For most people yoga begins with the practice of postures. We “do yoga” when we roll out the mat and engage in some form of physical exercise.
The Yoga-Sutra tells us that to practice yoga is to act consciously, with deliberate intention. Action (karma) includes what we do but also what we think and what we say. Therefore, a complete definition of yoga should encompass this parameter, as it applies to most aspects of life. The Yoga-Sutra calls this Kriya-Yoga – the Yoga of Action.
Some modern-day yogis call this “practicing off the mat”. How can it be done? Can we really be conscious of the way we act, all the time? Is it necessary to add a spiritual belief to asana practice? to chant “om”? In other words, how does yoga practice become more profound?
Step 1 – Mindfulness in practice
Besides attending group classes, practising your own program on a daily basis requires commitment and discipline. The Yoga-Sutra calls it tapas, the effort to make practice a part of daily life. It may include a number of things: postures, conscious breathing exercises, sounds, visualisations, hand placements, gestures… but also a balanced diet and good company, amongst other things. Ideally in personal practice you only do what is suitable for you. Group classes have many benefits for general health and are very good to promote a sense of well-being, but the potential of self-discovery is limited within a group. Everyone tends to follow the same routine at more or less the same pace. The general idea is that everyone has to fit in, with the risk of forcing a round peg into a square hole. In self-practice, on the other hand, there is room for self-exploration. You only do what is appropriate and useful for you.
How do you work out what is good for you? Of course, you can pick postures and breathing exercises by yourself, but it is advisable to ask a senior teacher for a tailored program. In choosing by yourself you may end up doing only what feels good and feeds your existing tendencies. For example, it is common for hyperactive students to enjoy dynamic sequences with lots of movements, without realising that this kind of practice makes their mind more agitated. Therein lies the big question of what we can do, versus what we should do.
Step 2 – Observe
In this case, observing does not consist in watching the external form of your postures in a mirror, but in perceiving the holistic effect of your program. Writing a journal after the practice is a good way to record what came up while doing it but also how you felt after it. Sharing with your mentor or a close friend is also helpful.
Practicing on your own creates a range of experiences: there are moments of focus and moments of distraction; feelings of peace, boredom, anger, and so forth. These may all happen during a one-hour session, or within a few days of doing the same program daily. Of course, you may also swing between different mental states in a group class, but you are more likely to feel their manifestation when you are in your own company.
Working with the body also has the potential to trigger unconscious memories buried in past experiences, so besides the physical sensations there might also be emotions that pop up unexpectedly. This self-enquiry is a cornerstone of the practice. The Yoga-Sutra calls it svadhyaya, literally “investigating yourself”.
The practice mirrors your qualities, flaws and habits, so there is no need to look at yourself in a mirror. You focus on your experience, rather than on what your body looks like. You gradually become aware of the function of the postures rather than their form, or what they might look like on a photo.
Step 3 – Reflect
To reflect is to search for solutions or examine the many sides of the same object. To meditate is to focus our attention on one thing and sustain this attention for some time. In this regard meditation and reflection are one and the same.
You could say, therefore, that meditating on your practice takes your perception to the next level. The time you spend on the mat every day has a lasting effect if it puts you in a state where you can reflect about certain events in your life with a fresh perspective. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, you may notice that you are dealing with it better than you would have a few months ago. Perhaps it is because your mind is less scattered and you are calmer, more grounded, or capable of standing in other people’s shoes.
You may not want to do this every waking hour in every single situation, but if you try often enough you will hopefully identify which habits are healthy for you and which ones are not. An appropriate practice helps you to build positive qualities such as steadiness, patience and clarity of mind, not restlessness and instability.
Step 4 – Adjust
A dual principle is fundamental in yoga philosophy: everything is real, it exists (sat) and everything changes (parinama). If you fall and break a leg, the pain is real and you cannot ignore it. If you score well in an exam, your happiness is real too. Forgive me for stating what might seem obvious! In this respect yoga differs from other Indian philosophical systems which purport that everything is illusory and that only God exists.
But yoga also says that whatever exists is temporary and bound to evolve into something else: another state, another feeling, another moment, another place… The fruit is picked and eaten whole, mashed to a pulp, or made into jam. The seed can be planted to give a new tree. The essence of the fruit is the same but each manifestation is the result of a process of transformation.
Similarly, our individual essence – or consciousness – remains the same but we evolve from childhood to old age in stages. From yoga’s perspective, change is unavoidable. We learn to embrace it rather than fear it. We also learn how to implement certain changes for our own benefit, even if it is very hard to do it without any tension or excessive attachment to projected results.
To keep seeing ourselves as we were before and not as we are now is bound to cause problems, sooner or later. We must try our best to detach, surrender, and give something up to find something new. We need to adjust our practice, as gracefully as possible, in the same way we adjust to every situation in life. Yoga calls this īśvara pranidhāna.
Based on my understanding of the Yoga-Sutra and other classical texts, I believe yoga is all pervasive: it is meant to reach multiple layers in our person and in our life. Like water slowly seeping through the ground to reach the roots, yoga is fluid; it follows the unique terrain of our personality, and it works in subtle ways without us necessarily noticing it.
The inherent spirit of yoga, as described in the Yoga-Sutra, is the adaptation to individual needs. We are invited to trace our own path by choosing among a number of solutions instead of being imposed a single one. The purpose of this journey is two-fold: freedom from pain, and connection with our deep consciousness – the part of us that remains unchanged. Those are ambitious goals! Any practice that helps us to progress on this path is worth implementing but it may not involve yoga postures at all. Some are deeply absorbed in painting or music. Others may thrive on lesser-known yoga techniques such as sound, dialogue, visualisation methods or symbolic gestures. All of us do not have to use the same tools in the same way.
I am not sure if yoga’s ambitious targets can be reached in a lifetime but with an open mind, we can always try. Any attempt to create more peace is bound to bring some reward along the way, and at least we can improve our quality of life. This, for sure, is worth the effort.