The Nature of Practice



Abhyasa/Practice: Abhyasa means having an attitude of persistent effort to attain and maintain a state of stable tranquility

Sutra 1.13

Practice is the effort to secure steadiness.

Sutra 1.14

This practice becomes well-grounded when continued without interruption over a long period of time.

What does Patañjali mean by practice. Near the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, he gives us some solid, practical advice.

Initially, the goal of yoga is to steady the mind, to clear it of chatter and random impulses. Patañjali defines practice (abhyasa) as the effort of will required to achieve stability in that calm and clear state, though not without a significant caveat:

You may start to feel the benefits of your practice immediately, but you are only going to become well-grounded in the practice—able to summon up a calm and clear state with minimum effort, or even find yourself living permanently in a state of mental ease—after much dedicated effort. Patañjali has something to say about just this point:

Sutra 1.21

The goal is near for those who practice with extreme intensity.

Sutra 1.22

Thus, there will be a difference if the effort put into practice is mild, moderate or great.

The physical practice is only a small part of Yoga. The simple techniques we learn and refine in the context of the physical practice we can take out into our daily life, driving to work, waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, interacting with our coworkers, our family and loved ones. The entirety of your life can become a yoga practice, the hours of training the mind required to achieve expertise and mastery of the state of yogic equanimity ticking away, moment by moment.

Vairagya/Non-attachment: The essential companion is non-attachment. Learning to let go of the many attachments, aversions, fears, and false identities that are clouding the true Self.

Practice is not, however, the only thing needed to achieve this desirably peaceful state of being. We also require an attitude of dispassion (vairagya).

Sutra 1.15

Dispassion is mastered when all things outside oneself, be they directly perceived with the senses or conceptually understood, no longer evoke cravings or attachments.

Sutra 1.16

The highest form of this dispassion comes when even the underlying qualities of the material universe cease to evoke cravings or attachments and one becomes aware of one’s true self as separate from the material universe.

In order to have some conscious control over our responses to the world around us, we need to find a way to become aware of the thoughts and impulses that emerge from the deep recesses of our minds as they become manifest. Without that, our attention will forever become distracted and our actions will always be another link a chain of cause and consequence. We will always be the servant of events rather than the master of them. An attitude of dispassion gives us the time, even if that time is only a fraction of a second, to be objective in any given situation and to act consciously and with discernment.

In order to calm the mind and return it to what Patañjali considers its natural state we must practice being centered and mentally poised. We might be able to achieve that poise through sheer will-power, but such self-control is merely a holding, a containment of deeper forces. It may create external change, but the deep causes of our suffering, our distraction, our dissipation will not be eradicated. They may even be reinforced. We cannot effectively achieve the radical reorientation of our awareness that will free us from the suffering of everyday existence without an attitude of dispassion.

Practice is effortful, an adding of energy. Dispassion is effortless, a withdrawal of energy from those things that might unhinge us and effect the world around us in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and others. Practice without dispassion can lead to rigidity and inflexibility, whereas dispassion without practice can lead to ennui and melancholy. The practitioner must be at once purposeful and detached. You can see how this might taken hours to master.

Exercise: Abhyasa/Practice

The goal of this exercise is to give you the experience of working with the mind over an extended period. Decide for yourself before you begin the length of time you will practice this exercise. It could be half an hour or an hour. It could be an entire day. As you go about your regular activities, pause what you are doing as many times as you can remember and count ten of your breaths. At the end of the period of time, ask yourself these questions: How many times did you remember to count your breaths? If you did remember, how much did you resist and/or decide not to bother?

Exercise: Vairagya/Dispassion

This exercise is about becoming aware of your impulses. As with the previous exercise, decide in advance the length of time you will practice this. This exercise works better over a longer period of time, perhaps several hours or an entire day. You will need to choose one impulse on which to focus. Perhaps you have a habit, such as biting your nails or constantly checking your email. Perhaps you know you have a particular craving at a particular time of day, such as coffee in the mornings or some kind of snack in the afternoon. Choose an impulse that comes to you several times a day.

When you have the impulse, or feel the desire, you do not have to stop yourself. Do your best not to make this about self-denial. The purpose of the exercise is to develop self-awareness. Instead, simply acknowledge to yourself that the impulse has surfaced. Look back over your thoughts and recall the sequence of events. Say you bite your fingernails, for example. Recall the moment you realized you were biting them. Recall the moment when you brought your finger to your mouth. Recall the feeling that made you bring your finger to your mouth. Recall the moment before you had that feeling.

If you do this every time you have and/or succumb to the impulse, after a while see if you can observe the sequence of events as it happens. Once you are able to do this, see if you can allow yourself to pause between the feeling of the impulse and the resulting act. Again, you are not denying yourself anything here. Take that pressure off yourself. Simply allow yourself a moment of time, no matter how small, before giving energy to the impulsive act. Observe what happens to the impulses as you repeat the practice over time.


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