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?

Cultivating the Opposite

Last night, I had dinner with my Grams who's 91 years old. She is fortunate to still be completely sound of mind and fully capable mentally, spiritually and emotionally. She looks to many sources for her spiritual growth and guidance included the Catholic church (she's big on JC), Judge Judy and Deepak Chopra. She reads every book that she can get her hands on that centers around positive thought. She does the work for herself first. But she also wants you to do the work too. For yourself. Last night, the plan was to manifest me a husband through a writing exercise from a book called Write it Down, Make it Happen. For her, every opportunity for practicing positivity and impeccable speech (from The Four Agreements) is worthwhile for improving her life and the lives of those around her.

Gramma Jamma

Gramma Jamma

In our chat, we were discussing the inevitable "mind loop" that occurs when something bad happens. More specifically when someone does you wrong. We can't help but go over and over the same damn scenario in a million different ways to try and figure out what went wrong, what we could have done differently, what the other person should have done, what we would say to them if we saw them today, etc.

What we both recognize is that these thought processes are a waste of time. Maybe not at first while you're hashing out your feelings and gaining clarity into the full-scope of the situation. But eventually, once it becomes obsessive and we begin to grip and grasp it for all that it's got, it's time to change tactics.

The Yoga Sutras offers an absolutely precise and clear solution to the problem of the "mind loop."

2.33 vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
When difficult thoughts restrict us, we can cultivate opposite ones.

Okay. Easy enough, yeah?

Well....maybe not the easiest. I think this is a practice that you work your way up to. The first step to retraining the mind is to be aware

I try to remind my yoga students that the initial stages of yoga are really about creating body and mind awareness in a new way. We have to first create new neural pathways to see things and then see things as they truly are so that we can approach them with clarity and insight. In yoga asana you have to recognize the body's defects and differences from one side to the next and where you are stuck and where you are too open and how your body moves. In that way you can approach physical practice safely and for your specific bodily needs.

In meditation and matters of the mind, you first become aware of the frequent thought patterns that you're prone to, the mind loops that you tend to get in, and when and how often you find yourself thinking negatively. If you kept a tally throughout a single day of all the times you had a negative thought, how many would it be? 5 or 500? If you were aware of an excessive amount of negative thoughts, would you want to change it?

Armed with your new-found self-awareness, you can (hopefully) see the areas which need attention.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

For me, it pretty much always comes back to the mind-junk. The mind loops of 'what if' and 'why didn't I' and 'how could I have' etc. My work is to cultivate the opposite. What did I do right? In what ways did I display integrity in the face of challenges? Was I able to act with kindness and compassion, even though I probably didn't want to?

When things don't go my way, my work is to first change my perspective and hopefully through that effort begin to plant new seeds (remember that work?) for positive thoughts.

And like anything else in life, the more often you practice, the more it becomes easily accessible. If you can cultivate the opposite one difficult thought at a time, eventually it will become a part of your routine.