If there is one thing that best captures the spirit of the Yoga Sutras, it’s the idea — the importance — of a daily practice.
Think about it: Your life is a constant evolution. You are not static. You do not wake every day with the same outlook — indeed the same physical state. Some days, you pop out of bed cheerful and chirpy; other days your worries and anxieties weigh you down. You may awaken one day confident you can run 10 miles; other days feeling sore, beaten down. You are a young person one day; an older person another day of your life.
A regular yoga practice gives you insight into your ever-changing body — and after all, we are embodied spiritual beings so what better way to tap those insights.
The Sutras (1.14) teach us that to become firmly established in our practice, we must attend to it for a long time, without interruption, with an attitude of devotion and service, and a full heart.
Students often come to yoga filled with enthusiasm. They invest in yoga mats and yoga attire; they sign up for classes and declare they now “do yoga.” As they immerse themselves in their practice, they begin to come face to face with their ego, their fears, frustrations and anger that they can’t touch their nose to knees. Bodies long conditioned to a state of numbness respond with pain as underused muscles are summoned to the work they have long leveled on joints. Egos suffer as yogis look around the room comparing themselves to advanced students.
Many stop coming to class and eventually quit. But it’s at that juncture where we meet our obstacles and excuses that the true challenge of our practice begins.
We will not transform our practice – nor, in turn, our practice transforms our lives – if we do not practice regularly. The more we practice, the deeper we delve to our potential, our true selves. A daily yoga practice empowers us with the spiritual confidence gained from progressing through the asanas and breaking through mental, physical and emotional obstacles. A regular practice cultivates the attitude that through patience and compassion, not brute strength, we can accomplish just about anything on and off our mats.
In his book Yoga Beyond Belief, Ganga White responds to students who ask the age-old question: How long will it take? How long will it take before I master yoga.
White’s response: It will take the rest of your life.
Yoga is not a destination. It’s a journey. Mastery of the asanas is not the goal of the practice, it is the result of it. Pattabhi Jois said, “Yoga is one percent theory; the rest is practice.”
The sage Patanjali did not prescribe a period of time required to achieve mastery. He taught that through abhyasa, constant and determined effort, and vairagya, non-attachment and freedom from desire, we can establish a firm foundation in our practice.That is counter to the way many of us live our lives: we want instant gratification. A lifetime of practice? That’s way too long for many of us.
But we must practice vairagya and let go of our attachment to the goal. We must approach our practice with zeal—the tapas the Sutras teach us to sustain a practice over a lifetime. Along that journey, we see yoga reflecting back on our lives. We learn that what we do on the mat is what we do off the mat. Our attitude as we approach a challenging pose is a reflection of how we live our lives.
Do we attack the pose no holds-bar; or do we coward with fear and back away? Do we cultivate strength and flexibility trusting that when the time is right — poof we’ll be up in handstand or crow — the same way we will have faced the challenges that meet us away from the mat.
Students who enjoy their yoga are the ones who stay with it over the long term. Some people make their practice, if not their lives, a constant struggle. They seem to be always pushing their limits, working on their form, or weighing and measuring themselves—trying to get to where they should be. Their approach becomes forced and tense. It can serve us to approach yoga more softly—to learn to enjoy it. We need to work hard and with discipline, but we also have to lighten up and remove the tendency towards regimentation. Even beginners with limited abilities, can find an enjoyable level of practice. I have taught more than one person in wheelchair who discovered more joy of movement than many of us may ever find. We can also work hard and still stay within enjoyment. We can all push the envelope and work near our maximum edges. Perhaps we need to make special efforts at times in order to make progress, but if we always struggle to do our utmost, we lose energy and tire. We all have a range of movement where we must exert and another range where we can move more freely. We can find that range of movement where we feel good, flowing in the joy of exercise and motion, and visit it often. We can learn to use yoga to get into higher, elevated states, making it fun, enjoyable. This is a great secret for maintaining a lifelong practice of yoga.
Do you have a regular yoga practice? Do you enjoy your practice? What challenges have you faced or overcome through this practice?