“Life is a Journey. Not a Destination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Any of us who grew up with report cards, vied for sporting trophies or hitched our financial star to a supervisor’s review of our work know goal-setting very well. It’s meant to keep our eyes on the prize. To take us where we want to be. To give us a taste of sweet success. To improve us.
Sometimes, it works. Honor roll. Gold medal. Pay hike and a bonus. Sometimes, not. We cannot control all the variables along the way, no matter how hard we work and focus. Lose 10 pounds before the wedding! Failing to do so just feels like, well, failing. Eight pounds can’t be good enough because eight pounds was not the goal! It’s as if nothing we did or experienced along the way actually counted because we did not get there. Cue heaviness in pit of stomach, maybe tears, maybe anger. Blame game may ensue. Should have done this or that or the other. Maybe blame shift. Somebody else or a situation got in the way. The finish line moved! No fair!
Wait, back to the first scenario. Winning. Achieving the goal. Sweet success! And then what? Next! Another goal. Another destination. Often without even savoring the win. Maintaining can be seen as complacency, even laziness. Re-directing can be seen as flaky. Back-tracking or reviewing? Loserville.
There is another way. American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson made an iconic statement: “Life is a journey. Not a destination.” In yogic terms, which have 5000-year-old roots, mindfulness of life’s journey yields awareness, presence and meaning. Mindfulness invests every moment of the journey, the mundane and the sublime, with learning opportunities. Evolution of the self to its fullness. Its inherent divinity, in spiritual terms.
“Yeah, right!” you might say. “Tell that to my sales manager when I don’t make my goals for the quarter. I was fulfilling my inherent divinity! Pink slip.”
Mindfulness does not preclude goals. It enhances the path. It allows you to learn every step of the way. In corporate terms, if we are always learning, we will not become obsolete. Which would really feel better in the long run? Celebrating the rare moments we cross the finish line? Or investing our focus, our work, our desire, our satisfaction in the almost endless stream of daily moments? Within those moments are the real keys to our evolution, our growth in competency.
I have some goals I am exploring now in my yoga practice. Most of my yoga hours are spent in teaching, usually in a gym environment, which means the flow of poses must be accessible to anyone who walks in, from newbie to regular practitioners. Dear Readers, I have grown complacent in this situation and while I have evolved in my competency as a teacher, I recognize a lack of growth in my own practice.
I have set a goal. For full-on yogi speak, I might say, “I have set my intention.” The nuance is that I intend to move toward something and to do the work but I am open to whatever happens along the way and whatever learning it might lead to for me.
My intention is to explore the arm-balance poses. The strength required of the shoulders and of the serratus anterior muscles that wrap the ribs have been a challenge for me, given my frame. As a person with very open or free-moving joints and loose ligaments. I can explore the postures that exhibit flexibility quite naturally and freely. The deeper learning for me lies in recruiting the muscles to work harder. Many other people come to yoga for the opposite intention — releasing tightness in their muscles and exploring joint range.
Learning to do Scorpion Pose or perhaps Inverted Splits with Arm Balance will require an evolution in my physical competency. Maybe because I’ve been an avid reader and a writer most of my life, I also see the glimmer of a simile in this new intention. Balancing flexibility with strength is like balancing soft with hard. Yin with yang.
Above is a photo of me beginning to explore arm balance. Yes, I did some of this in my teacher training but it was appetizer-sized learning. I am ready, I believe, to make a meal of it. Who knows exactly what will happen along the way? I will try to be patient and kind with myself, while surrendering to the sheer amount of work that must be done. It is fair to say I have always been competitive. Through following this arm-balance intention, perhaps I will be able to release that sheer goal-oriented focus. And, maybe that will be the point! We shall see.
“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.
Contorting into the most extreme positions requiring the core strength of a Hercules and the suppleness of a snake. Flowing the fastest. Sweating the most. Leaving newbs in the dust. Aching for days after class. Sound like yoga to you? In expanding to the gym environment, yoga has become, sometimes, just another notch in one’s Belt of Fitness Badassery. Darlings, allow me to say, this is a very bad idea.
There is strength in simplicity. Standing in Mountain, the simplest active pose, can strengthen the legs and the core through internal actions scarcely visible to the eye. Pressing into the feet, “lifting” the kneecaps, spiraling the thighs, expanding the distance between ribs and hips. Add awareness of the breath, soft gaze, fingertips reaching downward. Anyone can stand there, right? Well, mindfully? Relaxed but attentive? Athletes and dancers do it all the time. In the general population, it used to be called Good Posture. For most people, that went the way of cursive handwriting with the advent of all our digital helpers. The same helpers have many of hunched forward with an overstretched upper back, tight chest, rolled-in shoulders and collapsed belly. In psychological terms, it is recognized across cultures as the posture of defeat. It used to be a posture seen mostly in the elderly, the infirm and unwell. We see it now in the young. The collapsed posture charges a high price in neck pain, low back issues, even depressed mood. Mountain reminds us to lift skyward. When we are fully present in Mountain pose, how much more ease we have in moving into a pose that asks for more of us, as does Tree, when one foot is lifted and we must explore our balance.
There is suppleness within many ranges of motion. A student may observe the position at which I can turn out my hip but have no idea of how it feels to me or how their internal experience of the pose differs from mine. We cannot see each others’ hip joints! There is a variety of joint shapes that determine a lot about one’s range of motion. Many people, especially those with sedentary jobs or even fitness activities that are repetitive, may not use their individual range of motion to its fullest. This is something to explore, gently and with compassion for one’s body, through yoga. Pushing past one’s limits can do internal damage over time. It is not Badass to force a limb where we believe it should go in order to be correct or to succeed or even to win against other students. It is foolhardy. The no-pain-no gain ethos of some sports cannot apply here.
Can yoga enhance or increase one’s overall fitness? Considering that it began in India over 5000 years ago as a way of training up young men to be warriors, it certainly can. And, there are many different schools of yogic teaching that offer a variety of paths. Some purposefully more regimented or sweaty than others! Students may explore to find the format that resonates most, that opens doors to strength, balance, flexibility and relaxation. Raised on a Western diet of grades and medals and trophies, my own ego certainly enjoys a little massage when I do a pose that previously seemed impossible. In studying the philosophy of yoga, especially the yamas and niyamas, I am learning to view those moments not as triumphs of will but as evolution arising from stilling of my ego and increasing mindfulness. Every day on the mat is different. When I need to feel like a badass, I can throw some iron around in the gym. Mindfully, of course!