Testing the Waters: Be Bold, Be Cautious

(c) 2010 Kimberly Mackesy

(c) 2010 Kimberly Mackesy

Author's Note:  I wrote this several months ago, before the volcanic eruption cut off access to the place I describe. Many of you would have recognized Pohoiki by its description alone. There is now a new black sand beach where these surfers once were.

Every chance I get, I head down to a little piece of paradise where I can play hard in the ocean. It starts off with a gentle slope in warm water where hot springs percolate into the bay. As I go deeper, the water gradually becomes colder and swifter. When I'm all the way out, it’s among rolling waves, surfers, and an undertow that could easily sweep me out to sea.

I come here to feel the ocean's power and, by reflection, my own. "Be bold, be cautious," writes Guruji Iyengar; to swim here requires both. It reminds me a lot of my yoga practice, actually. This is a place where overhead waves can pick you up and set you down a car's length away from where you were before, and you'd better be sure it isn't on the rocks. Vigilance is required. At the same time, it's not a place to be scared. If I let myself stay scared I'd never make it past the shallows where the kids play.

So there's a balance, then, between boldness and caution. Usually we tend more toward one or the other; here, as in an asana practice, is an opportunity to balance them out, moment by moment. "Yogah karmasu kaushalam" says the Bhagavad Gita (II.50): Yoga is skillfulness in action. 

The skillful action of swimming in this place (the yoga of ocean swimming, I suppose) means staying alert at all times, attentive to the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts that go on. It's keeping an eye on the tropical fish and turtles without turning my back on the waves. It's gauging depth, distance from the rocks, wave force and rhythm, position of the surfers, and most of all my own capacity vs. current conditions. I have to weigh the strength of the undertow with the strength of my body as it begins to tire. I have to decide when to turn around, making sure that it's after I've gotten the vigorous movement that I crave but before I lose my ability to get safely back to shore.

The art of taking your body to the outer limits of what it can do requires sharp, unflagging attention. There's an internal measuring and balancing, a mixing of bold action with caution and steadiness. This is a skill that develops over a long time with alert, devoted practice (Patanjali Yoga Sutra I.14). Whether practicing yoga with intense exertion or swimming in rough waters, unflagging presence of mind is both demanded and developed. It's good to do this from time to time, just as it's also good to float down a lazy river or steep in the stillness of a quiet lake. (Or a hot tub. I'd love a hot tub right about now.)

May your practice take you from the safe shallows to exciting and adventurous depths, and safely back, again and again. Just like the waves.