Beyond Doing, Beyond Understanding. ~ Tias Little

Via on Apr 15, 2012

“Beyond doing, beyond understanding.”

This phrase comes from the Zen teachings and is part of the path to realization. It is relevant to the practice of yoga, and is a topic I explored in the class “Do you do Yoga?” that I taught in Estes Park for the Yoga Journal conference in 2010.

We are a culture of doers. So much of our time is allocated to doing that we are doer devotees. We become chained to our to-do-lists. It is a golden chain, for we believe that it is all for good. In yoga classes, the Protestant work ethic is alive and well, where students think, the more poses I do, the harder I push, the better off I will be. Parents parent in the same way, and the mantra “Good job!” is usually the first thing a mom says to a child that draws a picture of a tree, or toots on her recorder. At a young age, children learn that doing is best. Bob the Builder is a boy’s first guru.

However, in yoga training, a whole different ethic is required. In fact, a yoga practice involves as much unlearning as learning. The practitioner must rewire the ‘habit body’ by unlearning patterns of physical tension. Through meditation (dhyana), we unlearn patterns of psychological fixation and drop petty emotions.

Not-doing is far more challenging than doing, especially for those of us who have been reared since seven years of age to strive, excel and achieve. How do you do not-doing? In the Taoist tradition, non-doing is held in high esteem. Called wu-wei, it is a central tenet for following the Tao. In Chapter 48 of the Tao-te-ching, it is said,

In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, not-doing is an essential attribute to an accomplished asana—prayatna shaithilya samapattibhyam (chapter II verse 47). This verse suggests that yoga-asana must have a quality of ease, non-striving and no-force. This is a real test for the strivers in the room! This is challenging for non-striving does not mean complete passivity. A yoga practitioner must learn to actively relax. Active relaxation has a very different feel than passive relaxation. Active relaxation includes alertness and wakefulness, yet without any grip, clench or strain.

Perhaps even more tricky for yoga practitioners is not-understanding. We assume, typically, that we must develop the mindfulness, concentration and attention to come to understand what is happening. We have expectations that we will eventually come to a deep and profound understanding of things. We approach yoga studies the way we approached chemistry, Spanish or the SATs in high school. Yet like not-doing, the maturation of a yoga practice must include not-understanding. Can we experience things without having to ‘get’ them? Can we allow ourselves to receive in ways that are outside our conscious control? Can we trust ourselves to absorb things intuitively, in the dream-scape of the unconscious? Can we be at peace with not-knowing—not-knowing how things will go in the future, not-knowing how things are going right now, and not-knowing what may become of what is past?

“Beyond doing, beyond understanding” involves a tremendous spirit of letting go. When we let go in this way, it is remarkable what we may receive, just outside the reach of our willful attempt to grasp.

Tias Little is a yoga teacher, meditation instructor, and regular contributor at Tias is committed to teaching yoga as a contemplative path, leading to greater sensitivity, tolerance and deep understanding (prajna). His teaching combines the techniques of yoga that stem from the work of B.K.S Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Tias is a long time student of Tsoknyi Rinpoche in the Dzogchen practice of Tibetan Buddhism. He is trained in Vipassana meditation and the Japanese Soto school of Zen Buddhism founded by Dogen. He currently studies koans within the Chan Buddhist traditions in China with Roshi Joan Sutherland. Tias earned a BA from Amherst College, Mass., in 1988, and a Masters degree in Eastern Philosophy from St. John’s College, Santa Fe, in 1998. Learn more about Tias’ classes, workshops and teaching at


Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul

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2 Responses to “Beyond Doing, Beyond Understanding. ~ Tias Little”

  1. Valerie Carruthers ValCarruthers says:

    Loved this, Tias. Our culture is famously about making things work, building the new and improved, dreaming up a desired result and then figuring out how to get there. With the mantra of "strive, excel and achieve" that you describe it's all so very rajasic. The concept of Yoga becomes yet another frustration in this context. Especially the notion of consciously relaxing the mind into a state of not-knowing, not-doing—scary at first because there's nothing to hold onto. Paradoxically, being at one with our innate nothingness is the greatest attainment. As you conclude: “Beyond doing, beyond understanding” involves a tremendous spirit of letting go. When we let go in this way, it is remarkable what we may receive, just outside the reach of our willful attempt to grasp."

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    Valerie Carruthers
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  2. Great column, as always! This challenge of not-doing reminds me of a quote by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth series:"We're so engaged in doing things that we forget that the rapture which is associated with being alive is what it's all about." Many blessings!

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