Yoga in Action: abhyasa, diligent practice

Daily practice is challenging. Especially if you aren't comfortable with a home practice, have a long commute to and from work, have a regular work-week, have children, etc. Carving out the time to get on the mat and get on the cushion may not fall high on the list of priorities. I feel really grateful to have established my yoga practice at a time when I didn't have a lot of responsibilities and I could make yoga and meditation a daily priority. It just stuck and now it's in there for keeps. 

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

The good thing about coming to practice regularly is that you end up practicing through the ups and downs of life. When you are rooted in a regular routine of morning meditation or evening asana you can't help but do it even when things are really bad, or when things are really good. When I think back over the past decade of my practice, I think of practicing through break-ups, through moves, practicing on vacation, making it to the mat in India, practicing through health issues. And a great thing about the versatility of a yoga practice is that you can always practice something, no matter your state of mind, state of body.

Some days I seriously don't feel like it. And not always, but sometimes, those are the most fruitful days of my practice. 

Now I know that some of you are probably thinking that I obviously practice every day because yoga is my job and that's what I do and so I have to. But it isn't that simple. I think about my personal practice, my personal spiritual quest as somewhat separate from my teaching. I incorporate a lot of my findings into my classes for sure and my training is usually translated right into my teaching. But, my time on my mat and my morning meditation is mine. It's work that I do for me, it's work that I do to actualize my potential, it's work that I do to fulfill my dharma. Being anchored in regular practice is the key for me to living in the middle ground.

In the Yoga Sutras the sanskrit term for diligent, continuous practice is abhyasa. (The following translations and explanations are taken or adapted from Nicolai Bachmann's The Yoga Sutras. It's a great resource with a workbook, flashcards and several cds explaining the philosophical concepts. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of yoga philosophy)

There are several sutras which explore the concept of abhyasa

The most commonly cited is sutra 1.12:

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah
The stilling of the vrtti-s (mind-chatter) is due to diligent practice and vairagya or unattached awareness. 

Sutra 1.13 goes on to further explain abhyasa:

tatra sthitau yatno 'bhyasah
Diligent practice is the effort put forth to maintain a point of focus. 
Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Nicholai goes on to list the qualities of a yoga practice that represent abhyasa. They are effort of focusing on a point, over a long period of time, uninterrupted, with sincerity and firmly grounded. The following sutra 1.14 suggests that abhyasa becomes firmly established when pursued with eagerness, sincerity and continuity for a long time. 

Whether it's good news or bad news, there is opportunity to practice yoga all day every day, even when you're not on the mat. The work of the yamas and niyamas is never ending and can be put into action with every interaction with another person, in your daily routine and each time you find yourself aware of your thoughts. 

Mr. Iyengar (R.I.P.) translates abhyasa as practice and about the everyday work of yoga he says:

"I have said that the cure for our inherent flaws lies in sustained practice of the eight petals of yoga (here, understood as the eight limbs). Knowledge of yoga is no substitute for practice. Since the difficulties lie within ourselves, so do the solutions." —Light on Life (pg 94)

And so, we must practice. The more often we confront our difficulties, the more likely we can create solutions to them. If you find yourself struggling to commit to regularity on the mat or the meditation cushion, what can you do to encourage yourself to get there? How can you make greater lasting changes by incorporating your yoga work with regularity?

Antarayas: Obstacles to Practice

I think that a good first post for the new year is one in which I explain some reasons that it can be so hard to practice. Despite all your good intentions of making it to the mat everyday, meditating 3 times a week or just trying to be more present as you go through life, there are some legitimate hurdles which can stand in your way.

In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali (the codifier of the sutras) outlines nine antaraya(s) (obstacles) to regular practice (sutra 1.30). These are basically ideas your mind comes up with to avoid practice. The mind likes its current state—as it can direct you and your actions with its incessant thoughts. Why would the mind want you to practice regularly and thus gain some control over its behavior? It wouldn't. So here's what it comes up with:

The 9 Antaraya(s)

  1. Vyadhi (disease or illness) 
    In most cases, this is a legitimate reason not to practice. Practice can be physically painful or mentally difficult if you have some illness or incessant pain. If this is your current barrier to practice, go back to bed and vow to return to regularity when your health has improved. 
     
  2. Styana (apathy, dullness)
    This obstacle may arise if you begin to have doubts about your progress, don't see immediate benefits from practicing or momentarily don't care about the positivity which practice can provide. Styana is a mental state, but can also be present physically if you are feeling heavy and dull. In order to overcome this obstacle, you can do a small scan of the benefit of practicing, to remind yourself of why you do it, or you can get up and practice asana to increase your tapas. Tapas (fire) will increase with each practice and encourage you to continue to do so.
     
  3. Samsaya (self-doubt, lack of confidence)
    This state of being can happen to the best of us, though some are better at overcoming it than others. A state of doubt about your ability, being, or place in the world can cause this antaraya to flare up. One way to overcome it could be to make a list of the things you are good at or the ways in which you personally improve the world. Another possibility could be to do a metta meditation in which you offer deep compassion to yourself. Here is a metta meditation which I recommend: Metta  
     
  4. Pramada (unclear thinking, intoxication)
    This type of mind-state can occur literally from being intoxicated, or possibly by being intoxicated with a very strong emotion, such as fear or anger. When you are in this frame of mind, it can be incredibly difficult to step back and assess the situation to act appropriately. One possible way to overcome it is to make sure that each time a state of unclear thinking pops up for you, you step back and take 5 deep breaths before reacting. Simple and possibly very effective. 
     
  5. Alasya (fatigue, feeling tired)
    Happens to the best of us. If it's a persistent feeling, you may consider your sleeping and eating habits and whether or not they are conducive to healthy living. I for one used to be consistently tired until I cut meat out of my diet. Not that it's the answer for everyone, but happened to work well for me. If you want to practice, but can't seem to muster up the energy, you may consider a yoga nidra (yogic sleep) which is a practice of deep deep relaxation. If this appeals to you, find a recorded copy so that you can be completely focused on your practice. 
     
  6. Avirati (sensory preoccupations) 
    This whirls of the mind are often sensory or sexually focused. These thoughts can be difficult to overcome once they arise. The best you can do is to try and bring your mind back to your task at hand. Reward yourself for any progress made.
     
  7. Bhranti-darsana (erroneous seeing) 
    This type of obstacle is present when you think that there is only one way of viewing the world, which just so happens to be your way. Or thinking that you are always right or the way that you do things is the penultimate way to do them. It's difficult to accept that other approaches can be equally effective. This type of thinking is present in fundamentalist religions, certain school systems and in political thought. One way to overcome this obstacle could be to practice seeing another point of view. Each time a situation occurs in which you feel uncomfortable or offended by someone else's actions, take a moment to try and view it from their perspective. Assess the possibilities for why they acted the way that they did. This isn't fool-proof and may sometimes be mysterious to you, but by and large this is a very powerful practice to accepting the inter-connectedness of humanity. 
     
  8. Alabdhabhumikatva (not being grounded) 
    In order to progress healthily and sensibly, you must establish a solid foundation of understanding at each level before moving on. In this obstacle, you are attempting to understand or practice something for which you are not ready. It can be very tempting to try advanced level practices of asana, pranayama or meditation, but in some cases can be dangerous. It might be at too high of a level for you to grasp or incomprehensible due to a lack of pertinent knowledge. To overcome this antaraya, make sure that your practices are appropriate and grounded before moving on. 
     
  9. Anavasthitatva (instability)
    This state is related to the previous one. This barrier to practice occurs when you do progress to the next level, but are unable to maintain it as a practice and fall back to the previous level. To overcome this obstacle, you must practice patience and perseverance. It is also helpful to think that this happens to everyone practicing and that all of those individuals picked up the pieces and continued on.

So, I hope this post was somewhat enlightening on how difficult it can be to maintain a regular practice and also offered some common sense practices for continuing. I must say that this post was largely inspired by the work of Nicholai Bachman and his translation of the Yoga Sutras. Without this, I never would have been so insightful on the antarayas.

Ganesha

Ganesha

Lastly, I want to say that Ganesh the Hindu god is the "remover of obstacles". One general way to overcome any troubles in life is to chant a mantra to Ganesh. My favorite is om gam ganapataye namaha.

Om on! Happy practice in 2013.