Creating and Maintaining a Practice

We all come to the practice of yoga for different reasons. Most of us are initially attracted to the physical benefits, but it won’t be long before we notice that a dedicated practice has the power to totally transform every aspect of our lives. Having a daily discipline is like an anchor: No matter what kinds of seas we are sailing, whether stormy or calm, our practice gives us the possibility to ground down and find our centre.

A spiritual discipline is called a sadhana, which is a daily practice that helps us to go beyond the ego. It doesn’t matter the particular practice that we choose, since all paths lead to the same destination. But what is this elusive destination we are searching for? And how can getting on our yoga mat to bend and breathe help us to find the answer? These are the questions that have been asked by seekers and sages for thousands of years, and their wisdom and experience give us the answers that we have been looking for.

We might have pursued all kinds of avenues to find happiness and inner peace. We might have pursued love; money; prestige; adventure; drugs or any kind of thrill-seeking activity, but they always come up short. If they remain out of our reach, we crave for them and suffer; and if we achieve them, once the experience is over, we crave for something else. As long as we think that happiness and fulfillment comes from something, or that peace is only possible when the outside environment is steady, we are setting ourselves up for a lot more pain and disappointment. A daily sadhana gives us the tools to discover this truth for ourselves, so that we can turn our focus inwards and learn how to steady our inner environments so that we can find the wellspring eternal bliss.

In his audio book The Yoga Matrix, Richard Freeman says, “what tastes like nectar in the beginning is poison in the end; and what tastes like poison in the beginning becomes sweet nectar…” Resolving to begin a sadhana might initially feel like a duty or a punishment, but with patience and persistence; committing to show up every day, even for just five conscious breaths, brings a quality of depth and wisdom to every aspect of our lives. Having a regular practice is something beyond the scope of language. It moves something in us that is impossible to describe. With time and dedicated practice, our physical body, mind and internal chemistry undergoes a great transformation.

A practice cultivates the ability to compromise; it gives us the capacity to be flexible and learn how to adapt. Practice is not a rigid, stagnant thing, but if we approach it with rigidity there will come a point where something breaks. Instead, practice is an individual process which grows with us and changes with the seasons. It is a sacred tool that gives us the ability to connect to and learn to love and accept ourselves in totality. To be able to maintain our sadhana, we must learn to be soft- not necessarily in our bodies, but rather in our minds. As the saying goes, we must learn to bend so we don’t break.

The Tao Te Ching, Verse 76:

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
This whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.

A daily practice is a clear mirror and it reflects every part of our inner landscape: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we are alone with ourselves and our sensations, it can sometimes become an overwhelming experience, and that is why so many run away from the practice. But the beautiful thing about yoga is that we always have the opportunity to start again. Even if we have run away and come back one hundred times over, there is no reason to feel shame or condemn ourselves about it! It was a necessary part of the story of who we are. With kindness and gentleness, the practice allows us a space to feel and process the emotions that we have stored deep at the core of our beings, and striving to come back and try again, even when it’s uncomfortable, creates a deep strength from within.

Having a daily sadhana is like a marriage. There will be a honeymoon period where everything feels easy and natural. But no matter what practice we choose, eventually the novelty will wear away and we will be confronted with discomfort. Then, it gets juicy. Sometimes practice feels light, easy and fun but a lot of the time it’s work and compromise. And just like a romantic relationship, there might come a time where we need to break up with our practice. Whether it’s after a month or after a decade, knowing when it’s time to move on and find a practice that better suits our needs is more authentic than forcing ourselves to do something that only brings us misery.

But this is a fine line: how can we know if the practice is really not good for us, or if it’s just a pattern of avoidance? A good “trial” period for any kind of practice is 40 days. If after 40 days of giving it your best, if there is nothing but hate, pain or spite, then it is time to find something else. However, if there are more good feelings than negative feelings, you can have a little bit of security to know this is a path to stick with for a little while. Once you have found something that generally feels good and allows you an opportunity to create space and ease within yourself, it is important to keep going. Doing the same practice is important, instead of simply jumping from one school to the next. This might be incredibly confronting since it will eventually force us to face our individual patterns of avoidance or obsession. But with a little bit of persistence and a whole lot of patience, we can learn to soften, even around these age old patterns which affect every aspect of our lives.  

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that practice will look different every day. Staying with the same system is beneficial, but even more so is allowing ourselves to modify the practice as necessary.  

In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the concept of Abhyasa and Vairagya is introduced, which means cultivating a dedicated practice without being attached to the results. It is written: “Practice means choosing; applying the effort and doing those actions that bring a stable and tranquil state; When practice is done for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion, then the practice becomes firmly rooted; a stable and solid foundation.“ (1:13-1:14)

When we engage in a spiritual discipline for a long time without a break, there becomes a kind of crystallized intensity. Anything can become a spiritual discipline with intention, whether it’s long distance running or long meditations. Yet remember that even yoga postures can just be a mechanical show: the intention and awareness is what makes the difference.

How to choose the right practice?

With so many different styles and paths, it can be very confusing to know which practice is the right one for us. It begins by knowing ourselves and gaining a realistic vision of where we want to go or what we are looking for. Our quest to find the right practice might begin for purely egotistical or narcissistic reasons, but any discipline done for long enough will take us beyond these surface desires to the real root of ourselves.

Our age and or stage of life has a big impact on knowing which practice is right for us, as does our physical health and personal abilities. For example, a young, healthy and vibrant person might be better suited to a more vigorous and athletic form of practice such as ashtanga vinyasa yoga. Whereas someone who is a bit older or who is working through injury or illness would find more peace in a quieter discipline such as meditation or tai chi.

It is also important to consider our life circumstances and the amount of free time we have to devote to practice. A busy mom for example cannot dedicate the same amount of time and energy to a practice that is possible for a student or a retiree. Furthermore, it is essential that we choose something that we like to do, and that challenges our minds and bodies, even if just a little bit. Keeping our practice goals realistic and attainable are a way to ensure success in keeping up.

4 Paths of Yoga

Yoga is often referred to as a system of controlling or focusing the mind and body in order to find inner peace. But gaining mastery over our senses is just one of four paths of how we can find and create union within ourselves. In the timeless epic “The Bhagavad Gita” four styles or paths of union are described. They are:

  • Raja Yoga (also known as classical yoga, the ability to focus, concentrate and centre the mind and body)
  • Karma (the practice of selfless service)
  • Jnana (continuous study of scriptures and wisdom)
  • Bhakti (practices of devotion)

To meditate or not to meditate?

We might initially be more attracted to one style or path but with a long and dedicated practice, all four paths will find their way into our lives.

We might think that in order to meditate, we have to be calm. But this is like saying in order to take a bath, we first have to be clean. Yet if we have never practiced a mental discipline before, sitting still with closed eyes for meditation is a very unrealistic feat: instead of bringing us calmness we are only left feeling frustrated. This is why it is helpful to begin the journey of meditation with a body-centred practice, which allows us to find and cultivate the space of inner stillness while engaged in movement. If the practice of stillness mediation is something that you would like to begin, it is best to start slowly with short meditations. Five minutes every day is more effective than twenty minutes once a week.

How to maintain the practice

Finding a discipline that we connect to is just the first step; maintaining that discipline is another story. A sincere practice is not for the faint of heart and showing up day after day, year after year requires a strong sense of inner strength. It might often feel like we are making two steps forward, one step back, but in reality it’s only forward. No matter how many times we fall off the path, the practice will always be there and welcome us back with open arms. Like Krishna shares with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita “any effort on this path never goes to waste”. Even people who spend their whole lives jumping from one discipline to the next, simply scratching the surface will receive some benefit. But if we really desire to reach the true jewels of practice; If we sincerely want to transform ourselves, we have to go deep.

A daily discipline creates what is known as Tapas, which means an internal heat or fire which burns up our old beliefs, hurts and traumas.  and allows us to see reality through a clear, unadulterated lens. In the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga sutra, Tapas is explained: “Through ascesis or training of the senses (tapas), there comes a destruction of mental impurities, and an ensuing mastery or perfection over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions.” (2:43 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati )

I like to compare Tapas to building a fire. Every day, we come to our practice and light a flame. Just like building a fire, if you start with three big logs, the fire will not take. But if you start with kindling- small pieces of dry wood, then a small fire can take shape. Once the small fire is burning, then we can add the big logs. The same principle can be applied to our daily discipline. If we try to do too much too soon, the practice will not be able to stick. It is important to start small and build slowly. Some days we will only have the energy to maintain that small fire made from kindling, and some days we will only have the motivation to light a match. What we do- how big of a fire we build- is not the most important. What matters is that we show up.

Sometimes we need experts to help guide us or to help us find the path again. We get lost in the jungle of sensation and we need someone to remind us where we must go. A teacher or a guide can help us to know our limits or to push us when we need a bit of motivation. Consulting an expert, someone who has walked the path themselves, can help us to know how to modify our practice in times of injury or stress and how to progress in our practice when the time is right.

To sustain a daily discipline, it can also be helpful to continuously revisit our motivation for practice. Is it for recognition? Acknowledgement? Pride? Fame? Or is it a sincere desire to feel peaceful within ourselves? It is very common to fall into the trap of feeling we need to perform our practice, and that our self-worth is dependent on this performance, which can make our daily sadhana feel like a duty or a chore. If instead, we reset our internal practice compass every day and keep our desire for peace and vitality at the forefront of our minds, the likelihood of feeling motivated to practice will be higher. This allows us to make the necessary modifications when needed without feeling a sense of shame or guilt.

On this path, we also need to be able to discern between:

  • Obsession versus discipline
  • Laziness versus rest
  • Pain versus discomfort

Finding a balance between these pairs might be a lifetime of work and unfortunately, it is often hard to know the difference. Sometimes the pendulum will swing too far to one side, which then makes it even more challenging to find the right course of action. This is one of the many benefits of sustaining a sadhana for a long time: the longer we practice, the more we become familiar with these concepts and it becomes easier to find the middle way. A dedicated practice allows us to get to know ourselves and our unique rhythms so deeply that we know how to take responsibility for ourselves .

Tips For Success

  • Connect to a community of like-minded people or practitioners for support.
  • Connect to or visit a teacher for growth and inspiration.
  • It is essential to know our limits and know when we need to make a change.
  • A beginner’s mind is always the best tool; the more we learn, the less we know; stay humble and open.
  • Small efforts consistently are better than big efforts sporadically.
  • Practice is usually suggested for the morning since this is generally the quietest time of day, but it doesn’t have to be so. Any time of day that you can fit in your practice is the right time.
  • Live simply.
  • Keep your space tidy.
  • Eat to fuel your body and support your practice.

Wishing you the best of luck in your practice!