-killers” or “greedy moneylenders and banking overlords” and justify wiping them out. Someone may know a person raped by a Black man (or claim to know that) and consider it natural and right to expect all Black men will rape if given a chance, and that fear-and-anger based analysis may expand that into “preventative” measures such as cross-burning to remind folks who is in charge and lynching for even looking at a white woman the wrong way. Someone may feel in despair from not being able to land a job and notice construction sites full of dark-haired, brown skinned men speaking Spanish and assume Mexicans are taking my job, they aren’t supposed to be here! Someone who has never met, much less spoken to a Muslim may reel still from the horrors of the 9/11 attack and suicide bombings all over the world, coming to the conclusion that doing something is better than doing nothing, so exclude anyone from the religion that the terrorists espouse.
There is no room to be calm, no time. Shoot first, ask questions later. And in the moments between “shoot” and “later,” a sense of safety descends because something outside you has shifted and changed. Violence and non-compassion have temporarily numbed the fear. Much as addictive substances do. But little has truly changed. The fear is still there, rooted as it is in terrors of the past and uncertainties of the future. While we can reduce risk with informed, wise caution, we cannot eliminate it. A pell mell rush to destroy risk can end up limiting our options and potentially, inadvertently raising our risk.
If yoga philosophy seems a weak or impractical method of dealing with fear and potential violence, consider how athletes and soldiers train and what attitude they must maintain while in a contest or conflict. Both groups drill constantly. First level, they must have and maintain the physical skills necessary to succeed. Those skills must become second nature. There will be no time to think about it. There will not even be time to consciously assess what to do. They must flow through high pressure moments, hours or even days, receptive to whatever arises in each second. Calm is of the essence in the highest levels of performance and execution. Otherwise, awareness of the present moment dissolves and then what?
In basketball, for example, you may miss the opportunity to take or block the game-winning shot. The basketball player who throws tantrums, curses out referees, showboats, takes all the credit when he succeeds and blames others when he fails? He may temporarily succeed, freak out and throw off his opponents, even make a lot of money and gain notoriety. Do his teammates trust him, his opponents respect him, his fans gain insight and success by copying him? Is there career longevity in his overwrought approach? Will that approach carry him well through the next phase of his life when he is no longer on the court? Will he be remembered more for his game skills or for his out-of-control personality?
As for the warrior, losing his calm and giving in to fight-flight-freeze instincts could cost him and/or others their lives. If he shoots first blindly and asks questions later, in a flash of anger or fear, he might indeed take out a real threat. Or he might take down a brother or sister soldier with “friendly fire.” He might strike a civilian who is not only no threat but may have been counting on him to be a savior. He might miss his one chance at a clean shot and be killed. He might be rattled and distracted by a diversion, mistakenly calculating a response that does not work against the coming, true assault. If he loses his calm and freezes, the cost may be huge to him and his unit. If he loses his calm and flees, he may be shot or courtmartialed or cause death or grievous injury among those who counted on him to do his part. There are scientific and experience-tested reasons why elite military assault units learn to do breathing exercises. Calm is critical. Chaos is the enemy of reason and a challenge to stillness and awareness.
*Swami Satchidananda was an Indian guru (wise teacher) who spread a message of love and tolerance. He wrote translations of classic works of yoga philosophy to make them more accessible to modern and Western understanding. A widely respected teacher, he laced his lectures with humor and humility. He founded Yogaville in Buckingham, Virginia, an ashram that teaches Integral Yoga. This school of yoga focuses on the refinement of mind, body and spirit through practice of the yoga postures, breathing and meditation. Yogaville also is home of the Light of Truth Universal Shrine, which recognizes the beauty and universality of all religions.