The concept of wu wei enters most of the yoga classes I teach. When I guide my yoga students into a pose, I often ask them to make an “effortless effort.” This has an amazing effect. My students lower their shoulders, their faces relax — and miraculously — the pose become easier to rest in. But what is wu wei?
The principle of wu wei stems from China where yin yoga also has many of its roots. In Chinese wu wei translates to “not-doing”or “to do nothing”.
Wu wei is an expression in Daoist philosophy. According to Daoism, it is “Dao” or “the Way” that counts. The “way” works best the less we try to control our existence. Thus, non-action becomes the most rational option of action. This contrasts the ethics of Confucianism, another Chinese philosophical tradition.
Is wu wei an invitation to relax or be lazy? By no means! According to the central text of Daoism, Dao De Jing:
“The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone.”
This is the paradox of wu wei. It doesn’t mean not to act, it means “effortless effort” or “actionless action.” And it doesn’t only belong on the yoga mat when we are facing a demanding position.
In the zone
Wu wei lets me stay calm and peaceful while being engaged in the most stressful tasks so that I can perform these to my best ability and with the most efficiency.
Other examples of how you can practice wu wei are when you paint or draw, when you listen to a friend or when you disconnect from your mobile and all the technology that steals your attention.
Have you heard of being «in the zone»? This concept captures some of the meaning of wu wei. We are at one with what we do, in a state of deep concentration and flow. But it takes some effort.
We must make an effort so that we swim with the current rather than spending our time fighting against the current. We can picture ourselves as the water which is weak and submits to the shape of its surroundings (think a riverbed), but which nevertheless must be regarded as a force that over time can attack what is hard and strong (think erosion in the meanders of the same river).
Wu wei erodes challenges
Wu wei invites us to respond to the real demands that a situation requires. We tend to overlook these demands when we allow ourselves to be controlled by our ego. Going with wu wei can result in less self-awareness and a greater unity between the self and the environment.
Wu wei involves letting go of ideals that we might otherwise try to force too violently on things. Like forcing yourself into a yoga pose even if your body isn’t ready for it. Or to push yourself into meditating for a full half an hour, even if neither mind nor body agrees with your ego’s decision. Wu wei allows us to access a well of energy that is normally held back by an overly aggressive and intentional mindset.
So, whether the “problem” is sitting in meditation for a long time, or the desire to get deeper into a yoga pose, wu wei — effortless effort — can help us to gradually work our way around the problem so that it has eventually eroded away.
About the author
Gunn Helene Arsky is a yin yoga teacher and studio owner residing in Halden, Norway. She also has a master’s degree in nutritional physiology and uses this in her holistic wellness coaching for women.
She has written a dozen books on nutrition and wellbeing for women. Her book, Yoga and Diet: The Mindful Connection, is available both as a paperback and eBook here.
In her online course by the same name, she expands further on the connections between yoga and mindfulness on the mat as well as off the mat. Check it out here.
Connect with Gunn Helene on Instagram: @bakingyogi