Yogi Assignment: Abhyasa-Practice
Just because I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years doesn’t mean that I wake up every day filled with enthusiasm to practice. I think about yoga as one of the foundational relationships of my life. I have a relationship with my practice and just like any longterm committed relationship I go through phases with it. When I first started practicing I went through what you could call the “honeymoon” period of practice. During that time I just couldn’t get enough yoga. I would eat, breathe and sleep yoga if I could. I tried to recruit every person I spoke with to come to class with me because yoga was just the best thing ever. After I finished practice I would hang out with yoga friends and talk about yoga. Then when I went home I’d read books about yoga. I’d even dream about yoga! Of course, that didn’t last forever. It did last for a good few years though.
Since that initial period where I fell in love with the practice I’ve gone through cycles of doubt, disillusionment, boredom, laziness, and general neglect. I have also experienced deepening, maturing, ripening, subtlety, grace, peacefulness, wisdom and love. Through it all the single defining feature of my life has been that I have managed to get on my yoga mat approximately six days a week for the last 20 years. The practice is the essence of what I’ve committed myself to and I have not really wavered in that. Not every practice has been monumental. Most practices in fact have been humble and quiet. Some were certainly sloppy and lazy. Others still were gentle and modified. But all take the form of the Ashtanga Yoga method. It might be hard to understand how one style of yoga can be done in so many different ways, but perhaps my ability to accept the differences in what constitutes practice day after day is what has allowed me to keep practicing all these years. If I need to modify because of an injury, I accept it. If I need to take to it easy because I’m jet lagged, I accept it. If I feel energetic and can work my lifts ups, I celebrate it. If I feel flexible and find access to inner depth, I explore it. The one thing that I do that is the same every day is that I listen to my body with an attitude of patience, acceptance and kindness.
Since I normally practice alone at home there are very few people there with me to celebrate my highs and lows. I cry, laugh, breathe with no one there to share the journey. It’s mostly just me and my mat. I cherish the rare times that I get to go to class and practice with my teacher. Those precious few moments keep me inspired throughout many months of self-practice. Sometimes my husband joins me for practice, but mostly not. Sometimes I share my practice online, but mostly not. The spiritual path is essentially a solitary journey. This is true regardless of whether or not you practice in a group or alone at home. While there are friends and community to lift you up and support your process, it is always your process. No one can do the work of practice but you.
What motivates me to practice is the very same seed that drew me to the yoga practice to start with—the search for peace. No matter how sloppily or lazily I practice I always feel better after a few minutes spent on the yoga mat. Part therapy, part prayer, the practice is my space to work out my stuff and be a better human being. Moving the body helps me work through my thought and emotions and also grounds my mind. Each day I recommit myself to the inner work of the spiritual path and I express that commitment by unrolling my yoga mat and practicing.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Abhyasa—Practice.
1. A little yoga is better than no yoga. You don’t need to practice for hours and hours each day (but you can if you want to). You only need as little as five minutes to make a palpable shift in your body and mind. So many people skip their practice because they don’t have the time to do a full hour or more. It’s better to get on your mat for five minutes than not at all. Instead of making it an all-or-nothing experience, accept the days when you only have a limited amount of time to practice. Even a few minutes spent on your mat can really make a difference.
2. Even if you don’t think you can do it, just start. Sometimes even when you have the time the idea of doing a complete practice feels daunting. You may feel like you don’t have the energy or just that there are too many poses. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the idea of doing a long practice and it makes me not want to start. If I just think about how many poses there are in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series I sometimes get exhausted and think I won’t have the energy to complete the practice. It can feel overwhelming to think that you have to do all the poses. Instead of projecting forward to all the asanas that you might do in any given practice, be present with only the asana that you’re working with. Break the practice up into small chunks and give yourself permission to stop after five minutes. Then after five minutes of Sun Salutations ask yourself if you want to continue. If your body says yes, then continue. But if not, then give yourself permission to stop. Usually I find that if I can just start there is an energy that pulls me forward. It’s like the practice has a certain momentum and as long as I start it usually gives me the energy I need to finish.
3. Put your yoga clothes on. If you set an intention to practice first thing in the morning then get out of bed and slip right into your yoga clothes. If your intention is to practice after work when you get home, then change right away. If feels easier to get started with the practice when you’re already dressed for the occasion.
4. Watch an inspiring video or put a practice video on. If I’m feeling unmotivated to practice all I have to do is hear my teacher’s voice counting me through the practice and I instantly feel an urge in my body to start moving. Whether you use the video to guide you through the practice or just to bring yourself on to your mat, yoga videos can be a huge support for your practice.
5. Stay a student of yoga forever. Over the last 20 years I’ve made annual trips to India to continue to my study of Ashtanga Yoga. Whenever I have a trip planned to India it motivates me to practice ahead of the trip. Then while I’m there I feel immersed in the method as a student and I get recharged and inspired. Without these scheduled times to practice as a student each year I would not have been able to maintain the inspiration to both practice and teach all these years. If you’re a new teacher the first thing that often happens is that you end up losing your inspiration to practice or that you sacrifice your personal practice for teaching. Make time to go to class or plan a trip to see your teacher so that you can stay connected with the feeling of being a student of yoga.