lessons in yoga-abhyasa

“We are what we repeatedly do; Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle 

Ready, Mat, Go

Asana as just an exercise is called Vyayama. This is where we all begin. So where is your yoga mat? Is it tucked away under your bed or in the corner of your hallway closet? Are you hitting the snooze button every morning instead of getting up for your practice? Are you scheduling meetings or work events at the same time you were hoping to take your own class? If the answer is yes to even one, you are not alone.

We all have good intentions to begin yoga-asana as exercise. Life happens. But, if we persist, Vyayama will lead to us to Ahbyasa. 

Abhyasa

For me, Abhyasa, yoga practice, clearly refers to performing the disciplines outlined in Raja Yoga- the path I was initiated into.

It is very easy to leave the theory of Raja Yoga between the pages of yoga texts. The only way to bring them to life is to practice them; disciplines that must be experimented consistently to gain deeper insights. Being able to study at YogaLife Institute with my teacher, Bob for 10 years and sharing in the yoga companionship of other teachers was a blessing.

My Abhyasa had its hiccups at first, but eventually found its rhythm. Every time I felt my practice had settled, something would happen (sickness, vacations, injuries, moving) to unsettle it. In any case, it is confession time to share the lessons learned.

Lesson 1 – Ego

At the infancy of my Abhyasa, I remember being so pleased at accomplishing 5 rounds of Surya Namaskar, sun salutations, that my whole body would swell with pride. When someone commented on my alignment in Virabhadrasana 1 or 2, Warrior pose, I beamed with pride again. When my eyes rested on a peer at the yoga studio, I remember thinking that my pose looked better than hers possibly with a sense of competition. When a different or new instructor came to teach the class, I compared her to my ‘regular’ teacher and dared to criticize her style for not fitting my personality. Now, I smile at my ignorance and recall the consequences of such pride-filled thoughts either through injuries or being humbled by teachers.

I have a long way to go before I can claim eradication of the ego in all thoughts and actions. I am fervently hoping that this practice can alert me when the hood of an ego-thought rises so I can catch it before its venous response is released to the world.

Lesson 2 – Mind

Abhyasa made me realize that my mind was constantly a critic, on and off the mat. It always seemed have an upper hand. I remember talking incessantly about yoga as if I were the designated spokesperson. It was I who was creating the busyness and depleting my energy. The quality of thoughts dictated my state of mind and the quantity determined whether I could ‘turn off’ the busyness on the mat.

It took me a long time to realize that it was the mind that controlled the outcome of my mat practice. When I anchored the mind to the breath and directed it to follow the movement, I began to notice a certain quiet in my body as well as settling of the thoughts. So, mat practice I discovered – is not just about body sculpting, it is about training the mind through asana.

Lesson 3 – Honoring the body

There are reasons some asanas are categorized as advanced. Watching some teachers and peers moving skillfully into positions that I could only dream of was annoying. You guessed right – I attempted them anyway, and paid the price – rehabilitation and forced reflection.

After going through repeated study of the first ethic, ahimsa, non-harming, eliminating the competitive attitude during mat practice became easier. I realized only when I am injury free, I can be of service. I had to consciously train myself to restrain and observe my body; muscles, joints, organs, breath, and the mind as they moved in each asana. Now, I remind myself each day to pause with reverence and send pure love to each part thanking them for their daily adeptness.

Lesson 4 – Forgiveness

Reminding myself to use the 8 fold path in thought, word and action is not simple. In fact, it is downright frustrating, and at times tantrum worthy. But, it is a practice that I have chosen to pursue. My failures – succumbing to laziness or participating in gossip, losing patience in the grocery line or lose it with my child. Blaming the other guy or the hormones did not work. Only with forgiveness I was be able to return to Raja Yoga practice.

Of course, I cannot control how others perceive my words or actions. But working to purify my intentions and motives is a primary part of my Abhyasa. In time, with my motives purified – I will not have to worry about the outcome of any interaction. I’m learning to define ‘progress’- one day, one mat practice, one interaction at a time.

Lesson 5 – Awareness

Before yoga, I was acting on the strongest impulse and reacting to the slightest provocation. I was acting without awareness and was a slave to the mind. To be established in awareness through yoga means to attend to all aspects of my being – body, mind, breath, emotions and the inner Self. It took me years to understand what that meant – to watch my actions, words and thought without a conflict. A very difficult practice.

Bringing awareness to the body helps me to release the pain and discomfort by just guiding my attention to it. And, awareness with gratitude brings a feeling of calmness. Awareness during the practice of ‘silence’ means not ask a question in response to a thought. If I do, I’m in for a long chat. The secret then, is to just watch everything that is going on in the body and mind without judgment. Training myself to be a detached observer – a silent witness.

Lesson 6 – Breath

Initially, it was a struggle to breathe; with tightness in my chest in certain poses and definitely during an emotional outburst. The muscles responsible for the act of breathing were so knotted that it took a lot of asana practice to release. In class, I was repeatedly told that awareness of breath induces an inner calm and urges the muscles to release. It also establishes you in the present moment. It is finally sinking in.

My teacher, Bob told me that the best way I can find the connection between breath and action is to become aware of how the small choices I make each day affects me, my family and friends, my community, – and  by extension- the world. Again, not easy at all – but great advice, nonetheless. Consciously relying on the breath is definitely helping settle my thoughts. It is urging me to indulge in loving actions – one breath at a time.

Moving towards Sadhana

Abhyasa after tedious efforts brought forth joy in the asana practice. Slowly, I began to hear the whisperings of the inner language of the asanas on the mat. Sometimes my heart filled with joy for unexplainable reasons. I am slowly being guided to elevate the asana practice from ego level of vanity, intolerance and impatience to a higher level of humility, compassion, and acceptance.

Yet, documenting my “progress” on and off the mat is a joke. The moment I think that I am close to mastery I fall off the ladder and it is uphill again. Of course, failure is hard to swallow. But my faith in the 8 fold path has prevented me from quitting and is inspiring me to become a seeker.

Yoga class on Wednesday and Friday mornings doesn’t cut it especially after being initiated into Raja Yoga. Because,the disciplines outlined on that path have to be practiced daily in order for them to be internalized. Therefore, starting the practice at the sound of the alarm is absolutely required and expected of a serious student-seeker. Patanjali calls this dedication – a Great Vow, Mahavratham.

Abhyasa then, is a start towards becoming a spiritual seeker; one who follows a path of purification – in order to discover the Higher Truth. Abhyasa done with reverence and gratitude matures into Sadhana. Going deeper in Sadhana means one has to act with a sense of non-doership by accepting the inner teacher’s guidance unequivocally. 

Yogis assure us that once our Abhyasa crosses over to the realms of Sadhana, we are in different territory. No one can stop us from going all the way to discover the Highest Truth. One day I hope to find myself in that realm. Of course, it begins with me – showing up each day – on the yoga mat.

Sharing the Practice

The days I get to share my practice as a teacher is humbling. I try to remember that everyone who walks into the classroom is dealing with ‘things’. Perhaps the yoga mat represents for them the same sacred space it represents for me. Our collective Abhyasa – each of us in our own sacred space, is sincere and heartwarming. I am honored to practice together and share everyone’s deepest desire to find their original goodness – to be the best we can be when we step off the mat. I am only just beginning to like the person I am becoming after each practice.

Gurus promise that the yogic disciplines not only improve health and well-being, but also prescribe a definite way to uncover the Spirit. We just have to be ready for a long, hard journey to travel from the surface of the mind into the depth of our consciousness.

“Strive to be calmly active and actively calm. Never compare your journey with someone else’s. Your journey is yours alone, and not a competition. ” Paramahamsa  Yogananda

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