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Elegant Life

Release Obstacles

It’s 7:30am on a weekday, and my chin is on the floor. Arms pinned under my knees, legs straight. Kurmasana: tortoise pose, a pose I hate more than being trapped in a noisy cafeteria with a crowd of extroverts. Greg Nardi is preparing to squish me even further down, so my chest presses into the floor. My hip joints are threatening active rebellion.

“Breathe,” he says, which is what all yoga instructors say to distract you from your imminent demise. Then he says something new. “You’re trying to push through. Don’t push through. Just release obstacles.”

Something clicks, when he says that. Something softens. Instead of feeling panic and screaming agony, I let go. And when he drapes himself across my back, my chest floats to the floor. I breathe. Every muscle in my body releases its obstacle.

It feels great.

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Those two words have revolutionized how I deal with problems: “Release obstacles.”

All my life, I’ve tried to push through: work harder, work longer, ignore discomfort, push to the edge. The tricky bit: pushing through earns a lot of accolades. It also earned me a cancer diagnosis at thirty, and years of spending my weeks (and weekends) chained to a computer, trying in vain to feed hungry ghosts.

I wanted pushing through to work. But it doesn’t.

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“Release obstacles.” You know the story of the monkey with his hand in the jar, yes? The hunter puts something delectable, like a piece of coconut, inside a jar. The monkey reaches in for the treat, and then is trapped because he can’t get his hand out of the jar without letting go of the treat.

I hold on to my obstacles as if they’re prizes. I’d have no trouble escaping the trap if I’d just unclench my fist and let go.

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For me, goals became a way to push through. I used to write out the things I wanted to achieve, a top ten list, over and over and over. Every morning. A cluster of well-meaning self-help authors advised this, so I did it. Every day. Obsessively.

And it worked… kind of. Just enough to keep me hooked. I actually achieved some of the items on the list (like getting into shape by going to yoga). But every time I crossed a finish line, it moved again. I still had ten goal slots to fill. It felt frenetic. Addicting.

More recently, I read Leo Babauta’s simple, gorgeous, exhilarating post on having No Goals. And it flipped a switch, the way Greg Nardi did that day in the yoga studio, and I stopped writing out goals lists. I started focusing on letting go of the obstacles. Obstacles to what? To the feeling I had when Greg Nardi floated me into Kurmasana. Ease. Presence. Vitality.

(Goals work for some people. The trap is that you get up one day and say, “Aha! No goals! That’s the ticket! This will solve all my problems!” And you get out a piece of paper and write down, “Goal #1: Eradicate goals.” No. There’s no secret; “having goals” isn’t the secret, and “not having goals” isn’t the secret. The secret is realizing there’s no secret. The emperor has no clothes. It’s all a lot easier than we’re making it.)

Last month I found my old goals notebook. A cheap grocery store notebook with a gray-on-black “Back in Black” cover. I got out wire clippers and clipped off the metal binding so I could recycle it. Tossing it in the recycle bin felt like throwing a heavy stone into the ocean. It felt like releasing an obstacle.

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What are the obstacles I need to release this coming year? That’s always the first question: sometimes I worry so much about how to release that I don’t spend enough time figuring out what to release.

But it always ends up coming back to the obstacle I released that day in Kurmasana. A tension in the muscles; a constriction of the heart. Pulling in. Battening down the hatches. Bracing.

That habit is the ultimate obstacle. The very act of pushing through is the obstacle to be released. In my work, the obstacle is not that I don’t have enough time; the obstacle is my conviction that I don’t have enough time.  The stories, the habits, the assumptions. When I let go of those, the path opens up. The way is clear.

So here’s to the practice: releasing obstacles. Unhooking stories. Forgetting assumptions. Our destruction is imminent; whether a day a way, or fifty years, it’s still around the corner. We may as well relax into the pose, and breathe.