- ZANSHIN, THE SPIRIT OF MOVEMENT -
It's easy to fall into a trap which I have been guilty of quite a bit: the to do list, bullet point type of mode. Especially when we work hard, have busy schedules and need to fit things in. The yoga class, the practice, the meditation, becomes another one of the things we need to add to be better and complete. Jogging, check, work, check, vitamin C, check, gym, check, yoga class, check, call parents, check, brushed my teeth, check, etc...
As of today, it seems to me, one misses the point entirely when in that mode. Yoga is more a practice of subtraction and finding simplicity back, than addition to be more of whatever.
I have lived in Japan for seven years, and that was many years ago. For some reason, some amazing aspects of this ancient and rich culture have only percolated slowly in my brain and my body. The idea of zanshin helps in understanding why and how we practice. But as a spoiler, our yoga practice is a reminder. A reminder of something we would like to carry with us all day, even all night, something pervasive, that spills over the start and end of the session. Actually, we know this. But we often forget...
Zanshin is a concept found in Zen, Budo (Japanese martial arts, especially Kendo), and in many other arts like Ikebana (flower arrangement), chado (tea ceremony) and sumi-e (ink painting). It literally means the spirit of the gesture or movement, and relates to a state of mind fully vigilant and aware of its surroundings, where the mind remains still without being attached to anything and is totally present during every moment and action in the here and now. We take care of what needs to be done here and now and we stay attuned to whatever is to come next.
A related concept is mushin, no mind or mindless. Not as in stupid. As in profoundly empty of distractions, preoccupations, worries, conscious planning (bullet points?) and all other trains of thought. Then one is acutely alert, relaxed and focused. Mushin is another way of suggesting the mind to be like water, mizu no kokoro. This refers to quieting one’s mind to the point that it resembles a still pond of water without a single ripple or wave of distracting mental activity. In this state, the surface of the water reflects a clear and perfectly undistorted image of the surroundings, like a mirror.
Similarly, the expression tsuki no kokoro, “mind like the moon,” describes an acute state of non-analytical alertness or global awareness wherein the mind observes every detail, just as the moon shines on everything without prejudice or preference, and remains unaffected by what it illuminates. The moon rather than the sun, because we don't burn our surroundings with our focus, it is more of a yin energy, a passive taking things in. This high state of awareness and readiness is called zanshin. Zanshin is also sometimes used to describe the perfect transition from one technique to the next in a kata, never losing focus or readiness. In kyudo (Japanese archery), zanshin refers to the posture maintained after the arrow is released, until it strikes its target.
The origin of mushin and zanshin is related to the Zen practice of zazen, which is performed in a seated, motionless position. It involves a stilling of thought while remaining totally receptive. Zazen is not considered a mental exercise or a form of meditation. It is described as “thought without thought,” a dimension of thought lacking conscious activity. A perfect state of zazen is said to yield satori, or “pure freedom of thought.” This has proven to be a highly effective state of consciousness for fighting, and through it the warriors of ancient Japan perfected the practice of all their martial arts. Consequently, zazen has sometimes been called “the religion of the samurai,” though it is not actually a religion but rather (in martial arts applications at least) a purely practical technique.
every breath you take, every move you make... is yoga
We get into Yoga mode the moment we step on the Yoga mat. Mantra, Aum, and off we go stringing the asanas together, Ujjayi breathing away. And that's good, certainly better than nothing at all. It's good to remember as well that the true spirit of movement is not in the movement, but in the way our inner state animates it. We work our body-mind each moment to create a complete and total movement where all the prana concentrates, moment by moment.
From the moment we wake up, hell even when we sleep, each and every moment of our life requires of us to be fully present to each and every gesture we make, letting go of the inner drama to be available, vigilant, open...
The constant practice of the spirit of the gesture, on the yoga mat and off until those notions disappear, allows yoga to embody itself in us, naturally, automatically and unconsciously. The yoga mat and session are certainly privileged spaces and times, but yoga has nothing to do with a place, a posture or even a master/guru. Every move we make is a kata, is yoga. The way we say hi is yoga, the way we eat, the way we close the door, the way we grab a glass of water. When we sing aum, we don't incline the head a little and vaguely join the hands to mutter a shy silent aum. We salute everybody present and the entire cosmos. Every little gesture is important and brings us closer to a just behavior. Our moves influence our consciousness: our words, our moves, our posture, they all influence us and our environment. Eating, dressing, washing, relating, working: each action necessitates presence, focus and relaxation. In this sense, yoga is a true science of behavior, nothing to do with imagined visions to transform the world, as in religion.
the spirituality in movement
The practice of paying attention to every move we make, on and off the yoga mat, little or ample, trivial or artsy, is what links our mundane life to our spiritual dimension and allows us to live each instant as if it were the last, fully awake. With each breath noisy enough for us to hear, supple and silent for others...
To repeat: there is a yogic way to perform every gesture we make. Yet it is also important not to stagnate on the formal aspect of things, whether orthodox or exotic, not to be too conservative. Ideally, we want to make them each time with a beginner's mind, align ourselves with the verticality of the instant, here and now.
The practice of paying attention to each and every gesture we make wakes us up from the kind of ghost consciousness modern life perpetuates and throws us into a state of relaxed alertness. With time, it allows us to wear every move we make like a perfect garment, to make them balanced, adapted and appropriate to the here and now, with a true spontaneity, a splendid beauty and a life of their own. And in time, may be, to understand for ourselves, and with others, the balance, neither too tense nor too relaxed, the rigor and the flexibility, the routine and the new...
Zanshin in the end is about every gesture we make. The natural beauty of the body reflects the way we have trained the spirit to focus upon the movement. Manual labor, whether cleaning up the house or agriculture, playing the piano, drawing or craftsmanship, doesn't only condition the body's health and the fingers' dexterity, but also our brain's agility. Through conscious repetition with intention, movements become both controlled and easy, and the body finds its beauty. The natural action becomes unconscious and naturally beautiful.