As a yoga teacher, the question I hear most often from my students is how and what they should practice. Attending yoga classes and workshops, reading yoga books, and viewing yoga videos are helpful ways to get a practice going and established. Students should also ask themselves, “What do I want to get out of my practice?” to help inspire a personalized plan to motivate and deepen the practice. But however great the plan, it’s just a plan without the discipline to put it into action.
B.K.S. Iyengar, in his book Light on the Yoga Sutras, says practice requires four qualities from a student: dedication, zeal, uninterrupted awareness and long duration. Sutra 1.14 states, “a practice is firmly established only if one engages in it seriously and respectfully over a long uninterrupted period.” This sutra is a reminder that the practice of yoga is a journey and it evolves and changes as the student evolves and changes.
The zeal, or Tapas, Mr. Iyengar speaks of is the necessary effort needed to start and keep a practice going. Tapas is defined in the Sutras as “intense, disciplined effort.” According to the Sutras this effort or discipline can be channeled in two ways: one, towards practices that enhance our growth and evolution, and the second towards practices of renunciation or detachment that eliminate behaviors and beliefs that do not serve our spiritual growth
or connection to our Higher Self.
The first one, abhyasa, include practices like yoga asanas, study of the Yamas and Niyamas and applying them into daily situations, pranayama, or any practice that enhances our spiritual connection. Vairagya, the second one, is the practice of deliberately eliminating or letting go of habits or things that feel negative or not supportive of our wellbeing. Examples of these are cutting out sugar from our diet, stopping smoking or drinking, watching less TV, or eliminating as much as possible criticism of self or others in our daily conversations. Mr. Iyengar calls Abhyasa and Vairagya the “twin pillars” of yoga–the practices that bring about transformation and progress in yoga.
In the beginning of any practice, effort and discipline are required to bring about the changes we’d like to have. The word discipline often has a harsh connotation. Webster’s Dictionary says discipline can mean punishment, control gained by enforcing obedience or order. Each student must come up with their own definition that works for them–so that practice is not too rigid or restricting, or too loose and never happens. The student’s definition of discipline will accompany the attitude taken into a yoga practice.
Sutra 11.46, Sthira sukham asanam, states, “Asana is both firm and soft.” This definition refers to both a physical posture and an attitude. Discipline defined as intense zeal or effort is needed to get us started, moving, and onto the mat. The ability to be firm in the pose brings stability. Stability comes from balance and concentration (dharana). If firmness is not balanced with softness or an attitude of receptivity, the practice or pose will be rigid, or possibly hurtful. Softening is the ability to let go and be receptive to what ever comes up–the stretch, the opening, the body’s message to go deeper or come out. Practicing this way cultivates an attitude of allowing ourselves to feel and experience how each pose impacts us. Then each pose becomes “action and reflection in harmony.” This receptive attitude leads to a balanced practice, with respect for the body and its needs, and becomes a metaphor for living–not too tight, not too loose.