Table of contents
Note: The translations of the Sutras are taken from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar.
Intention and Attitude in our Practice
Our intention and attitude toward our yoga practice are very important – it makes all the difference between doing asanas as gymnastics, or as yoga! Every serious yoga practitioner should go in the twofold path of Abhyasa and Vairagya set out by sage Patanjali.
One can easily practice yoga as a body culture only. For us, practitioners of (the wonderful system of) Iyengar yoga, that know so many fine instructions about the actions of the body in each asana, it’s especially easy to become obsessed with the body.
It is important to ask ourselves with sincerity: Why do we practice? What are we trying to achieve? What is our real goal? Are we consumed with the technical details of the asanas, trying to perfect physical capabilities like strength and flexibility, or do we have something more in mind? Do we approach our practice space like one may come to a gym? Or, is the approach as a student entering a classroom or a lab?
Yoga practice is not only a body culture; it is not a ‘workout’. Our ultimate aim is to know ourselves. Who am I beyond all the movements and the noise of the business of life? Who am I before I define myself as a man or a woman, an Indian or Israeli, a student or a teacher, a parent or a child, a lawyer or a driver, and so on? Who am I beneath all these labels? Beyond all these appearances? Who is or what is the one that never comes and never goes?
Yoga holds that at the very core of our existence we are pure awareness. This awareness is like the stage on which the drama of our life takes place. We are actors in this drama. Sometimes we play well and gain, sometimes we play poorly and lose, but the stage (awareness) remains the same.
However, this is not obvious to us; as Patanjali mentions (in I.4), we deeply identify with our life’s circumstances and with the role we are playing. We are overly involved with the drama of our life. With our successes and failures, with our gains and losses, with our pains and pleasures. All this drama may be real – our suffering is real, but, at the same time, there is more than only this in us. To realize this, Patanjali says (in I.12) we need practice (Abhyasa) and detachment or renunciation (Vairagya). Practice is a self-study process toward the realization of this pure awareness (Purusha). Practice is the recognition of oneself as awareness.
Abhyasa – Action and Effort
Abhyasa is the positive path, the path of action and effort. It’s an effort to develop and foster positive qualities, to transform ourselves toward more stability and equanimity.
In Chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines Abhyasa (I.13) as an effort to stabilize (Sthitau Yatnah) the mental fluctuations (Vrittis). In (I.14) he enumerates the three ingredients or qualities that are necessary to achieve that. These are:
- Long time (dirgha-kala)
- Uninterrupted (nairantarya)
- With reverence and care (satkara-asevitah)
If these conditions are met, the practice becomes firm and solid and unshakeable like the earth (dridha-bhumih).
However, the very nature of our mind is to waver, to change and to move outwardly, toward the senses. Hence, consistency and perseverance are a challenge. When the practice is interrupted, previously attained serenity of mind and the commitment we made may be lost. Our commitment to “get on the mat” no matter how we may feel or what is happening in our lives, should be an anchor of stability!
In Chapter 2 Patanjali elaborates and gives more guidance about practice. In II.1 (Burning zeal in practice, self–study, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga), he describes Kriya Yoga – the yoga of action. Which he elaborates (in II.28-55 and III.1-3) as the Ashtanga Yoga – the eight-limbed yoga.
How Should we Practice?
The practice is a process of learning and developing. We should respect both our process and everyone else’s process! Everyone, according to her or his constitution and aspirations will have a different process. There is no point in comparing or judging. Whatever we meet along the way in the process is good; it is working for us. The practice is an exploration unto ourselves – a study of our body, breath, mind, and senses. It should never be mechanical; it should be playful and enjoyable. We have to carry out experiments and compare the effects of different settings and different variations. Sometimes we may find ourselves on side-roads and sometimes even get lost – this is all right; it’s a part of the exploration process.
One thing we can readily observe is our tendency to impress, to compare, and compete. These are very natural impulses, but they are not beneficial to our process of development. There is no point in comparing ourselves with others. It’s also impossible – we can never know the situation, or the life circumstances, of the student next to us.
We should approach our practice with the right attitude, the right mindset. When we practice, we should be mindful and reflective. Our practice is our psychophysical lab – a lab of self-study (svadhyaya), a lab for working with and on, our entire being. It’s not important how the asana looks from the outside, but how you feel it on the inside. The essence of an asana can’t be captured by a photo. Hence, when you do a pose for the camera, you are not doing an asana. The purpose of doing an asana is to feel more. The body is a field (kshetra) of sensations (sparsha). If we are obsessed with performance, we will not experience this field of sensations and will not develop awareness and sensitivity.
The object of study is our whole being and the asanas and other yogic tools or limbs are the language through which we carry out this study. The process is for the development of our whole being. We need to develop capabilities and attitudes like sensitivity, stability, (bodily and mental) flexibility, persistence, self-discipline, balance, and equanimity. These capabilities are psychophysical – they pertain both to body and mind.
Let your needs, rather than your will to dictate what you do in your practice; use and enhance your capacities and respect your limitations.
Vairagya – Total Acceptance
The second component of the yogic discipline is vairagya. Vairagya is desire-lessness, dispassion, letting go and renunciation. How can we live without desires and cravings? Is this really possible for in our modern society which tempts us to always want more and more.
Vairagya is to agree to accept reality just as it is. Usually we are not ready to accept things as they are. We want more pleasure and less pain, more gain and fame, and less loss and blame. To accept reality as it is, we must acknowledge that:
- We can’t do everything; we are innately limited,
- We can’t have everything, be it material or social. I can’t have a nice apartment, car… and I can’t always make someone else love me.
- We can’t control everything – and least of all the flow of time and the inevitable change of everything. We’ll get old, we’ll have to give up all our possessions and our relationships, and one day, we’ll die.
Vairagya doesn’t mean lack of will; it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to learn, develop, or experience joy and love. It does mean that we have to fully accept all these inevitabilities.