Yoga comprises numerous practices—both physical and mental. These can be reduced to two major categories: abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa is the repeated performance of exercises or techniques that are intended to produce a positive state of mind in us. Vairagya is the complementary practice of letting go of old behavior patterns or attachments. Abhyasa gradually reveals to us the deeper, hidden aspects of the mind, while vairagya moves us step by step beyond appearance and toward reality. — Georg Feuerstein
I’d say last week was a medium/good practice week. I view a week as most successful when I get up early and practice first thing each day, including at bit of pranayama and/or meditation before my Friday morning class… and days when my practice gets delayed or derailed altogether are hard on me, even when it’s for necessary reasons. And sometimes, of course, it’s just procrastination, old habits, resistance. It’s funny to think of my practice in terms of success, especially since, at another level, just the fact that I can and do practice yoga regularly fills me with awe and gratitude. But I’m also clear that my intention is to cultivate varaigya and abhyasa with my practice. I can practice asana any old time, but the consistency that I’m working on is much harder than any pose I’ve found myself in during my time on the mat. And it’s easy to measure my progress, since on any given morning, either I practice as intended—or I don’t.
Last week was a mix of days that worked, days that didn’t, and a few in-betweens. A fairly typical week in the life of my practice, actually.
My Monday morning practice gave me a great and promising start. Monday is the day where I try set myself up for the week with a practice grounded in the basics. That can mean sun salutations, standing poses, or inversions, or some combination of those elements. Since I was feeling a strong need for hip openers after a lot of walking and hiking over the weekend, I decided to add some work on padmasana (lotus pose) to an inversions practice. I did work up to lotus, opening fully enough to add it to my sirsasana and then doing it again in supported bridge pose (something that I learned fairly recently and still feel tickled to find myself in), and then finished with shoulderstand plus dropping back into bridge pose. I felt unbelievably good after this practice; I’ll post the sequence later this week for those who want to try it out. Afterwards I spent a productive day reading papers written by my class of apprentices in the Berkeley Yoga Room ‘s Advanced Studies Program about their own yoga practices. All and all, very satisfying, and I was feeling very optimistic about my week at the end of the day. And then…
Tuesday was one of those mornings. I really cannot sit down in my desk chair to look at my schedule and to-do list for the day and reasonably expect to get up again in time to practice. I really know this—my experience here is terribly consistent — but sometimes, especially when the list is feeling out of control, the lure is too strong for me to resist. Then I succumb to the self-deception that I’ll just return a couple of the most important calls, and/or at least organize my list and figure out what the top priorities for the day are, before I practice. That’s one of those lies I tell myself, just like “only one more chapter and then I’ll go to sleep for sure!” And I’ve improved —mostly I do manage to set those things aside for after my practice time. But not always, and not this day. As is typical, one task flowed into another until I needed to eat something and get ready to go. And since Tuesday is currently my busiest teaching day, I knew the chances of fitting in a practice later in the day were remote. Breathe, accept, let go.
Wednesday I had a full schedule and knew from the outset that there wouldn’t be time for a full practice session, so I realistically planned for a shorter practice, using what I think of as my go-to practice sequence. This is an assignment I give in my class on developing a personal practice; it’s what one apprentice referred to as an “emergency practice,” a great concept. The idea is that, as with vegetables, any amount is infinitely better than none, so having a practice or two in your back pocket for busy days helps to ensure that practice doesn’t fall by the wayside altogether. Even ten minutes is better than nothing. This is something we all know but it can be hard to honor that knowledge, especially on a busy day. I have a couple of sequences of varying length for this purpose, and the one I did on Wednesday took about 45 minutes—which is a perfectly acceptable practice, but just a bit disappointing after completely missing my practice the day before. Still, my Wednesday morning practice definitely did its job on a multiple levels. First, knowing time was short, I got right to it with no procrastination. Then I didn’t dally or drag it out, which can sometimes happen (first I can’t get started, then I can’t stop). I stayed focused and it was, as intended, an “efficient” practice. And of course 45 minutes of practice did plenty for my sense of well-being, ease, and energy as I moved into my day. As I preach, so I practice. Or at least, that’s what happened that day.
Thursday I woke up before dawn and gratefully grabbed my opportunity to have a backbend morning. Backbends take longer to warm up for than other poses, and it also takes longer for me to put myself together again afterwards, so a backbend practice can be time consuming and involved. With my early start I had extra time and spent almost 2-1/2 hours, starting with sun salutations and peaking at urdvha dhanurasana 2 (dropping back from standing) before cooling down with shoulderstand and the hip openers I find so necessary following backbends. It was an invigorating and satisfying practice. I really do find backbends to be mood-elevating, and at times, unabashedly joyous. Too bad they’re so hard!
Friday and Saturday are my weekend days. My favorite thing to do on a Friday morning is to meditate, perhaps practicing some pranayama first if there’s time, before going to class with my longtime teacher and mentor, Donald Moyer, at the Yoga Room. It’s always a delight to take Donald’s class and to practice with the community of Bay Area yoga teachers that study with him. If I wake up super early (more likely in the summer), I just might get to stop at a cafe for a chai before class. If I think it’s going to be a mellow practice that day (Donald rotates his teaching focus on a monthly schedule, so I can predict with pretty good accuracy which week we’ll be doing inversions, which twists, etc.) and I have enough time to relax and digest a bit before heading to class, I might even enjoy a pastry with my tea. This is my idea of a perfect start to the weekend.
That ideal morning only happens once in a while, though. Far more often, I have phone calls and other loose ends that have piled up during the week to deal with, and I try to squeeze some of that in between meditating and rushing off to class. And this Friday, something work-related came up in the course of those calls that prevented me from getting to class at all. It was too late by that time to get any personal practice in that morning, so I substituted an evening class with Katrina LaShea at my own studio, Alameda Yoga Station. I thought this was a clever strategy — since practice put off until afternoon or evening is much less likely to happen, it was a way to ensure not skipping my yoga practice altogether that day. And as it turned out, it was also a lovely end to both my day and my practice week. Afternoon found me writing and working (student papers, studio admin work, endless, endless emails) at my favorite cafe, Julie’s Tea Garden, just a few blocks from my studio. It should have been easy to get to an evening class from there, but as the time grew nearer, I had to wrestle with myself to turn off the computer and rush up to the studio. And of course, as soon as I was there, lying over a bolster and sinking into my breath, I was so glad to have kept my promise to myself. And yet, so often it is a struggle to make that soul-nourishing choice. Later in the day, I prefer a gentle practice, and Katrina’s class was perfect for what I needed — a mix of standing poses and forward bends sandwiched between relaxation at the beginning and end of the practice. An hour-and-a-half of yoga at the end of the day was immeasurably better than an extra hour or two at the computer would have been. So why was it even in question?
Having satisfactorily completed my practice week, I started my Saturday morning with a bit of hip stretching and a short (15 minute) meditation session, and then rolled up my mat and put it away until Monday. Most often I don’t practice at all on Saturday or Sunday, but having missed a couple of my regular mornings, I wanted to reinforce the routine and the ritual of practice that I’m striving to observe, so the Saturday morning meditation was a nod to cultivating vairagya.
The Georg Feuerstein quote above resonates for me. To some extent I’ve mastered the abhyasa half of the equation—I really practice. I practice steadily, usually five or six days a week, occasionally four, virtually never less than that. Although I take most weekends off, it’s incredibly rare for me to miss more than two days a row, and when that did happen on a recent vacation, I felt it. And my regular practice does bless me with a profound sense of well-being, manifesting both in physical ease and a “positive state of mind” as Mr. Feuerstein promises.
If someone had told me at the beginning of my yoga journey that I would make yoga so central in my life and develop this kind of dedicated practice, it would have been unfathomable to me. It’s happened organically, not because I’m a super-disciplined person—I’m truly not!—but because I’ve had a strong desire to follow this path as it has unfolded before me, and to reap the benefits. And as I have, my habitual thoughts and unconscious behaviors have indeed been revealed to me. I’ve come face to face with my lack of discipline, and other flaws and challenges have become clearer. The journey of self-exploration is not for the faint of heart; there is always a mixture of gold and muck waiting to be discovered. As I’ve watched my personality, quirks and habits through the lens of my practice, I’ve unavoidably seen what changes need to be made in order to grow. So vairagya has become a larger focus, as I attempt to give up procrastination, resistance to limits and rules, and let go of trying to do everything, become simpler and more focused. And I have to admit it’s a bit scary to contemplate. Those pieces of me each developed for a reason. They may have outlived their usefulness but there’s no doubt that they’re part of my identity and anchor me to a sense of who I am. Practicing yoga and meditation has given me tiny glimpses of samadhi, of the infinite. Haven’t most of us had the occasional sense, following an especially deep or blissful practice — of the kind of spiritual merging the yoga texts speak of?
So I wonder, with some trepidation, if I continue on this path, and really move fully into the vairagya phase of the journey… if I become the person who practices every single day with discipline, serenity and surrender… who will I be then? Will I be giving up something of the essential “I” of me? Where will that take me, and am I ready to go that far?
If I give up what I am, I become what I might be.
— Lao Tzu