Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Spirit of The Practice

Each day as we get on our yoga mat or meditation cushion, we are making a sincere attempt to direct the mind inwards. This effort is what transforms an asana practice from mere contortionism into a spiritual discipline, or what makes a meditation practice more powerful then simply sitting still and allowing the mind to play with its thought-forms.

Sri Ramana Maharishi advised, “Whatever draws the mind outward is unspiritual, and whatever draws the mind inward is spiritual.” Thus, our yoga practice should be one that works to direct the mind internally, towards Self- realization, and liberation from the cycle of craving and aversion, which stems from our attachments to the external, material world.
However, it is easy for our yoga practice to become some habitual activity that we get up and just fall into each morning instead of a tool for spiritual growth. The question we must ask ourselves is how can we tell if our practice has become some kind of habitual ritualized routine rather then a spiritual discipline, and how do we find the original inspiration for our practice if we feel it has been lost?

The word “habit” typically has a negative connotation, and depicts a regular or repetitive behavior pattern, attitude, tendency, or practice that is somewhat addictive in nature and difficult to give up. On the other hand, “discipline” describes a repeated activity that provides mental or physical training to ensure calm and regulated behavior, and a conscious control over one’s thinking or lifestyle.

Discipline happens when you regularly perform a conscious act, which is beneficial to yourself and aimed toward some higher purpose, even though it would be easier not to make the effort. A habit is something that you would rather not do, but it is very difficult to stop yourself from doing it anyway. Discipline is a conscious choice every time you perform the activity. It takes some volition, dedication, and conviction on the part of the practitioner. Whereas a habit occurs mainly because of our unconscious mind, and the action itself is something performed with very little awareness, or conscious control.

The Yoga Sutras state that we need both practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya) to assist us in our attainment of yoga: “abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” (YS 1:12).

These are often likened the wings of a bird, we need them both in equal strength and measure if we are to succeed in taking flight through this discipline of yoga. We need to practice, but we are not to become dependent on our practices. Hence they do not become merely habitual activities, instead of conscious choices performed with full awareness.

We also need to cultivate an attitude of non-attachment towards the objects and activities of the material world. This is necessary if the yoga practices are to work in directing the mind inwards, instead of allowing distractions to pull our senses and thoughts outwards away from the inner light and truth of our Being.

Swami Prabhavanada says “If we try to practice spiritual disciplines [the eight limbs of yoga] without attempting to control the thought-waves of desire, our minds will become violently agitated and perhaps permanently unbalanced. However, if we attempt nothing more then a rigid negative control of the waves of desire, without raising the waves of love, compassion and devotion to oppose them, then the result may be even more tragic.” (How to Know God the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, p.28)

If we pay close attention we can easily observe whether our yoga practice has morphed into merely a mechanical, rigid, habitual activity, or whether it is still filled with a sense of devotion, joy, and gratitude. This does not mean that our practice will always be blissful, but behind each practice we will discover a sense of shraddha or trust in the process, and courage to face whatever arises without fear or doubt, and ultimately, an aspect of transformation.

If we find that our practice has lost its inspiration, and has become somewhat mechanized, then it can be of great benefit to step back a little, and take a break from the rigorousness of the routine. This does not mean to stop practicing altogether, but learn to relax your expectations for yourself and your practice, be more flexible in your approach, and try to find the inherent joy that brought you to yoga in the first place.

Do less with more awareness.

Find the depth of experience in only practicing a few sun-salutations, or in simply sitting and focusing on breathing deeply and fully, and maintaining a steady concentration on the life-force pulsating through your entire structure. Then, after a few days, and only when you feel ready, return to your regular yoga practice with fresh eyes and a new understanding.

It can be good at times to take a short rest from the full intensity of a regular yoga practice, and to reassess whether you are practicing out of devotion or dependency. Yoga should create more independence and greater freedom from our hindering habits, not become a new addiction or form of enslavement.

If we want to practice yoga as a spiritual discipline, then our practice must draw the mind inward, and create greater awareness and union within ourselves. We must develop sincerity, not seriousness; only a practice with this quality can be rightfully called: Yoga.