Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Yoga Sutra I.12-14: "The vacillating waves of perceptions are stilled through consistent earnest practice and dispassionate non-attachment. Of these two, practice is the continuous struggle to become firmly established in the stable state of the Truth Self. That practice is indeed firmly grounded when it is pursued incessantly, with reverence, for a long time."

I talk about repetition a lot. That is because it is inherently imbedded in what we do. We are students learning how to practice yoga. The word practice literally means "a habit;" "a repetitive action for the purpose of acquiring skills." Its Latin roots mean "to do; to act." As yoga practitioners, we are defined in part by the repetition of our actions.

Etymologically, to repeat means "to go toward again" and "to strive for again" (re-: "again" + petere: "to go to," "to reach towards"). It is how we gain ground, literally and figuratively. To literally put one foot in front of the other in a repetitive manner is obviously called walking, and it causes you to go toward some real thing. Likewise, one figurative foot in front of the other leads you toward understanding and achievement. Repetition is the means by which we move forward, the means by which we reach toward something we want or need.

In Sanskrit, one word for "practice" is abhyasa. The first part of the word -- abhya -- means "intense" and "repetitious." The second part of the word -- asa -- means "to sit" and "to be established." It is the same root that forms the word asana which literally means "a fixed position." So abhyasa means to be established in intense repetition. The Sanskrit words for "multiply," "exercise," "study," and "strive for" are all very closely related to the word abhyasa, and you can see in each of them a similar idea: the necessity of repetition.

It is more than just repetitiveness, though. Patanjali's fourteenth Sutra says that practice is achieved from continuous action performed for a long time (see post "What Does Dirgha-Kala Mean?"). It is necessary that the repetition be done with respect and graciousness; it must be in the context of gaining some greater good or as an offering to some higher purpose. Remember, yoga is a means by which you are affecting change, but change for a specific reason. Yoga practice is an act established in repetitive action with the intention of changing your body first, and then your something-more-than-just-a-body, from one state to another. Through the endurance of intense experiences, you are moving toward things like strength, patience, resolve, and humility. But it isn't strong for the mere sake of strength, nor is it humbling for the mere sake of humbleness. It is because those are qualities and capacities with which you move toward the steady, non-vacillating state of existence which is the whole underlying premise of Yoga. That is the way you affect change: through the endurance of repetitive, reverent intensity.

This idea fits into the conversation of "form, function, refined form" from last time. Recall that "form" answers the question "what am I doing?", "function" answers the question "why am I doing it?", and "refined form" answers the question "how am I doing it?" We used Down-dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) to answer what, why, and how: Down-dog's "form/what" is an inverted-V, its "function/why" is a counter-pose to back bends, and its "refined form/how" is a particular positioning and engagement of the body determined by its function.

Your practice as a whole follows a similar pattern; it also answers what, why, and how. When you are on your sticky mat, the "form/what" of your practice is the sequence of poses you are practicing. It could be alignment-based, vinyasa flow, yin, restorative, a public class, at home, beginner or advanced, or any other variation thereof. What am I doing? I am performing asana.

"Function/why" provides purpose. Yoga is hard; it is too hard to do without a good reason. Your purpose, your intention, for practicing keeps you focused and motivated. When your body is strong, flexible, and healthy, you are much more likely to create that same kind of fitness and wellness for your mind and your heart. In other words, physical well-being leads to mental and emotional well-being. That is nearly universally why people invest so deeply into yoga: they want to feel better inside and out. So the "function/why" of your asana practice is to cause physical change in order to eventually cause other types of change. Why am I doing it? Because it affects me.

However, physical fitness does not necessarily entail mental or emotional fitness. The former does lead to the latter, but only with the proper "refined form/how." Remember when we changed our answer to the question why in regards to "why am I practicing Down-dog?" When its function is to counter-act back bends, Down-dog requires a certain use of position and engagement which is different when its function is a means of hopping from the back of the mat to the front. In order to know how to perform any individual pose well, you must first know why you are doing it. Likewise, in order to know how to practice yoga well in a broader sense, you must first know why you are practicing it at all.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra answers "what" and "why" in its opening verses. Verse one and two say "You are engaged in the act of yoga which will stop the disturbed nature of the mind." Verse three says "You want that because an undisturbed mind is free and liberated, the way it is meant to be." Because Patanjali understands that that is easier said than done, the rest of the Sutra explains "refined form/how." How am I doing it? How do I do it well? Again, he tells us that yoga must be practiced continuously and reverently for a long time. In other words, I do it well by doing it frequently, endlessly, and respectfully.

This doesn't just apply to yogasana. The formula isn't particular to yoga poses. The same is true if your practice is seated meditation, or scriptural study, or mantra chanting, or gardening, or writing poetry, or parenting, or nearly anything else for that matter. Ask yourself what am I doing, why am I doing it, how do I do it well? And because every what has its own why, and every why has its own how, the questions are ceaselessly repetitive; not merely for the sake of repetitiveness, remember, but because that is the way we progress, that is how we move forward, that is putting one foot in front of the other in order to reach toward what you most want and need. Therein, yoga becomes an abiding walking meditation.

Yoga Sutra I.12-14: "The vacillating waves of perceptions are stilled through consistent earnest practice and dispassionate non-attachment. Of these two, practice is the continuous struggle to become firmly established in the stable state of the Truth Self. That practice is indeed firmly grounded when it is pursued incessantly, with reverence, for a long time."
(Stiles, Mukunda. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2002. Print.)


  1. I have learned so much about my body, my thoughts and my emotions since I've started taking formal yoga classes it is quite difficult to answer those what/why/how questions. Every time I step on my sticky mat is a different practice even when I am performing the same movements, the same poses and that is because every day is a different day with different events, different thoughts and emotions. So, I guess I could say that I am practicing yoga/meditation (what?) in order to connect with myself in a deeper manner and learn more about myself and the world (why?) so that my practice gets translated into daily awareness which then will help me be more open to my practices and to the world (how do I do it well?). Yoga is a journey and it can turn into a lifestyle when you get passed the "stretching class" stereotype. I catch myself talking yoga and thinking yoga all the time so I guess you could say I have fallen in love with it; I love the way it can go from being a very gracious and slow paced moment to a very energetic and not so graceful event; I love to hear the names of the poses and their meaning and I love just to sit there and learn more about my body composition...the muscles, the bones, the nerves and all....I just love the whole concept even though my friends have probably started to think I am turning into a hippie. I don't care though...I feel happy whenever I stand or sit or lay on my sticky mat and I do hope this is an everlasting relationship I have established with this wonderful practice and all its "behind the scenes" teachings.

  2. Such wonderful thoughts about practice, Priscilla! Thank you for sharing them. You're right -- it is a constantly evolving experience, each and every practice is unique, and there are so many layers and levels to enjoy and learn about. I hope you continue to feel that way for a very long time, and I'm glad you are enjoying class and the blog. Namaste!

  3. Your classes are wonderful; I love the way you share all the little details not only about the poses but about how our body's need to work and move in order to achieve them. And now I am also leaning so much here in your blog...I feel really great fun and happy! Thank you so much for sharing it! :-) Namaste!