my practice, my abhyasa

 “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.”   Ashtanga Yogaacharya, Shri Pattabhi Jois

In the Fall of 2000, I felt a gentle push to begin yoga. Opening the yellow pages, I found YogaLife Institute, located only 3 miles away. On a warm September evening, I entered their doors for a simple yoga class. What I got was a royal introduction to the eight limbs of Raja Yoga. Here, are the beginnings of my practice before it turned into real Yoga-Abhyasa.

Although I was fascinated by Raja Yoga at the outset, I had to work hard at being disciplined, combating laziness on a regular basis. If I skipped a day of practice after hitting the snooze button or having to care for a sick child, it would quickly turn into a week, or more especially on voyages to India. Sadly, my practice was the first thing to be dropped when life got hectic. I had many reasons for not upholding my new year yoga resolution – some valid, while the rest which I validated so skillfully, fell into a long list of excuses.

The word Ahbhyasa in Samskritham means having an attitude of patient, consistent effort; a discipline; simply referred to as practice. To do anything well, including yoga (asana) requires practice; meaning it must be repeated over time to invite mastery.

Remember mastering shoelaces and abc’s, math equations and computer code? As adults we are called ‘experts’ in our professions. What about those not-so-flattering vices like anger, greed and worry?Through repeated practice, we are masters at these too.

I can be a master at procrastinating. I can also be a master at being critical, at reacting, at getting angry, worrying, making excuses – a long list. Becoming aware of my shortcomings was hurtful, but nonetheless, a wake up call to act, to change. And to change I needed guidance, a path – a prescription for practice if you will. That prescription was Raja Yoga. The hard part – undoing the effects of prior destructive mastery and replacing it with new constructive ones. Heeding to the call to act, I began the practice with the popular choice, asanas, poses.

I bought my first yoga mat a year after I joined Yogalife Institute. At first, it seemed like I was always in a hurry to get to class and find my corner in the classroom. I would lay down the yoga mat and mark my territory before the other students entered. Cornering off a space so no one else can have it, is selfish. Obviously, I had not yet learned the essence of yoga or understood the sacredness of the yoga mat.  

At that phase of my life, there was always something to do (infant in the house!). At the peak of this busyness, bright lights were bothersome, loud noises made me jumpy, chocolates made me cranky and Sundays brought the blues. Though I attended playgroups and planned birthday parties with a smile, there was a false impression of being in control. I did not know how to turn ‘off’. But for some unexplainable reason, after that first yoga class, the mat was always inviting. I fervently hoped that the busyness that accompanied me everywhere would melt away as soon as I settled on my yoga mat.

Each week my body and mind were in a state of anticipation. With child-like eagerness I arrived at the class happy to move and grateful to rest. Once on the mat, I realized how tight my body was only when I began to convince it to move and release. I noticed how shallow the breath sounded only when I was introduced to my own breath. And I hadn’t the faintest idea how loud my thoughts were until I experienced a moment of silence. No wonder I was not able to turn off and relax.

The class always began with centering – a process of noticing the breath by deliberately slowing down inhales and exhales and checking in with our thoughts. I wondered if today was the day that I would be successful in turning off my thoughts and find some peace. I wondered if everyone in class was thinking the same. Because each of us probably knew that we must leave behind the concerns of ordinary life, of chores and bawling kids, the world of meetings and schedules. I believe each one’s yoga practice is unique and an individual experience. However, was everyone hoping that they might get some relief from the stressful, chaotic and unpredictable nature of life by practicing on the mat?

Centering was followed by a 15 minute introduction to the week’s topic. Topics, based on the eight fold path of Raja Yoga, helped to set an intention for the day or the week. We began by using this intention while moving in asanas.

For example, Ahimsa, non-harming the first Yama (1st limb) as an intention, was a prerequisite for asana practice. Was I hurting myself in poses? Was I pushing myself into positions that caused injuries? Answers to these questions began the practice of Ahimsa. Being a novice, I was just looking for relief from my aches and pains. So I did not push. But, sadly, a couple of years later as I became somewhat proficient, competitiveness and pride crept in which led to injuries. This was when I was harshly persuaded to practice Ahimsa, each time I stepped on the mat.

After the 15 minute introduction, the instructor would start the warm ups and lead us through series of poses from standing to seated to lying down on the mat. In her calm voice she guided us through the movements. She somehow knew the right place to pause so we could breathe and experience being present. Soothing chants wafted in and out of my ‘hearing’ consciousness. It was exhilarating. It was calming. It was incredible. You get the idea.

When balancing in Vrikshasana, tree pose, my shaky legs did not upset me. In fact, it reminded me that I was still on the yoga mat and the best was yet to come. The sound of collective breathing of my peers while we moved through the asanas, was somehow comforting. The pain in my back became bearable and my posture improved because of asanas. Bottomline, it was sheer pleasure to be in my corner practiceing asana with others.

When it was time for relaxation in Shavasana, corpse pose, the instructor asked us to focus our attention on the breath. Then, she asked us to make each inhale a nourishing breath and each exhale a letting-go breath. What a wonderful way to train the mind and at the same time, help the body. After a few breaths, my mind drifted back to the habitual mental chatter (still does). Slowly I became aware that the breath had taken me deeper into the comfort and protection of the yoga mat. There was an elusive moment where time seemed frozen. Here,  I knew I could not be touched by the ups and downs of life.

The gentle sound of the singing bowl, roused me out of the stillness, signaling the finality of this earthly heaven. The end of the  class – but mostly a warning that real practice begins off the yoga mat. Then, with immense difficulty I stirred, not wanting to be awakened from this momentary peace. As we sat breathing as one, the instructor hinted to take the ‘peace’ off the mat and into the world we were about to enter. The chatter of the students at the door, waiting to enter for the next class signaled that we were already connected to the outside world. Then slowly, I rolled up the mat, tucked it carefully under my arm and would leave, taking with me the serenity of the classroom and hoping that it would last longer this time.

This routine went on for quite a while, a few years, until I signed up for teacher training. It took me a long time to realize that I was ‘turning off’ on the mat, but I am still learning to turn off at will. I left each class with a hope that someday I could live a life of inner calm without having to work so hard for it. Although at times I was discouraged when I “lost it”, I still returned to the class each week ready to try again. Each class was a preparation to face the triggers in the material world with renewed sense of hope, courage and compassion. However, when I did slip-up (many times and still do), I was/am able to slowly regroup by going back to the mat and to the tools of Raja Yoga.

For me, Abhyasa, daily yoga practice, specifically refers to performing the disciplines outlined in Raja Yoga, the path I was initiated into. My Abhyasa, is still evolving. To bring the eight limbs to life has been both frustrating and inspiring. Here, I realized, to invite mastery means that these practices must be done for a long time, and without a break.

I have learnt to move my body in various asanas using my breath. I have learnt how to center myself using my breath. I have learnt that yoga-asana practice is not just for the body; it is about training the mind using the breath. I am still learning how to settle my thoughts and anchor my mind to the breath to find those precious moments of peace. I am becoming aware that this practice is helping me to play the various roles in my life a little better. Now I realize that ongoing study of the eight fold path is mandatory in order to adopt a true yogic lifestyle. In other words, bringing the theory of Raja Yoga to life is what true Abhyasa, is all about.

I have a very long way to go before I can claim eradication of vices or everlasting calmness. Right now, I am happy  to show up on the yoga mat and on the meditation blanket – everyday, ready to work hard and enjoy my practice. Every morning I set an intention of Raja Yoga and every night I have to forgive myself for my lapses in order to begin again the next day.

The first step of Abhyasa is showing up. My favorite first line by Sage Pathanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutras, states – “Atha Yoganushasanum,” – “Now begins the instruction on practice of yoga.”

I translate it as “Now begins the true discipline of Abhyasa.”

Only when I show up each day, I can truly begin my Abhyasa .  

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”. St. Francis of Assisi

first 5 limbs of raja yoga

Raja Yoga, the “Royal Yoga,” is a combination of all other yoga disciplines and the science of God-realization with a step-by-step means of reuniting the soul with the Spirit.

Paramahamsa Yogananda

As I introduce you to the eight fold path of Rāja Yoga, it is a pleasure for me to study it with you – again.Though I promised to elaborate on the first 5 limbs, this is still only a broad synopsis. It is best to study each limb separately to understand how to use them in everyday interactions. The first five limbs are referred to as the external limbs, Bahiranga Sadhana and are to be practiced simultaneously. They are considered external because these limbs affect our relationship with the outside world. The first five limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara are the foundation of Rāja Yoga.

Yama and Niyama, are the principles of right conduct and lifestyle, the dos and don’ts – referred to as the moral disciplines or ethics of yoga. They are a very important part in the practice of Rāja Yoga – a part that I have come to rely on. The 10 ethics are:

दश नीति

Ten Ethics

यम Restraints नियम Observances
अहिंसा Non-Harming शौच Purity
सत्य Truth सन्तोष Contentment
अस्तेय Non-Stealing तपस् Effort
ब्रह्मचर्य Moderation स्वाध्याय Self-Study
अपरिग्रह Non-Hoarding ईश्वरप्रणिधान Surrender

Yama

The first limb, Yama, यम, frequently referred to as restraints or disciplines. Yama, restraint, deals with those behaviors that show respect for self and others. Using the word restraint may imply taking away certain privileges to be in a yogic frame of mind. On the contrary – it is much more that. I discovered that cultivating restraints is really cultivating the ability to manage my feelings – the ability to stop myself from doing or saying things that are not sensible or correct.

I have included multiple meanings for each of the Yama and Niyama, as Samskritham (Sanskrit) terms tend to have multiple meanings. It is also difficult to find an exact translation for each term, while preserving its authenticity.

यम

Restraints

अहिंसा       (Ahimsa) Non-Harming, Non-Violence, Kindness, Dynamic Peacefulness
सत्य          (Sathya) Truth, Authenticity, Sincerity, Benevolence
अस्तेय       (Astheya) Non-Stealing, Honesty, Abundance
ब्रह्मचर्य      (Brahmacharya) Moderation, Continence, Dedicated to the Divine
अपरिग्रह     (Aparigraha) Non-Hoarding, Self reliance, Renouncing, Simplicity, Generosity

The first Yama is Ahimsa, non-harming.  Alice Christensen stated that Ahimsa is listed as the first discipline because the practice of the other nine ethics depended on it.  According to her, when trying to practice the second ethic, Satya, truthfulness, lying to myself is a form of harming; or in the practice of the third ethic, Asteya, non-stealing, wasting my time is stealing from myself which is harming. Slowly, with tedious practice, I finally began to notice that practicing Ahimsa has helped me to stay ahead in the practice of other ethics. This doesn’t mean I remembered to do it all the time.

In the beginning, I entrusted the job of reminding me to the most reliable person I knew at that time – my 5 year old. In her own direct way and without hesitation she would remind me that I was not practicing Ahimsa – yes, you guessed it – I was arguing with my better half. My first reaction was to get upset with her reminders, which again is not Ahimsa. She would say “But you told me to remind you,” and start to cry. Of course, I would melt, give her a hug, to which she would sweetly add – “I’m sorry too, mommy,”- another reminder – to forgive myself for the slip-up. What a sweet and effective taskmaster! This went on for a while before she lost interest.

Eknath Easwaran said taking “my life is a school” approach, would provide numerous opportunities to experiment with the eight fold path. Whether it be marriage or rearing a child, each phase of life – midlife or teenage – provides its own challenges to practice Ahimsa. This was the best practical advice to bring the 8 limbs to life. With this attitude, obstacles became opportunities. When I did catch myself practicing Ahimsa, my nightly reflection was filled with gratitude. In this way, each conclusion – success or failure, charted my progress, deepened my faith in the tools and boosted my confidence to continue on the path.

In Rāja Yoga, the traditional practice of Yamas is equated to taking a vow, an earnest promise dedicated to the practice – called Mahavratham, Great Vow, by Patanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutra (2:31). This implies the seriousness of accepting the responsibility of the practice of Yamas, without the limitations of time, space, season, family, country, etc.; meaning although forgiveness is paramount, excuses are not entertained when Mahavratham, the Great Vow is activated.

Niyama

The second limb, Niyama, नियम, referred to as Observances, are those behaviors that convey positive self action. Niyama, Observance, is the act of perceiving and respecting the requirements of the laws of nature while recognizing our human imperfections and self centeredness. It helps to cultivate gratitude and sacredness towards daily activities and makes us rely on the tools to bring us closer to spiritual bliss, 8th limb, Samadhi.

नियम

Observances

शौच                 (Shaucha) Purity, Cleanliness, Clarity
सन्तोष               (Santosha) Contentment, Peacefulness
तपस्                  (Tapas) Effort, Heat, Discipline, Sacrifice
स्वाध्याय             (Svadhyaya) Self-Study, Reflection, Introspection
ईश्वरप्रणिधान      (Ishvara Pranidhana) Surrender, Faith, Gratitude, Devotion, Higher Purpose

The first Niyama is Shaucha, Purity or Cleanliness, which is both external and internal. The external concept of Shaucha suggests a clean body through daily ablutions, clean surroundings (owned and public), along with fresh and clean food to purify the body. Anger, hate, prejudice, greed, pride, fear, negative thoughts are toxins to body and mind. Hence, internal Shaucha includes purity of speech, emotions and the mind. Only with mastery of Shaucha, progress within the internal limbs can be witnessed.

Asana

The third limb is Asana, pose. It took me a long time to realize that Asana in Rāja Yoga, is not the same asana that we do in yoga classes each week. In class, I was taught how to align my body and move in a sequence of poses as in Surya Namaskar, Sun Salutations. I also learnt that the poses worked on both lengthening and strengthening of my muscles and joints. I noticed that there were variations within each asana. These variations could be created and supported by yoga props. Some asanas were simple and others were advanced. They were grouped into standing, seated, balance and lying down asanas. They are also grouped as forward bends, side bends, twists, backbends, inversions. This was only the beginning.

yoga_silhouette_vector_179799

I realized that the world of asanas was so vast and overwhelming that I could easily forget about all the other limbs and just be consumed by this 3rd limb. Amidst all this, I discovered that in the text Yoga SutrasPatanjali simply instructs us to find one comfortable and stable seated position; he calls this position Asana. Nowhere does he mention groups of asanas or their variations. Out of 196 sutras, only one (Y.S. 2:46) is dedicated to asana.

Pranayama

The fourth limb is Pranayama, प्राणायाम. It is a disciplined practice of controlling and mastering the breath. In yoga, the breath is considered as the source of the body’s vital life force, prana. Although, Patanjali states pranayama as means of attaining higher states of awareness, it is not very popular in asana classes.

Since the process of Pranayama is concerned with the breathing, it is the indicator of good health. If it is done incorrectly, it will cause harm to the person.  For example, there are heating and cooling pranayama practices. Since our breath is tied to our emotions, these practices may abnormally enhance or deplete these emotional energies in the body. This fear dissuades many from starting the practice. Another reason for its unpopularity is possibly the absence of teachers who can teach it correctly. A knowledgeable teacher is observant of the students’ personality, and behaviors before teaching them the correct sequence of the breathing practices. This does not mean that it is a difficult process, or it cannot be learnt. But, when it is done correctly, you can experience wonderful benefits.

Breathe

As with asana, a similar confusion exists with Patanjali’s instruction in Pranayama. Patanjali only instructs the student to observe and slow the breath down to the point where one cannot distinguish between the inhalation and the exhalation (Y.S. 2:49). To clearly understand this instruction and apply it to practice is where you need an experienced teacher. The numerous asanas as postures and Pranayama as breathing exercises were developed much later as part of the Hata Yoga system of mastering the body to still the mind. Ashtanga Yoga teacher Pattabhi Jois used to explain this sutra 2:49 as “When asana is mastered, pranayma begins.” Unfortunately, this is not the preferred practice.

Pratyahara

The fifth limb, Pratyahara, is the practice of drawing the mind’s focus away from the external senses to the inner workings of the body and mind. The word ahara means “nourishment”; Pratyahara translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.” Although nourishment implies to provide adequate sustenance to foster health, in this case, feeding the senses will only steer us away from the inner poise and daily yogic practicesTherefore, withdrawing from sense temptations to support the practice is the nourishment referred to in Pratyahara. Eknath Easwaran teaches this concept as training the senses to come under our control instead of being slaves to them.

Yogis declare that the information gathered through the senses – eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin are not reliable. Ordinarily, the senses are the masters rather than being our servants. They entice us to develop cravings. Each of the senses invokes deep desire which provokes us to act according to our likes and dislikes leading to short-lived happiness or distress. To avoid pitfalls, we have to cultivate the habit of witnessing and deciphering the right message the senses are trying to convey to us. This is the first step in Pratyahara.

Have you ever felt tired after returning from the mall? Bob, my teacher at Yogalife Institute, says the tiredness comes from the draining of prana, life force energy, through our eyes just by window shopping. Getting to know how my eyes behaved at the mall, or at a dinner party, and the role the mind plays in executing the action after the eyes have made their capture, has been enlightening. In the beginning, besides window shopping, looking longingly at a brownie and having to stop myself from eating it, was equally draining. It is not so bad now, and I am still learning to detach from that tempting object, a.k.a. chocolate brownie to stop prana leakage but enjoy an occasionally treat without a conflict. Just when I thought I had conquered one temptation, the eyes have made another capture – this time under the alias of jalapeño chips, lurking on the next table, waiting to reel me in. Depending on our list, Pratyahara can become a lifelong practice.

The next step, Gurudev counsels, is the effort of withdrawing attachment to external objects.  This practice of Pratyahara provides me with an opportunity to step back and take a closer look at my habits. It forces me to objectively observe my likes and dislikes, and my cravings: essentially, habits that are detrimental to my health and which interfere with Abhyasa. I am working hard to draw my attention away from the world of temptations, one stimulus at a time. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Like everyone else my practice began with asana, poses, falsely believing it is the easiest and most tangible place to start. But I quickly realized that asanas are not that easy – especially when I saw others doing them better and when I couldn’t do many of the advanced asanas. That’s when the code of ethics became more important than the asana practice. I was told to practice Yamas and Niyamas concurrently, so I could lose the attitude of competitiveness, pride and self-criticism in asana and pranayama practice. It is through the movement of the body, asana, and the movement of the breath, pranayama and restraining our senses through pratyahara that we begin to enter the gates of silence and access the mind. Hence, these 5 limbs must be practiced simultaneously, to prepare the mind for internal practices, Antaranga Sadhana, the next 3 limbs.

Focussing on the first five limbs of Rāja Yoga, helped me to begin trusting the process. I resolved to set the Yamas or Niyamas as my intention, sankalpa. This way I could constantly and mindfully rehearse one or two of them everyday on a short-term rotation schedule. This has made the practice efficient and manageable. Of course, it is still a long and bumpy road to destination Bliss filled with failures and short lived successes. But the path itself is clear, as long as I bring the right attitude and diligence to the practice. And, in my opinion, assigning adorable taskmasters to assist is mandatory for success.

The idea is to make the practice of the five limbs a habit, so they become the most important part of my life. Only then I can confidently declare that I am living a yogic lifestyle.

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Bell, Charlotte.2007. Mindful Yoga Mindful Life. Rodmell Press

Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence and Achievement. American Yoga Association

Kriyananda, Swami. 2011. The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Crystal Clarity Publishers (2 volumes)