In the first few words of his Yoga Sutras, one of yoga's classical texts, Patanjali defines the practice of yoga as "the effort to maintain the cessation of thought." It's immediately interesting to me that Yoga is not the cessation of thought, but rather the effort to maintain the cessation of thought. It is not a destination, but rather a journey of patience and repeated effort. He goes on to say that our yoga practice becomes "firmly grounded when it is performed for a long time, without interruption, and with zeal." (Sutra 1:13-14)
Words matter and I find it interesting that yogis call going to a yoga class or doing yoga as practicing yoga. Practice. I found the word and its associated concepts compelling enough to display first on my website and business card. It's just one short word that some of us use all the time, but it has some depths worth exploring that I'd like to share with you. So, here are 5 things I've learned about yoga as a practice:
1. PRACTICE connotes a process or a journey. Whether it's practicing for a recital, the next game or match, or the next gig or presentation - when we practice, we admit that there is space between where we are and where we're heading. Our practice is an attempt to close that gap little by little. All it costs is a little repeated time and effort.
2. It's practice; NOT a performance! Unlike other things we might practice for, the practice of yoga will have no audience - it's all practice. What that means is that there is no one to praise, judge, or critique how we've done - nor will there ever be. In yoga, safe alignment matters, but [unless you're a photographer or a graphic editor] aesthetics doesn't. This is why there can never be an external evaluator of our yoga experience. The things that matter in our practice are the things only we can observe. We are the only ones who know how our body truly feels as we practice. Only we know how often we really practice. Only we can see our true attitude toward our practice, and our inner dialogue throughout. But with no judge or audience, it's easy be tempted into judging and critiquing ourselves, our body, our mind, and our yoga experience. Sometimes we can carry this further by sending our judgmental attitudes outward to our yoga classmates or teacher. When I fall into this trap of self-criticism, it's helpful for me to remember that I am the one who chooses what role I am to play in my own yoga practice; and being a happy, indifferent, and willing participant makes for a better experience than when I'm the critical judge. Comparison is the thief of joy, and I prefer a little joy in my practice.
~I am the one who chooses what role I am to play in my own yoga practice; and being a happy, indifferent, and willing participant makes for a better experience than when I'm the critical judge.~
3. PRACTICE is a tacit admission of imperfection. Just as when we brush our teeth, we're silently displaying that our mouth could be cleaner, when we practice yoga we admit our body and minds could be healthier. But just as with brushing teeth, when we practice yoga, we simultaneously observe, admit, and address our shortcomings. In a world that sometimes begs for perceptions of perfection, it can be a tremendous relief to spend time in a place where we can be perfectly imperfect - even in a yoga class with complete strangers.
4. PRACTICE implies investment & value. Market economics may never make sense of the yoga phenomenon. From a cold economic perspective, a yoga class appears to be humans moving all about expending energy, yet not producing anything tangible with market value. What a waste of scarce time and energy resources, right?! Well no. Those of us who practice yoga know it is a gem of great value. No its worth cannot be extrinsically calculated in a spreadsheet and no, it will not help the value of your portfolio rise to unprecedented levels. Yoga provides us with an intrinsic value that comes from getting to know ourselves and our bodies better - making us all the more capable and comfortable in our own skin. Yoga takes us on a journey toward self-healing and self-awareness which inevitably lead to right action and wise inaction. This is why some interpret their yoga path as not only a physical, but also a spiritual endeavor as well. No these intrinsic benefits cannot be purchased with money, nor can they be inherited by wealthy heirs. The value of your yoga is proportionate to your time spent in practice. You can't outsource your practice to another. Only you can practice your yoga and the more you invest in your practice, the more returns you'll reap. Subsequently, the more valuable you see your time spent in practice, the more likely you'll make time for your practice. As K. Pattabhi Jois, the late great father of the Ashtanga style of yoga, once quipped, "do your practice; all is coming."
5. PRACTICE implies repetition and time. "The right way is the hard way," is how Birkram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga puts it; and there is no harder thing for most of us than to find time in our busy lives for a routine yoga practice. I remind myself that great athletes do not rise to the top of their sport by practicing only once; and world-class musicians are not just one and done with their instruments before the big show. Rarely, if ever, do we practice something only once, because everything worthwhile takes time. Practice is something we do and do again "for a long time" as Patanjali states, "and without interruption." In a world that promises simple solutions, quick fixes, and instant remedies, yoga promises a transformational experience but requires your time.