By Elisa Levi Sabtteni, PhD

wuwei 無為

In my academic experience, I have read and studied a lot about the Chinese expression of wuwei 無為 (non-action; non-doing; non-intervention) mainly from a linguistic and philosophical point of you. Scholars of early China are usually interested in analysing the idea expressed by wuwei from a conceptual perspective, which is totally fine and there is nothing wrong with it. It was not enough for me simply because – to me – it was too theoretical. I needed to understand it in practice as well. The world of “ideas” only can be dangerous in our daily life.

I was not really able to understand wuwei until I started to practice yoga regularly. Yoga helped me understanding what wuwei means both from a spiritual and practical point of view, and this is when I started to relate to my own studies in a different way also. 

Non-action, non-doing, non-intervention, what is it?!

 Does it mean I don’t have to do anything? What is it in practice, I mean, in “real” life – meaning what we perceive as being real according to our senses? How is it related to “knowledge” or experiencing? In the Laozi, known also as Dao De Jing (The book of the Way and Virtue), we read that: “Studying increases day by day, practicing the Dao (Method, Way) decreases day by day.” 

Let’s go back to yoga. Sri Pattabhi Jois states: “Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory.” Isn’t it in contrast with the idea of wuwei, “non-doing”? Practicing and non-doing, isn’t it a paradox? Actually not 🙂 Non-doing or non-intervention means not to force things to happen. When we allow things to be as they are, and allow ourselves to see things as they are, everything works – or flows to use another metaphor. 

How many times in our private life or in our job we focus so much in obtaining something and thinking about it all the time. It could be a thing, a person, a job, a position, anything. Sometimes we even act in order to force things to be as we want. Our mind is just there constantly, taking us away from our lives. Energy follows attention. Meaning that if I am putting all my energy (in this case my thoughts, which are also made of energy) into something that “I want”, not only I disperse my energy, but I also push that thing away with the energy wave I am creating. When I am here with my ‘Self’ in this very moment, then the potential is unlocked.

How does it work in our body? 

Through the practice of yoga we stimulates the Automatic Nervous System, which is made of sympathetic and parasympathetic, and we learn how to balance the two. They control the same group of body functions, but they have opposite effects of the functions. The Sympathetic Nervous System prepares the body for the intense physical activity (“fight or flight” mode, active practice of yoga-asana); the Parasympathetic Nervous System relaxes the body and inhibits or slows many high energy functions (“rest and digest” mode, passive movement during meditation and when we surrender to gravity force). We need both in order to stay balanced. The two sides of the Automatic Nervous Systems corresponds, in Chinese tradition, to yin and yang, and to Ida and Pingala in Indian tradition, where the Parasympathetic Nervous System is the yin and Ida sides, the the Sympathetic Nervous System is the yang and Pingala ones.

In the so-called “Yin yoga”, when we hold each asana for 5 to 10 minutes allowing the body to fully release any tension, is based on the principle of allowing things to happen in order to rest and digest, where “digest” refers here also to emotional integration. Emotional integration is also the case of Yoga Nidra, the sleep-based guided meditation, when we allow ourselves to fully relax and by doing so we digest, or integrate, all thoughts/memories/emotions we are holding on and then we are free of letting go. Letting go means to let go who or what we are not, allowing who we really are to emerge. When we identify with a certain event or emotion we are experiencing, we forget we are not that event and experience. But in the very moment we integrate that event or experience, we move on. 

By non-doing, we become aware of the fact that we are the observer and not the event or the emotion or the thought we are experiencing. We become aware of the body and know we are not the body. We remember who we really are. And everything is just perfect, because in order to remember, we need to forget. The word “remember” in English comes from the Old French “remembrer” that comes form the Latin “rememorari”. Rememorari means “to remember again”, presuming that once we had the memory (memor in Latin). However, the Italian word “ricordare” is much stronger: it comes from the Latin “recordare” made of re- (again) and cordare from cor – heart. The heart was considered to be the siege of memory and thoughts. Ricordare is to connect again to the memory and knowledge of our heart. And maybe the all yoga journey is about remembering or “ricordare”.

Elisa Levi Sabattini, PhD