On Practice: Yoga Sutras 1.13-14

“Practice is the repeated effort to follow the disciplines which give permanent control of the thought-waves of the mind. Practice becomes firmly grounded when it has been cultivated for a long time, uninterruptedly, with earnest devotion.” -Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood’s translation of Patanjali’s yoga sutras 1.13-14.

Photo by Judy van der Velden, Creative Commons license

The word “practice” brings to my mind grueling hours of piano practice, pounding a couple of keys and then looking out the window to where my siblings were playing outside. In all reality, my “practice” was maybe half an hour a day, but to me, practice felt like the worst thing thing in the world. While I practiced, I heard lots of shouts from the kitchen: “practice makes perfect!” and “slow down!”

Practice is important in yoga, too, but I don’t think Patanjali or his translators are discussing hatha yoga here. Instead of talking about the postures, they’re discussing the essence of yoga: calming the thought-waves. Desikachar calls it “the state of yoga” when the thought-waves are calm. At this point in the sutras, we’ve just finished discussing the five states of the mind, and now we’re discussing how to calm them. We’re not talking about asana or the latest pose on the cover of Yoga Journal.

The poses in yoga come later – later in the sutras, and later in the development of yoga. In fact, according to Mark Singleton and other yoga academics, the poses we see in yoga classes today did not develop until this past century. Yoga as we know it is not 5,000 years old.

So what was yoga all those years ago?

Mind/body-control. Yoga is mind-control. But not someone else controlling your mind – it’s about you controlling your mind – and not even in the control-freak sense. Yoga is not about snapping fingers at your mind, “Hey, let’s switch to math mode now!” Yoga is about being able to calm your mind, and maintaining that calm for as long as possible.

Thus, practice is meditation… practice is pranayama (breath control)… practice is chanting (partly because chanting requires exhaling from the diaphragm!). Practice is, yes, asana, because holding the pose while breathing again asks the mind to shift its self-talk.

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The key, then, is to practice, which I’m really bad at actually doing. Two weeks ago, I was at a conference where I practiced twice a day. Then I came home, intending to keep it up… and I didn’t. Not once in a whole week other than two lunges in the kitchen while I waited for the oatmeal to cook. And some humming.

But I have to give myself credit: there were the lunges and the humming.

Because I struggle with daily practice, I often feel like a yoga fraud. I don’t start my every morning with God and my yoga mat. I wish I did. I wish I were one of those people. Often, though, I leave the house at 5:30 a.m., and I just don’t have time.

Patanjali says, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when it has been cultivated for a long time, uninterruptedly, with earnest devotion.”

I have been practicing yoga for five and a half years, which seems long-ish to me, but it’s not long. I’ve definitely grown in my understanding and practice of yoga in that time. I want to keep growing, so I keep practicing. To keep practicing, I’ve started minimizing the guilty thought-waves by celebrating small victories like lunges in the kitchen.

Learning the practice of celebrating my yoga is a way of counteracting the guilty thought-waves. Celebrating looks like being kind to myself–at least for the duration of the time that I am on the mat. Even if it’s just a five-minute meditation. Even if it’s just fifteen minutes of asana and fifteen minutes of savasana. It’s better than not doing it at all!

My latest trick to practicing regularly is to find a time in my day that occurs daily when I could fill it with yoga. This is not early mornings–my morning routines are not consistent. This might be, however, in the evening after work. My husband loves to cook, so there’s always a time when he’s in the kitchen and I’m either finishing up work, or watching tv, or cleaning the house, or mowing the lawn.

Instead of these random activities, it’d be a nice transition from day to evening, work to rest, doing to being. Calm the thought-waves churned up by work. The lawn will get mowed another time.

So that’s my experiment: yoga after work.

And experimenting is really the heart of practice! What new yoga experiment will you practice this week? What can you celebrate about your practice?

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