October 2006 – Practice


When we talk of our yoga, we tend to refer to it as “practice”.  Practice?  What are we practicing for?  When and where is the real game??  The real game is when we walk off the mat!  The real game is life itself.
When we are on the mat practicing, we are practicing keeping calm and breathing deep while working hard!  We are practicing being mindful of our breath and thoughts, we are practicing discipline, determination, and consistency.  We are practicing to believe in ourselves, believe we can do this!  When we are off the mat we are better able to stay calm while in a stressful situation because we practiced it on the mat, we are able to keep our focus because we practiced it on the mat, we are able to follow through because we have learned we can do it and we do believe in ourselves.
When you are having a “bad practice”, remember it is only practice and it is good!  It does not matter that you can bind, or bend over, or put your leg behind your head, what matters is that you are practicing.  Practice is not about getting better at postures; it is about getting better at life.

Practice makes perfect—the repetition of the Ashtanga practice
Remembering yoga is not about the pose, I want to talk about practicing the poses.  Ashtanga yoga takes a rap because some criticize the repetition of the Ashtanga practice—but the magic is in the repetition of the practice!  When you practice something consistently over a long period of time you get good at it!  I am not speaking of getting good at the posture, but getting good at the practice of yoga.  Doing the same poses in the same flow over and over again helps you to understand it on a deeper level, you can get off the physical plane, your body learns (via a mechanism in the body called “muscle memory”) right hand here and left foot there so you do not need to “think” about it.  You can focus on breathing, bandhas, and being in the flow of the meditative state while doing poses—taking you more into the inner work of yoga.
OK, yoga is not about being good at the poses—then why do we pose?  The poses are designed to keep our body healthy and pain free, which is what they are about.  Even if you can not bind, you are releasing tension and toxins from your body and as you practice repeatedly you will get deeper into the poses, the deeper you get into the poses the more detoxifying occurs.
So, practice practice practice.

Abhyasa and Vairagya
No matter how hard it is to drag yourself to a yoga class at the end of a busy day—you always feel better afterward.  Gliding (almost floating) out of the studio you feel light, released from stress, and a few inches taller!  At that moment it may seem inconceivable that you would resist practicing again . . . but come the next busy day, this resistance finds itself in your mind and body.  This is not a new dilemma brought on by our busy society; yogis have struggled with the commitment necessary for a regular practice since the beginning of yoga over 5000 years ago!
In the Sutras of Patanjali (the first written text on yoga consisting of about 200 verses) Patanjali addresses the issue of practice early (Chapter 1 verse 12) just after explaining what yoga is.  Patanjali says “Control over the mind’s fluctuations comes from persevering practice (abhyasa) and nonattachment (vairgya).”
Persevering practice (abhyasa) . . . Practice is then defined in the next two verses as:  cultivated effort continually over a long period of time.  So many of our daily chores that used to require effort-no longer do, we are losing our ability to put forth effort!  We tend to let the little day to day mini dramas interfere with our best intentions.  Persevering practice comes from an inside commitment to not only feel better but BE better (in body, heart, and mind).  Yoga practice gives us the tools to BE better.  When we observe our resistance to practice and still practice anyway, tapas–another term used by Patanjali—is stirred up creating a fire within us that burns away resistance.  So practice when it is hard, practice when it is easy, practice when you are bored, practice when you are enthusiastic, practice when you are home, practice when you are on vacation, Practice without knowing how it will turn out!  Which takes us to vairagya . . .
Vairagya is nonattachment, but can also be thought of as a release, surrender, a letting go.  Being attached to the outcome of your practice or how you perform your practice is an easy way to get frustrated; expectations set us up for disappointment over and over again.  Vinyasa helps us to practice nonattachment, with each vinyasa celebrate the death of the pose, letting go of it with no attachment to judging whether you did a good pose or bad pose—just enjoy the feeling of release as you come out of the pose.  Celebrate impermanence! 
Let go of your doubts, fears, and insecurities realizing this is only your monkey mind.  Remember no path is easy; and you can choose your challenge.  Would you rather face the challenge of where your practice will lead you?  Or would you rather face the challenge of your day without the positive effects of your practice?

How to cultivate “Practice”
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Have a plan for a regular week of when and what practices you do. However keep one or two days of practice loose, and keep it fun and interesting.

  • For example, come to the studio 2 set days per week for full practice (making these two days your days of faith, tenacity, and perseverance—meaning don’t like little excuses keep you from your practice!), choose 2 other days each week for home practice. For your home practices set your days and times that you intend to practice, have one of those practices be a full practice (or at least what you know) and the other a “short” home practice. Then have a “theme” for the short practice, example it could be that you want to work on jump backs, so do Sun Salutes, work on your jump backs, close with the 3 lotus blossoms, and take rest. Or just do sun salutes and closing series, or try the entire practice at 3 breaths each for a whole new expression of breath, movement, and sweat! Keep it a little loose by switching your long and short home practices around if need be.
  • Also keep in mind in Ashtanga traditionally no practice is done during new moon, full moon and menstruation. Look at these days as having bonus time 🙂
  • Know your intensions with your practice but keep it fun.
  • Fall in love with the repetition of your practice.  Appreciate how the sun salute never changes, but be aware of how you change in the sun salute from day to day and week to week.
  • Non-attachment to the outcomes of your practice, remember it is only practice; the real game is your life.  The story below explains this concept.

Excerpt from Yoga Journal article called “living on the edge” by Ezra Bayda
On the first day of a four-day meditation retreat, a student went in to see the Zen master with whom he’d been studying for many years. Sitting at the teacher’s feet, he asked, “Can you tell me how I’m doing in my practice?” The Zen master thought for a minute, then said, “Open your mouth.” The student opened his mouth, and the teacher peered in and said, “OK, now bend your head down.” The student bent his head down, and the Zen master looked into his hair, then said, “OK, now open your eyes really wide.” The student opened his eyes, and the Zen master glared into them and said, “You’re doing fine.” Then he rang his bell.
Because the teacher rang his bell, the student had to leave. The next day, he returned, quite perplexed by what had happened the day before. “I asked you how I was doing in my practice yesterday,” he said, “and you made me open my mouth, bend my head, and open my eyes. What did all that have to do with my practice?” The Zen master bowed his head in thought. Then he said, “You know, you’re not really doing very well in your practice, and the truth is, I am not sure you are ever going to make it.” Again he rang his bell.
The student walked out. You can imagine how confused and angry he felt. The next day he went back, still fuming, and said, “What do you mean, I’m not going to make it in practice? Do you know that I sit in meditation for an hour every day? Sometimes I sit twice a day. I come to every retreat. I have really deep experiences. What do you mean I’m not going to make it?” The master just sat there, apparently thinking. Then he said, “Well, maybe I made a mistake. Perhaps you’re doing pretty well after all.” And again he rang his bell.
On the last day of the retreat, the student went back to see his teacher, utterly exhausted. He felt distraught and confused, but he was no longer fighting it. He said to the master, “I just wanted to know how I was doing in my practice.” This time, the teacher looked at him and with no hesitation, in a very kind voice, said, “If you really want to know how you’re doing in your practice, just look at all of your reactions over the last few days. Just look at your life.”

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