Why do we Practice Yoga?

Our intention and attitude toward our yoga practice are very important – it makes all the difference between doing asanas as gymnastics, or as yoga! 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. Our practice is to realize this pure awareness (purusha). Practice is the recognition of oneself as awareness.

However, this is not obvious to us; we are overly involved with the drama of our life. We deeply identify with our life’s circumstances and with the role we are playing. Our drama may be real, and our suffering is real, but, at the same time, there is more than only this in us. To realize this, Patanjali says we need practice (abhyasa) and renunciation (vairagya). The practice is our learning process.

Vairagya – Total Acceptance

Vairagya is desire-lessness, dispassion. How can we live without desire? Is this really possible for us? Our modern society 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 the 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, to develop, or to experience joy and love. It does mean that we have to fully accept all these inevitabilities.

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 2 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali presents and elaborates on that topic. In II.1 he describes kriya yoga – the yoga of action and later on, ashtanga yoga – the eight-limbed yoga.

The practice is a process of learning and developing. We should respect both our process and everyone else’s too! 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 experimentations 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 mind-set. 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. Never do an asana for the camera (unless you are modeling for FB…). It’s not important how the asana looks from outside, but how you feel it on the inside. In fact, the essence of an asana can’t be captured by a photo. 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 communicate with ourselves.

The process is for the development of our whole being. We need to develop capabilities and attitudes like sensitivity, stability, (mental) flexibility, persistence, self-discipline, balance, and equanimity. These capabilities are psychophysical – they pertain both to body and mind.

Don’t let your will dictate what you do in the asana, but rather your needs; use your capacities and respect your limitations.

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