Our focus and effort in asana practice is usually on the body’s alignment and engagement in the pose. While it is important to make a good, strong and safe shape with the body, overemphasizing the physical engagement can limit your progression in yoga. In Yoga Sutra 2.47, Patanjali asks us to relax our effort and exertion to allow our attention to merge with the infinite. This allows us to find an inner calm that will help us progress further into the poses. This is not an easy task, but we have gathered some tips and advice to help you soften the effort and expand your awareness during meditation or hatha yoga.
Patanjali’s aphorisms on asana
Patanjali’s yoga sutras, considered one of the foundational texts on yoga, only discusses the physical posture twice. In sutra 2.46 we learn that a yoga posture should have a balance between sthira—stillness and stability, and sukham—ease, comfort, and openness. The following aphorism, prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam, discusses the perfection of asana, effortless effort, and merging with the infinite.
We often get caught up in the effort of attaining the perfect shaped pose. Patanjali asks us to let go our effort and exertion to allow our attention expand beyond our bodies to unite with the infinite. This is not an easy task, especially for beginners. It takes practice to find this state of effortless effort, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen right away.
What does Prayatna Shaithilya Ananta Samapattibhyam mean?
In Yoga Sutra 2.47, “prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam,” is translated as “Perfection in an asana is attained by the relaxation of effort and the total absorption of awareness on the infinite.” The word-for-word translation of this sutra is:
Prayatna = effort, tension, exertion
Shaithilya = letting go of, relaxing, loosen
Ananta = infinite, boundless, eternal, endless, essential nature
Samapattibhyam = uniting with, focusing on, fusing, coming together, merging, focusing attention on
There are several different ways Sutra 2.47 has been translated over the centuries. Reading different translations, interpretations and commentaries on a sutra can provide a better understanding than relying on a single source. Here are a few of the most popular translations:
- “Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effortful effort to perform it becomes effortless, and the infinite being within is reached.” — BKS Iyengar.
- “By lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite, posture is mastered.” — Sri Swami Satchidananda
- “By loosening of effort and by meditation on the serpent ananta, asana is mastered.” — Swami Satyananda Saraswati
- “As the body yields all efforts and holdings, the infinite within is revealed.” — Nischala Joy Devi
- “Posture becomes firm and relaxed through control of the natural tendencies of the body, and through meditation on the infinite.” — Swami Prabhavananda
- “By slight effort and meditating on the unlimited (posture becomes firm and pleasant).” — Swami Vivekananda
How to achieve Prayatna Saithilya
The word prayatna means “effort, exertion or force.” The word saithilya means “letting go of.” Therefore prayatna saithilya is defined as “the letting go of the need to do with force or effort.” It is a state of active and focused work without tension or any unnecessary effort.
In order to reach this state in asana, one must first understand how to soften your desire, relax extra effort, and accept what you cannot change. Cultivate this softening and non–efforting by finding the space within the engagement of the shape, and accepting your body and the pose as it is. Work towards letting go of trying to make something happen, and instead allowing what is to unfold naturally. This is true whether we’re doing a forward fold, downward dog, or any other yogic practice. In each case, we’re learning to accept the practice and our body as it is, rather than forcing ourselves to try to change it.
It’s easy to get caught up in thoughts like “I should be able to do this”, “I’m not good enough”, or “This isn’t working”. These thoughts create unnecessary tension and stress in our bodies, and prevent us from progressing in the practice. By releasing these negative thoughts, we free our minds to focus on the present moment to find the correct amount of effort in the asana.
We must also put effort into creating a good, safe and aligned shape with our body on our yoga mats. When we practice good alignment, correct form and proper effort, we’re cultivating mindfulness, self-awareness and concentration. We’re also strengthening our muscles, increasing flexibility and improving our overall health.
In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar describes prayatna saithilya as the highest state one can achieve in the posture. “In asana, we are trying to broach the mass of our gross body, to break up the molecules and divide them into atoms that will allow our vision to penetrate within… Initially we need to exert ourselves more as resistance is greater. Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our minds is our goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat. When effort becomes effortless, asana is at its highest level.”
It takes time, patience and compassion to learn how to let go of the need to push yourself. You may find yourself getting frustrated if you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Don’t worry! It’s normal to have moments of frustration. You can counteract negative feelings with thinking positive thoughts, affirmations and intentions. Incorporating kindness, compassion, patience and acceptance into our practice will help us cultivate a more relaxed attitude towards our bodies and poses. As we learn to let go of our expectations and desires, we naturally cultivate more effortless effort.
How to experience Ananta Samapattibhyam
The word “prayatna” means “the ultimate truth” or “the infinite oneness”. The word “samapattibhyam” means “connected” or “united”. It refers to the state of being connected to the infinite or our highest self. This is achieved by abiding in our true nature, surrendering to the divine will and allowing spirit to guide our actions.
When we are in a state of prayatna samapattibhyam, we are fully present in the moment and are open to whatever unfolds before us. We are not resisting or pushing against anything. We are simply being. Letting go into the infinite is an act of surrendering control over your life. You give up your ego and become part of something bigger than yourself.
To achieve this state of ananta samapattibhyam requires that we first release our attachment to outcomes. Our desire to gain mastery over the asanas must dissolve. We must stop trying to prove ourselves both on and off our yoga mats. We must let go of our fear of failure and embrace the unknown. We must trust the universe to show us the path.
As we let go of our attachments, we begin to see things differently. We come to understand that we are not separate from the world around us. We are not separate from the people who surround us. We are moving towards the ultimate goal of yoga– to become united with the ultimate truth and the infinite oneness.
How to practice Ananta Samapattibhyam
The practice of ananta samapattibhyam requires us to expand our awareness from the physical to the subtle energies of the body and universe. This can be practiced during seated meditation or during a long posture hold. There are four main steps to practice and experience ananta samapattabhyam.
- The first step is to expand your awareness from the body to the breath. Focus on your inhale and exhale. Notice where you feel the air entering and leaving your nostrils. Feel the sensations in your nose, mouth, throat and chest. Observe the rise and fall of your abdomen. As you breathe deeply, you connect with the air and space around you. Use your breath to feel yourself resting, softening, widening and deepening gently and comfortably into Yoga.
- Next, focus on the mind. Notice the location and quality of your thoughts. Observe your thoughts without judgment, watching them float away like clouds in the sky. Do not try to change them. Just observe and watch them as separate entities. Consciously allow your thoughts to soften and dissolve. Experience your Thoughts as temporary phenomena—let them flow through you like waves on the ocean. As your thoughts dissolve expand your focus and awareness beyond your mind, body and breath.
- Keep expanding your awareness farther, to your spirit or soul, the source of witness consciousness. As you expand beyond the physical realm, notice your body becoming lighter, softer and more peaceful. Allow your awareness to witness all that is happening at once—in your body and all around you. Allow yourself to experience the reality of now.
- Lastly, imagine that you are nothing more than pure energy and pure consciousness. Feel the energy coursing through your entire body. Feel it flowing out of your head and down your spine. Feel it pulsating through all seven chakras and Feel it moving through your hands and feet. Let your whole body be filled with this feeling of bliss. Let go of all attachment to the physical body and Imagine that you are the source of all existence. Allow your awareness to become united with the infinite oneness.
Effortless effort is the key to awaken the spiritual aspects of the practice of yoga. You can use these techniques in your yoga poses as just tools to help us transcend the physical realm and connect with higher states of consciousness. Effortless effort allows you to surrender into the process, connect with the infinite and leads to greater self-awareness and ultimately to true freedom.