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What’s the difference between movement and action, and why does it matter?

In everyday life, there’s not much call to distinguish between movement and action. Sure, a man of action sounds impressive, and a man of movement not so much. But trust me, you can live a full and happy life without ever giving it another moment’s thought.

In yoga, on the other hand, being clear on the difference between movement and action will change your practice completely.
A movement is a change of position.
Here are some movements: Take a wide stride. Stretch your arms out to the sides. Turn your feet to the right.  Bend your right knee to 90 degrees.
Follow these instructions and you will be in the outward shape of Warrior II, with or without a shirt and a background of the Himalayas

Looks chilly, but the alignment is great.

Looks chilly, but the alignment is great.

An action gets something done.
Here are some actions in Warrior II: Spread the soles of your feet. Press your outer left heel down and lift your inner left ankle. Press your left thighbone from the front of your thigh to the back of your thigh. Push your right heel down into the floor. Without straightening your leg, pull back from your outer right knee toward your outer right hip.
Lengthen your buttocks away from your back waist. Lift evenly on both sides of your ribcage. Release your shoulder blades away from your ears.
Spread the palms of your hands.

In essence, movements make the shape of the pose. Actions bring the pose to life.

And that’s not all they do.

• Actions make yoga poses easier to understand.
Work with movements and you’ll see hundreds of ways to arrange your body in space. Work with actions and you’ll see patterns.
All straight legs are likely to behave in much the same way. With few exceptions, the shoulder blades move away from the ears, the chest and the lumbar spine stay broad and the buttocks lengthen away from the waist. Even when you’re upside down, all those actions apply.
• Actions bring your mind into your body.
Some can be confounding at first glance. “Widen across your collarbones,” for example. Or “pull the skin of your shins up over your knees.”
Creating actions takes concentration. It demands our attention, especially as actions build on actions in a pose, and each one needs to be stable and maintained as you add the next.
The difference between a beginner and an advanced student is not the length of their hamstrings, or their ability to kick up into a handstand. It’s the actions they can understand, accomplish, and hold.
• Actions erase competition.
Movements are external, and can be compared. Is your knee as deeply bent as your neighbor’s on the next mat? Does your hand come all the way to the floor in Triangle pose, like the model in the picture?
Actions turn off the competitive mind. It’s not just that they are internal, and hard to see. Once you start to work with actions, you move inside yourself. You become an observer of your own pose, and you have no time to compare.
• Actions make you your own expert.
Study actions and you will be able to practice confidently on your own. You will no longer wonder if you are doing the pose correctly. Once you know what straight legs do, you can do those actions in every pose that has straight legs. From the life those actions bring to your pose, you will know with certainty that your practice is accurate.
• Actions prevent injury.
Lusting after big movements leads to muscle tears and wrenched backs. Fixing your mind on actions will keep you in a range of motion that’s safe for your body.
When do you stop in a pose? When do you come out?
The answer is always the same: when you can’t make the actions any more.
• Actions lead, eventually, to embodied stillness.
B.K.S. Iyengar famously calls asana practice “meditation in action.”
For the ear that’s not attuned to the distinction, that sounds like meditation for people who can’t sit still.
Once you cease to be a yogi of movement, and become a yogi of action, you’ll know that it’s something else entirely.

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There's at least one straight leg in all three of them.

There's at least one straight leg in all three of them.

Another week, another seven Bite-Sized Random Acts of Yoga.

Today’s is a fairly easy set to link, with plenty of similar actions in the straight legs, and in the long side ribs, and the concave spine in the first stages of Padahastasana and Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (check plate numbers 136 and 137 in Light on Yoga.)

In Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (it’s the fourth picture in the article) there’s no concave spine, but the length of the ribcage has to be maintained.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bob March 25, 2013, 5:51 am

    is that chucky norris

    • Eve April 18, 2013, 11:36 am

      I don’t think so – the hair looks wrong.

  • YogaSpy December 10, 2010, 7:14 pm

    One year ago, before we even met, I read your collection of food essays, Eating My Words–and I was impressed and delighted by your insight and wit, your sense of humor and way with words. This blog post reminds me of that first impression.

    When I teach Iyengar yoga at general studios or community centres, new students often have some asana experience (who doesn’t, nowadays?) but not in the Iyengar method. This post will help me to examine my own reasons for choosing this method–and better to explain to students its subtleties and, perhaps, the essence of yoga.

    Many thanks.

    • Eve December 11, 2010, 12:04 pm

      Hey Yoga Spy,
      Good to hear from you! Are you back from Hawaii, or looking at a computer screen in paradise?
      I’m glad you found the post useful. It help me clarify a lot of my own thinking about actions. In some ways it felt like a BFO – Blinding Flash of the Obvious – but I think that a lot of BFOs are anything but obvious before they flash, if you know what I mean.
      And thanks for the kind thoughts about Eating My Words.

  • Heidi December 10, 2010, 9:44 am

    So well written, thank you. I am always looking for a way to explain the nuances of action and movement, not to mention effort and ease. Settling into a pose, trusting your body to find centre to find the stillness within, yet the strength to open into a pose. Opening into vulnerability can be very scary to some.

    What Loura says: “Action is subtle movement within our body and very often it requires visualization but once one achieves it, it is like a lotus slowly peeling one petal at a time.” is wonderful!

    I learn something new and exciting each and every time I read one of your postings, Namaste.

    • Eve December 10, 2010, 2:16 pm

      Hi Heidi,
      Vulnerability is scary for all of us, I think. I love Loura’s lotus petals too – a gentle way to think of what’s happening. Thanks for the comment. Glad to have you as a reader.

  • nancy roberts November 28, 2010, 9:45 pm

    Hi Eve — I thought this was a terrific article in a number of ways, but probably mostly b/c it spoke so clearly to my own experience. I like what Mr Iyengar said abt. “meditation in action” because – for me – “moving inside yourself” and “becoming the observer of your own pose” is the closest I’ve ever come to something like meditation and stillness. I’ve found that Iyengar yoga with its insistence on precision and physical detail, its focused attention on small body parts (toes! ribs! fingernails! ) can work a kind of magic on my all too scattered brain, calming it to a kind of stillness and repose. Thanks for this Eve –nancy

    • Eve November 28, 2010, 10:23 pm

      Hey Nancy,
      You and me both as far as finding stillness in the inward focus on action. Even when I’m sitting in a meditation posture, it’s the actions that continue to pull me back to the present whenever my mind takes a hike.
      There’s nothing quite like Iyengar yoga, is there?

  • Becky November 28, 2010, 7:58 pm

    I loved this post very much. I think about this very topic all the time as I study to be a teacher and try to explain to others what Iyengar yoga is all about. I volunteer at the Institute here in Los Angeles and get asked that all the time. I often find myself trying to explain this same principle, although not nearly as eloquently as you have. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • Eve November 28, 2010, 10:18 pm

      Hey Becky,
      That’s so cool.
      I feel like I stumbled on clarity about movement and action after years of not discriminating between them enough. So it’s great to know my attempt to get clear in my own mind turned out to strike a chord.

  • Loura November 25, 2010, 5:04 pm

    Dear Eve,
    This is an excellent article, well thought and well written. Thank you!
    Action is subtle movement within our body and very often it requires
    visualization but once one achieves it, it is like a lotus slowly peeling one petal at a time. Action in yoga bring the body, mind and soul into oneness, which is the true spirit of yoga.
    Thank you for being my teacher.
    Namaste, Loura

    • Eve November 25, 2010, 10:23 pm

      I love the image of the lotus and its petals, and the comment that actions in yoga “bring the body, mind and soul into oneness.
      Thank you for your lovely comment.