My yoga practice has changed over the years, and as I think back, I notice that there is a common thread, or sutra, that has connected me to my practice all along. It goes back decades, to my first discovery of my love for music at around age 12, and then beginning the process of making music; practice. Learning something new requires desire, curiosity, determination, enthusiasm and patience. My background in music taught me a lot about all of these qualities. The instrument that chose me was the French Horn, a beautiful sounding contraption of a thing, which, in the right hands, can be sublime. I studied seriously through high school, college, graduate school and beyond, and won my first professional audition 4 years after graduation- this was a 15 year process. Even after years as a professional, I don’t feel that I ever mastered my instrument, despite my many professional successes. I love this story about the famous cellist, Pablo Casals;
When Casals (then age 93) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”
The parallels between music and yoga are so similar that even after 15 plus years of yoga practice, I have yet to master anything on my yoga mat; but that is inconsequential. In yoga there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice. Earlier I used the word sutra, which literally means thread and is the root word for suture. In Patanjali’s definitive text on Yoga, the “Yoga Sutras” we learn all about the practice of Yoga. In fact, the whole second chapter, titled Sadhana Padha, is about how to practice yoga- Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for practice. Interestingly, the physical practice is only mentioned twice in the entire book. The first set of verses that reflect my thoughts on practice are 1.13-14;
Practice is basically the correct effort required to move toward, reach, and maintain the state of Yoga.
It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed.
So yoga is a state of being that we are working toward by way of practice. I’ve been observing a trend lately, in that yoga seems to be more and more focused on the attainment of advanced poses, rather than on the merits of steady, dedicated practice. Our culture seems to be oriented toward acquiring things, getting it now and achieving immediate results; “getting” that challenging pose and then showing it off via social media. The process, the most potent part of our practice, seems to be getting lost. In the past when I pushed myself into more challenging postures, I didn’t feel any of the things we are trying to accomplish in yoga– authenticity, inner peace, our true nature, awareness, etc.- I just felt my body differently and often ended up tweaking a muscle or injuring myself, which actually made my practice more challenging in the long run. In the process my mind would contribute plenty of negative feedback about my lack of ability or self-worth as a yogi, which was totally un-productive and un-yogic. So the question begs to be asked, what is there to be gained from doing advanced postures?
The longer I teach, the more interested I’ve become in how things work and how we get there, rather than on the attainment of anything. The practice and process have become so much more interesting to me than the product, the achievement of any advanced Asana. How do you refine the actions to the point where you are connected to every aspect of a pose, in tune with not only your muscles, but your mind, intelligence and even your attitude? This requires years of practice and self-study – there are no shortcuts. Again, when you approach yoga from that standpoint, there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice.
There is much more to be gleaned from the sutras regarding this topic, in verse 1.15;
At the highest level there is an absence of any cravings, either for the fulfillment of the senses or for extraordinary experiences.
This is speaking to gratification of the senses as well as the ego- understanding and knowing the bigger reason behind our actions is the key. Why are you doing it and of what benefit is it to your practice? Verse 2.26 talks about applying discriminative awareness, Viveka, to our practice to create more clarity.
Viveka aviplava hanopayah; The ceaseless flow of discriminative knowledge in thought, word and action destroys ignorance.
This is one of my favorite verses, and viveka is one of my favorite words. I use the word discernment here to describe discriminative knowledge, being able to see what is below the surface of things and to really understand the subtle actions that are at play; physically as well as mentally. The next verse states that the attainment of clarity is a gradual process- it takes time- and practice.
As a teacher, I have my reasons for what may be perceived as holding my students back. There is an order to things on the yoga mat, a progression of understanding and awareness that must occur beforehand- it is not simply about strength or flexibility, or “getting” into the big, advanced postures. There is a level of self-discipline and studentship that needs to be developed and well established in the first few years of practice, and I don’t actually see that happening much these days. I personally feel that there is no point in teaching more advanced poses when students have not mastered a basic understanding and ability to engage specific actions on a consistent basis (see sutra 1.14). Don’t get me wrong here, I do enjoy challenging my students and taking them toward a deeper experience; it’s that the deeper experience is not as meaningful as the work it takes to get there, and is what moves our practice forward. The process itself is what teaches us how to apply ourselves in our subsequent practices as well as outside of the practice.
So is it yoga practice or yoga product? What is it that we are aiming for when we go to a class? If the class is not challenging enough, then how do you define challenge? For me, challenge is not the extreme arm balance. Challenge is meeting myself as I am in any given moment by willingly placing myself in an alignment that squeezes me physically, while staying connected to my breath and simply being there. That can be as plain as just standing still, or lying in Shavasana. Practice is what you make it, and each practice should be a learning experience that takes you deeper towards yourself. That, to me, is what the process is all about, and I am content with never being finished. I am always a work in progress, because in yoga there is nothing to achieve; there is only practice.