timelapsesunsaluteLately I’ve been moving toward a yoga practice that’s less asana focused. Which, for a hatha yoga practitioner, may seem like a contradiction. But after many years of diligently working on expanding my asana repertoire, these days I’ve been living by the mantra “it’s not what you practice, it’s that you practice.” Meaning, it’s not so important which poses I practice, or how many – it’s coming to the mat each day with clarity of intention, and doing something, anything at all, that is authentic, focused practice that matters. 

I used to find a zillion ways to procrastinate. Oh, I’d still practice, but I’d end up being rushed, squeezing it in, and/or by the time I finally got to my mat, having to give up other plans an priorities in order to do a full backbend sequence and get in everything I wanted to “accomplish.”  

This went on for years, and over time, got more and more out of control. Finally I realized that jamming through my practice and then rushing off to wherever I had to be was becoming counterproductive, not supporting me in the way that I want my practice to support me. The idea is to cultivate equanimity, calmness of spirit, and open-heartedness, to become more sattvic. There is both great joy and great learning to be had from working on advanced poses, but when it’s just that… ultimately I now find this an empty experience, one that feeds my ego instead of tempering it.

 So, after many years of practicing advanced asana just about daily, I set out to transform my approach. I decided my practice would serve me better if it were simpler, calmer, and less physically ambitious. The challenge would now be not how far I could stretch my body, but how much internal change I could create by mastering all the little habits I’d developed around my practice, habits that had become obstacles.
I resolved to start with just one change, and that change was not turning on the computer until after I’d practiced. This was a huge challenge. I finally succeeded when I resorted to leaving my laptop locked up in the trunk of my car at night, so that I’d have to make a conscious choice to go against my intentions, and get dressed and go outside to get it in order to lapse into reading e-mail before my practice. After a month or so of this, the habit of starting my day with e-mail had theoretically been replaced by first-thing-in-the morning practice.

I say theoretically because once I’d eliminated turning on the computer before I practiced, a whole host of other distractions rose up to fill the procrastination void, everything from the endless task of re-organizing my to-do list to reading my horoscope and checking the weather report to cleaning up my house. My first response to realizing the computer wasn’t the real problem, but only an especially seductive outlet for what was actually resistance, was to feel discouraged. I’d made this enormous change, and it hadn’t completely transformed my routine. But gradually I realized that was the wrong lesson to take from the experience, and from “look, that didn’t work, so I might was well give up” I moved to “I successfully made one difficult change, and I can work on the underlying issue by continuing to make positive changes.” 

On top of that, perhaps the most important lesson was realizing in a new and very clear way that this is always going to be process, a work in progress, and that it’s not a failure when it’s not perfect. In fact, some struggle and built–in imperfection is part of the deal with practicing. With being human. That’s why we practice. If it were easy, we probably wouldn’t need to.

I credit my long experience with practicing asana for helping me understand the value in perseverance, and also that the process of profound transformation is most often gradual and incremental. 

I’m still working on, and sometimes struggling with, the big picture. For example, I know one upcoming change needs to be instituting an earlier bedtime. I’d like to get up earlier in the morning, to both give myself more time to practice and free up more productive morning hours. The idea of a proscribed (even by myself!) early bedtime for someone with my resistance to rules and authority is not going to be an easy sell. And I still find ways to procrastinate; some mornings and some weeks are better than others. But having now piled up a few victories, made little change after little change, I’ve also built up a great deal more confidence in my ability to make my intention stronger than my habits. I’ve gotten to the point that I do, in fact, practice first thing more mornings than not. 

I’ve also let go of my attachment to getting to advanced asanas in every practice, and now I alternate strenuous practice sessions with quiet, meditation focused practices. I’ve finally integrated, a little more fully, the knowledge that asana practice is ultimately about preparing the body and mind for meditation. An advanced backbend or arm balance practice is sometimes the most fun (and sometimes truly needed, as well). But it’s the quiet, inward focused practice sessions that are often the most satisfying.

And more importantly, I’ve also realized that when time is short, it’s better to do a little practice than to try to cram in too much (aparigrha), or put it off for some theoretical later time when I can devote the two hours or more required for taking my body to the outer limits of its asana capacity. Because I tend toward haphazardness, the consistency of that morning routine is an essential component of creating a saatvic practice; getting myself into vrischikasana orvisvamitrasana is less important. So now, not always, but sometimes, my practice is a basic one: Just some gentle stretching and strengthening to wake my body up and prepare it to sit comfortably for meditation, a bit of clearing and focusing my mind with simple asana and pranayama to balance my state of being and bring it into balance between the ease of sukah and the sense of alertness present tejas, that state of quiet ease and open awareness that is the essence of yoga.