People come to yoga for many different reasons. Some because of pain, others in order to “keep fit”, while others embark on yoga to become more peaceful and calm. In the beginning, yoga could be just another activity, done side to side with gym, cycling or other sports activity. At some point, however, from just one more thing one does in life, yoga becomes central and important – it becomes a way of life. The range of practice shifts and expands from mere body maintenance into the entire personality.
Teachers can usually detect when yoga ceases to be a form of body culture for a specific student, and becomes something much more meaningful and important in her or his life. This happens when, in addition to physical well-being, the student is experiencing something internal – a sort of quietness, coupled with clarity and calmness. Later, when the student is devoted to practice, practice becomes a psycho-physical laboratory, in which the object of study is the whole person. This study aims to explore the mind and answer the eternal question: “who am I?”.
At this stage, it is important to not only practice, but to also think about the practice and deeply understand the theory at the foundation of it. We need to observe what happens to us during practice and understand how practice can become a psycho-physical laboratory.
What happens in practice depends largely on whether practice takes place in a group setting or while practicing individually at home. There is a difference between the two, although both offer ample space for reflection.
Group practice brings about tendencies such as competitiveness, desire to impress and excel, envy, pride, and feelings of superiority or inferiority. All of these are products of the ego, it does not matter if we feel better and more successful than others, or worse; these are two sides of the same coin – both are manifestations of the ego. Our desire to please and impress, receive positive feedback from the environment or to be loved, is a very basic and fundamental desire. You can observe it clearly in children who have not yet learned to suppress this natural tendency. In yoga class, we can recognize these tendencies and look at them more closely. It is possible, of course, to do so in any type of group setting, not necessarily a yoga class. However, asanas by nature, and because we stay in them for an extended time, enable observation, which is difficult to do when the practice is dynamic or competitive. Many types of sports strengthen the competitive edge and therefore are not appropriate for the study of this tendency of ours.
Practicing at home, character dispositions arise, as related to the three Gunas: Tamas (laziness, heaviness, resistance to change), Rajas, (activeness, dynamism, restlessness) and Sattva (purity, serenity, clarity). For this reason, personal practice is so important. Only when we are alone with ourselves these tendencies arise. Practice allows us to observe them and deal with them. Some days the Rajas guna is dominant, so we feel restless, impatient, and are not satisfied with our progress. On these days, we leave the phone next to us while practicing, and allow it to interrupt our practice flow; we are susceptible to endless distractions and will find it difficult to concentrate on practice. On other days, the Tamas guna is dominant and we feel heavy and lazy. It is hard to bring ourselves to even begin practicing. We may also find ourselves holding a negative attitude towards our body, such as dissatisfaction with the length of our legs or our weight. We also may not be willing to stay within periods of difficulty or crisis, etc. Finally, there are days when the Sattva guna is dominant – and we feel bright and focused; practice advances without difficulties, allowing us to dive deep within.
It is important to make sure that in practice we strengthen the Sattva on account of the Rajas and Tamas. If at the end of the practice (or class), we are left feeling Rajasic or Tamasic as we were when we started, Then the goal of practice was not achieved in that session.
Even in a class setting we encounter these tendencies. Although the teacher provides the overall framework, each student has a great deal of freedom and choice over how to perform the instructions, and needs to make many decisions on how to apply the position learned. For example, the teacher may instruct Trikonasana while adding several technical points, but he does not specify the exact actions to be taken; he cannot say exactly how far to bend, at what pace, or how to combine the breath with the movement, etc., All of these considerations are under the student’s responsibility and control. The student can decide to go slowly and carefully or try to stretch to the limits of his capacity. When injuries occur in practice, it is not just the fault of the teacher, the student is also responsible – he should know his body and respect its limitations.
Practicing alone, we need to know what type of practice we require. It depends on various factors and may vary from day to day: what is our energy level, do we have any physical injuries, what is our mental state, level of fatigue, what is the time of day, what activity we have just finished, what is the time of year, etc. etc. To know how to match each practice with these circumstances and conditions is an art one acquires with experience.
Practice allows for an intimate knowledge of our body, mind, breath and the connections between them. We begin observing the body, learning its capabilities and limitations. But that is not enough. We also need to observe and learn our breath and mind as well as the relationship between the two. That is why yoga serves as such a great laboratory.
What arises is our attitude to our body and ourselves: do I treat my body as a racehorse and push it to the maximum, or do I practice patience, sensitivity and consideration? If I am not considerate to myself while learning, I probably won’t be considerate to others.
It is important to be aware of three aspects related to practice:
Intention is our goal in practicing: Why do we practice and what do we want to achieve? Do we ask ourselves these questions?
Patanjali has defined the goal of yoga as quieting the fluctuations of the mind (Sutra 1.2).
It is important to examine: is this really my motive? Is my practice aimed at making my mind quiet and serene? Or maybe I have other explicit or implicit goals (like: maintaining physical fitness, be more flexible, healthier, acquire a lucrative profession, impress someone…)
Attitude is how we approach practice. There is plenty of room for reflection and investigation pertaining to the attitude to practice. I will point out just a few related aspects:
- Do we have a dogmatic attitude and are reluctant to try new options and experiment new practice sequences?
- Do we approach practice as a kind of a laboratory in which we observe our actions, or do we practice in a repetitive, heedless and mechanical way?
Prashant Iyengar talks about learning culture as opposed to doing culture and says that we usually practice in a ‘doing culture’. The approach of a learner is very different from that of a doer. When you want to learn, you need time to explore things and ponder about them, which isn’t the case when you come for a work out.
- Sincerity: practicing alone sometimes raises a tendency to cut corners and compromise while performing asanas. How sincere are we? For example, how do we behave when different teachers are giving the class?
Prashant used to raise the question: how do you behave when Pando (RIMYI’s secretary) is teaching (he used to do that from time to time in the old days), in contrast to your behavior when B.K.S. Iyengar (Guruji) teaches the class? What would be the extent of your effort and determination in each case?
I often challenge my sincerity by imagining that Guruji is present in my practice room, sitting there quietly and just observing me while I practice – this is enough to make my practice very sincere!
- How much Tapas do we have in our practice (tapas: discipline, enthusiasm, energy, strong will)?
- How committed are we to our chosen path? Are we seriously committed or acting out of whims? Once we decided to follow the path of yoga, are we practicing steadily and persistently or only when it fits in our schedule or we feel like it?
- What is our attitude towards success and failure and how much are we willing to sacrifice for success? How does failure affect us?
- What is our capacity to endure shortcomings, limitations and difficulties and exhibit compassion to ourselves?
- Is our practice abusive? If we keep injuring ourselves in the practice, then something in our approach is probably very wrong.
Here, too, Patanjali gives us guidance in the Yoga Sutras. The right approach was defined by him in Sutra 2.1 as the right blend of Tapas (energy, strength, strong will, and persistence), Svadhyaya (self-study and investigation) and Ishvarah Pranidhana (devotion).
Application is how we carry out our intention and attitude in our practice. This is very important, because without correct application we will not be able to implement our intentions and achieve our goal. The application is also affected by the Gunas. We tend to be affected at different times by the Rajasic and Tamasic gunas and this will be reflected in our practice and affect our ability to apply our goals. The application also includes the techniques that make the practice correct and effective. The yoga teacher speaks primarily about the aspect of application. She or he will explain the technique of carrying out an asana. The proper technique is important because it determines our ability to implement our intention and the quality of our practice.
A beginner may have the right intention and approach but he will not have sufficient knowledge to implement his intentions.
Application also includes the adjustment of techniques to our state during practice, circumstances and conditions. It requires experience, skill and mental flexibility.
When yoga practice becomes an important component in our lives, we must inspect our Intention, Attitude and Application.
Intention: Why do I practice yoga? What is it I want to achieve?
Patanjali defined the goal of yoga as restraining or quieting the mental vibrations and disturbances.
Attitude: What is my attitude toward practice? Do I practice in order to learn and understand myself, or is it only for fitness and physical wellbeing? Do I practice with sincerity and devotion or in a sporadic and whimsical manner? How much did I commit to the practice?
Our attitude is determined to a large extent by the dominant guna (Sattva, Rajas or Tamas).
Application: How do I implement my intention and attitude in my day-to-day practice? Do I have enough mastery of the techniques of the asanas? Can I select an asanas sequence that will answer my goals and circumstances in any given time?