I’m going to tell you a story.
One day, there was a raging bull in the middle of the main street of a small village. None of the villagers could get past. Everyone was upset about this, so the villagers sent their two strongest men to go and fight the bull in the main street. He was too strong, raging too hard, and they gave up with not a few bumps and scrapes.
Still no one could get past, so they employed the shepherds to try and redirect the bull into a lower-traffic area. The shepherds really only knew how to do this with sheep, though, and the bull bested them right away, so they ran away in terror.
At a loss, the villagers went to the wise man of the town, hoping he might have some solution for removing the bull from the main street. They pleaded with him to tell them what they should do.
The wise man paused, looked at them. He smiled and said, “Take another street.”
This story is from the Taoist tradition, an Eastern philosophy whose main image or metaphor is that of water that meets a rock in the river, and simply flows around it. Taoism suggests that a major source of our suffering is that we resist and try to control the natural movements of the world around us. The Tao literally means “The Way,” and it reminds us that the world is bigger than us, and we’ll enjoy it better if we humble ourselves to the natural flow of things. You know: Go with the flow.
I’ve been thinking about Taoism in my yoga classes in terms of asana (posture) practice. When we hit a pose that’s hard, when we start to struggle, when we see ourselves shaking and gritting our teeth and getting frustrated that we can’t lift our feet off the floor in Crow pose—we are seriously fighting the flow. We can back off a bit, slow down, try coming in another way. Yoga is called a practice for a reason—we have all the time in the world to figure out that Crow pose, and there’s no reason to force yourself into it. Flow around that raging bull.
But we have a saying in yoga: As you are on the mat, so you are in life. There have been so many times I’ve struggled to get into a pose that I wasn’t ready for, and my ego gets all raging bull on me, and it makes me crazy. I remember once teaching Handstand to a class: I talked about it, demoed it, talked about it again, pointed out the correct alignment. Then I watched them struggle and fight themselves against the wall. I stopped them and said, “Okay everybody, forget everything I just said. Pretend you are a little kid and PLAY!” They laughed, and yup, a few of them floated right up into Handstand. Taking it too seriously was actually creating struggle for a lot of them, so when we let go of perfection and took the path of play, everything became so much lighter and easier.
We all hit raging bulls at certain times in our lives, on the mat, but also in our lives, in our hearts, in our brains. Yoga teaches that we should not resist these rages—we must let them move through us or they get stuck and make us sick. We put the “motion” in “emotion,” yeah?
And “going with the flow” sounds like a pretty passive practice; it sounds like we are helpless to the caprices of the world and our feelings, and let them—feelings and people—push us around. But that’s not how this philosophy works: This about water hitting a rock in the stream. It doesn’t stop and give up in a sad little pool because it’s too hard to plow through the rock. It finds a new route, which in time becomes a new groove. And after a while, well, the rock is gone.
I think this can even be expanded further into all the energy coming up out of the Occupy movement. The people have hit a wall [street], and it’s clear things can’t keep moving the same direction they’ve been going. But we don’t just stop, get mad, and give up, right? The Occupy movement, if it works, will create a new groove, build a new street, invent new systems that flow better around the economic rock in the river. We need creativity, courage, and action to get around this raging bull.
This Taoist philosophy is about surrender: letting go, accepting the world as it is, and relinquishing control. And this release of control is actually where we can find our power—drop the way we thought things were supposed to be, get creative, and come up with something new, something more possible. After all, with time, trickles can become rivers, and rocks erode away. That’s the power of going with the flow.