“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