Challenge Day 17—Practice, Abhyasa, Sadhana
What you practice improves. What you don’t practice doesn’t usually improve. The concept of a practice implies that whatever you’re working on is a work in progress. We call yoga a personal practice because the effort of expanding consciousness and awakening is eternal, limitless, and endless. There is actually no mountain top that marks the end of the yoga journey. Patañjali uses the Sanskrit word “anusthana” which means “the continual practice” to define what Ashtanga Yoga is. While the physical work of yoga is emphasized in our contemporary understanding, the traditional realm of yoga practice is actually internal. Yoga is a training of the mind-matter phenomena of beingness that redirects the focal point of life towards the highest and deepest truth of all—the Divine. There are many side-effects of yoga practice and, unfortunately, most yoga practiced today makes these byproducts the main goal. The birth of the “yoga for” movement essentializes this shift away from the spiritual practice towards a more physical basis. Yoga for fit abs, yoga for a bikini body, yoga for weight loss, and the like all emphasize the physical body’s aesthetic shape or health as an end goal of yoga. Then there are the yoga for headaches, yoga for depression, yoga for stress relief and the like which propose the goal of yoga as mental health. While physical and mental health are the foundations of spiritual practice, they are not the traditional end goal of yoga. While it certainly feels nice to have a body that you see as beautiful, the transitory manifestation of physical beauty is not the highest potential of yoga. And, truthfully, none of these reasons will keep you coming back to the mat and practicing for your entire life. A personal practice is something else entirely.
The Sanskrit word Abhyasa is usually used to define practice. Abhyasa centers around the disciplined effortful aspect of practice. Just think about the monumental exertion of will-power it takes to commit to a new habit or break an old habit. This is why so many people drop off New Year’s resolutions or fail at quitting smoking. Changing the habit pattern of the body and mind is no small work. It requires breaking the inertia of all past actions and charting a brand new course. Neural pathways in the brain related to the old habit have fired and wired together, creating easy access to that way of being. Whether it’s an emotion, a physical posture, a behavior or dietary choice, the body and mind are already programmed to follow the known and predictable path towards a repetition of the past. If you want to deprogram your body and mind it will take a considerable amount of strength to resist the pull towards the already established reality. The more you engage in a particular action, thought or feeling, the easier it is to engage in that action, thought or feeling. When you decide to do something new your conscious mind is battling years of unconscious programming. Not only must you muster the strength to do something new, build new neurological pathways in the brain, but first and foremost you must find the strength to resist the pull of the past. This is no small effort.
Practice is, however, more than the effort you put in to change the habit pattern of the mind. There is a change towards something new that places all your effort in a larger context. The traditional goal of yoga is a spiritual practice aimed at awakening your highest potential. The human mind, body and soul holds vast, limitless potential and yoga seeks to tap into that infinite well-spring for a higher purpose. In your being—this very faculty of body, mind and soul through which you’re reading this blog—you have an innate connection to the Cosmic Mind, which some would call God, and others would call Emptiness. The traditional practice of yoga is about waking up your potential to live in alignment, harmony and connection with this powerful, grand energy that is the Source of all life. Obviously, this state of wakefulness is not just about standing on your head or putting your leg behind your head. The yogic state is a 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year commitment to elevate, evolve and awaken. This is a sadhana.
Sadhana is the word used to describe a daily personal practice whose aim is enlightenment. Yoga is sadhana. When your practice becomes so much a part of who you are that you are in the state of yoga continually, you have developed a sadhana. When your first thought in the morning is grounded in conscious awareness, you have developed a sadhana. When yoga is simply who you are, you have developed a sadhana. The physical poses set up the foundation for your sadhana, but they are not your sadhana. If the body is unhealthy, sick, tight and otherwise in pain, turning the mind to deep transcendental states is impossible. If the mind is depressed, fearful, anxious, angry, obsessed or otherwise disturbed, cultivating the peace and equanimity required to look deeply within is impossible. Think of the the yoga poses, the physical benefits and even the mental benefits of the practice as tools that help carve out the path of sadhana. Think of sadhana as a total mindset shift in the fabric of your being.
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