August 22, 2013

Action Before Movement

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve promised myself to get more exercise, call an old friend more often, or spend more time in my studio making art, then failed to follow through, I’d be  writing this post from the terrace of my house in Bali with a pitcher of mimosas by my side. I suspect that I’m not the only one frustrated by this predicament. Slogging through theories on why we don’t do what we say we want to do to foster our mental, spiritual, or physical health just make the light at the end of the tunnel more difficult to see.

As a practical person with a Type A personality, planning and problem solving are my go-to strategies, but the items on my list don't respond to this m.o. The process that helps me honor my commitments in my professional life doesn't seem to apply here. Apparently, I’m the only one to whom I won't keep a promise.

Yoga is as close as I’ve come to clearing the haze. Since starting my asana practice two years ago, I’ll occasionally have what I think of as baby epiphanies. For a person whose mind seems never to stop, it's oddly liberating to be in an environment where my mind exists only to be of service to my body. After a few months of regular practice, I noticed that these periods of not thinking brought me a sense of clarity that I missed when I reverted to my default mode of over-thinking. A few more months, and I started to see that much of what I was working on in class was not all that different from what I was dealing with outside the studio.

One morning early this year, my teacher, Cindy, was instructing us on how to position our right ankles to help us move into a difficult pose. She suggested we create what she referred to as an action in the ankle, rather than a movement. This action, she said, was subtler than a movement; we should be able to feel the rotation internally, yet someone else looking at our ankles might not notice any difference. This would, she said, offer us greater ease in the pose. She was right; the pose came more easily to me. The action was more than intention, than deciding simply to do--there was a physical component too, after all, although more internal than external. But that moment of action was palpable, crucial to the movement, to the effect. 

In those few seconds I took to prepare by creating action in my ankle, my mind and body were intimately and inextricably linked, joined in a common purpose. It was a uniquely satisfying experience. This, of course, is one of yoga’s big gifts: the union of the internal and external that arises from being fully present in the moment. 

This action, I thought later, was what was missing from the process I'd been using to meet my personal goals--whether to exercise or get into my studio more often. I’d been doing everything I usually did when I planned a project or an event. I’d made 'to do' lists, I’d scheduled appointments, I’d purchased supplies. I’d checked off all the preliminary activity that would ensure success. I’d made sure there was external movement. What I'd missed altogether was the action piece. 

I’d assumed that desire--I really did want to get more exercise!-- was enough to carry me through. And I’d relied on my past experience, which told me that ideas tend to crash and burn because of poor planning and execution. I hadn’t seen that achieving what we’re not required to do because our jobs depend on them or because our families are counting on us calls for new skills we may not have much practice with, and for hefty amounts of internal action. Often, our list is made up of dreams that mean little to anyone but ourselves; we don't act on them because of lack of time or money (so we say), fear (far more likely), or for reasons we'd rather not explore. Pursuing these demands deep, passionate action; without it, no amount of movement is enough.

I hold this new definition of action close now, and try to nurture it. More than desire, interest, or hope, it's the resolute intention that arises from knowing what is truly meaningful to me. It's a nearly imperceptible internal shift in energy that moves me from wish to engagement. It asks me to accept responsibility for creating a life that fulfills me. 

What I've found isn’t the simple resolution I was hoping for.  And yet, something that I once found baffling seems simpler, and getting there, wherever "there" is, seems within reach. That’s more than a fair trade for the easy answer.   

Image by vvvracer, on Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

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