Yoga, beyond the practice – Namaskar magazine – November 2016

beyond-the-practiceby Valerie Faneco –

For most people yoga begins with asana, and it is usually considered that we practice yoga when we roll out the mat to engage in some form of physical exercise.

More specifically, the Yoga-Sutra tells us that to practice yoga is to act consciously, mindfully, with deliberate intention. Action (karma) includes what we do but also what we think and what we say. Therefore a complete definition of yoga should encompass all of these parameters and apply to all aspects of life. The Yoga-Sutra calls this Kriya-Yoga, the Yoga of Action (chapter II).

The idea of practicing “off the mat” is attractive but how can it be done? Can we really be conscious of the way we act, all the time? Is it necessary to add a spiritual belief to asana practice? Does it help to chant om or recite the Yoga-Sutra? In other words, how can we introduce the deeper teachings of yoga into our life?

Step 1 – Practice, practice, practice

In my view, the first step is simply to start with asana practice. You may like to attend a group class and this is fine. But in addition to that it is advisable to practice your own program on a daily basis. It does not always come easily as it requires discipline. The Yoga-Sutra calls it tapas: the effort to incorporate practice into daily life. Tapas includes the practice of yoga postures but also breathing exercises, an appropriate diet, and good company (amongst other things). Ideally when you are practising by yourself you are only doing what is suitable for you. In a group class the potential of self-discovery is limited because everyone follows the same routine and has a tendency to try to fit in, with the risk of forcing a round peg into a square hole. In self-practice, on the other hand, there is room for self-exploration, and you can do only what is good for you.

How do you work out what is good for you? Of course you can pick postures and breathing exercises by yourself, or you can ask a senior teacher to design a program tailored to your needs. Choosing by yourself might be tricky because you may end up doing only what feeds your existing habits and tendencies. For example, it is very common for students who are mentally agitated to like dynamic vinyasa sequences despite the fact that they contribute to more agitation in their mind. It is important to identify what kind of practice supports you, with the help of a mentor who knows you well.

Step 2 – Observe

In this case observation does not consist in watching the external form of your postures in a mirror but in perceiving the holistic effect of your program. Writing a journal after the practice helps to document what came up while you were doing it but also how you feel after it. Sharing with your mentor or a close friend is also helpful.

Practicing on your own creates a range of experiences: moments of focus; moments of distraction; a resistance to some exercises and a strong preference for others; feelings of peace, boredom, anger, and so forth. These may all happen during a one-hour session, or within a few days of doing the same program daily. Of course you also swing between focus and distraction, peace and anger, etc. in a group class, but you are more likely to see them manifest when you are in your own company.

Working with the body also has the potential to trigger unconscious memories buried in past experiences, so besides physical sensations there might also be thoughts or emotions that pop up unexpectedly. This self-enquiry is a cornerstone of the practice. The Yoga-Sutra calls it svadhyaya, literally “investigating yourself”.

To do that there is no need to look at yourself in a mirror because the practice itself mirrors your qualities, flaws and habits. And you gradually become more aware of what you feel rather than what the postures look like.

Step 3 – Reflect

To reflect is to search for solutions or examine as many sides of a topic as possible. To meditate is to focus our attention on one thing and sustain this attention for some time. In this regard meditation and reflection are one and the same.

You could say, therefore, that meditating on your practice takes your observation to a new level. The time you spend on the mat every day may be an hour or less but it resonates much longer if it leaves you in a state where you can reflect about certain events in your life with a fresh perspective. When facing a difficult choice or a stressful situation you might notice that you are dealing with it better than you would have a few months ago. Perhaps it is because your mind is less scattered and you are calmer, more grounded, more capable of standing in other people’s shoes. So you can reflect on the various events in your life: do you feel confused or are your ideas clear? Have you gained a new insight on the problem?

You may not want to do this every waking hour in every single situation, but if you try often enough you will hopefully identify which habits are healthy for you and which ones are not. An appropriate practice helps you to build positive qualities such as steadiness, patience and clarity of mind, not restlessness and instability.

Step 4 – Adjust

A dual principle is fundamental in yoga philosophy: everything is real (sat) and everything changes (parinama). If you fall and break a leg, you cannot ignore the pain. If you score well in an exam, your happiness is real too. In this respect yoga differs from other Indian philosophical systems which purport that everything is illusory and that only God exists.

But yoga also says that whatever exists is temporary and bound to evolve into something else: another state, another feeling, another moment, another place, etc. The fruit is picked and eaten as a fruit, mashed to a pulp, or made into jam. The seed can be planted to give a new tree. The essence of the fruit is always the same but each manifestation is the result of a process of transformation.

Similarly, our individual essence – or consciousness – remains the same but we evolve from childhood to old age through various stages in life. Yoga teaches that change is unavoidable. We learn to embrace it rather than fear it. We also learn how to implement certain changes for our own benefit, even if it is very hard to do this without any tension or excessive attachment to projected results.

To keep seeing ourselves as we were and not as we are is bound to cause pain, sooner or later. It keeps us attached to the same kind of practice. We need to detach, surrender, and give something up to find something new. We need to adjust, as gracefully as possible. Yoga calls this ishvara pranidhana.

Moving on

Based on my understanding of the Yoga-Sutra and other classical texts, I believe yoga is all pervasive: it is meant to reach multiple layers in our person and in our life. Like water slowly seeping through the ground to reach the roots, yoga is fluid; it follows the unique terrain of our persona, doing its work without us necessarily noticing it.

The inherent spirit of yoga, as described in the Yoga-Sutra, is the adaptation to individual needs. We are invited to trace our own path by choosing among a number of solutions instead of being imposed a single one. The purpose of this journey is two-fold: freedom from pain, and connection with our deep consciousness – the part of us that remains unchanged. Those are ambitious goals! Any practice that helps us to progress in this journey is worth implementing but it may not involve yoga postures at all. One may prefer to be deeply absorbed in painting or music… Another may thrive on lesser-known yoga techniques such as energy work, sound, dialogue, visualisation methods or symbolic gestures. We are not all obliged to use the same tools in the same way.

I am not sure if yoga’s ambitious targets can be reached in a lifetime but we can always try, because sincere attempts to create more peace are bound to bring rewards along the way.

And at least we can improve our quality of life.