The Practice of Yoga

Any reason to practice yoga is a good reason and any amount of practice is good practice. The Bhagavad-Gita Gita states “In these practices (of yoga) no effort made is lost, nor are there adverse effects.  Even a little practice of this dharma protects one from great fear.”  So whether we get into yoga for holistic health, fitness, serenity or even curiosity, discovering these ancient, sacred techniques is a virtuous bonus that could ultimately lead to our freedom – but only if we practice.  These yoga practices provide the spiritual technology to realize, our true Self. This Self is not mired in ego and is beyond dualistic, thinking mind and physical body.  The Self is deathless, and also birth less, and its nature is bliss, serenity and pure love.  The definition of yoga is to yoke or union with the divine, or of the ego self with your highest Self.  What is realized in the state of yoga, according to scripture, is the oneness, or interconnection, of all being.

The wonderful thing about these practices is that with a little commitment and dedication, you gain insight into and directly experience these higher realms of existence and consciousness.  Practice is what moves us beyond the realm of theory and into the realm of actuality.

In the West, practicing yoga has become synonymous with getting on a mat and executing postures, or asana.  The benefits of asana are countless, including most obviously, a strong, supple body.  And a healthy body and mind are indeed necessary prerequisites for deeper exploration of Self.  But practicing asana is not practicing yoga unless that is what your intention is.  If we aren’t careful, these physical practices can mire us more deeply in ego, body image and our never ending superficial lists of identifications and attachments: who we are or who we aren’t, and things we can and can’t accomplish.  The more you do yoga, the more you have access to that intuitive sense of what’s good for you and what isn’t.

When you do yoga, always err on the side of safety because with any physical exercise, the asana practice of yoga is not risk free. It is possible that you could strain a muscle, inflame a joint, or fall over and hurt yourself. But properly done, yoga is one of the safest forms of physical activity you can pursue. If you follow basic precautions, get good instruction, set intentions for your practice, as well as do your practice with awareness, the risks are small compared to the potential benefits; unless of course you are the kind of person who gets competitive in a yoga class.

Some yogic practices are not appropriate for every body.  This is especially true for those that come to yoga because of health conditions.  Various medical problems make the likelihood of injury from certain yogic practices too great. Doctors speak of these practices as being contraindicated.  If there is any doubt about the appropriateness of any posture, breathing technique, or other practice, be sure to speak with both your doctor and a knowledgeable yoga teacher – and always err on the side of caution. In summary, if something hurts don’t do it and if a pose is uncomfortable try a variation or come out of it.

If you have health conditions or take medication that could affect your safety in a given pose, let your yoga teacher know.  Approach the teacher before class, or if time or privacy is a concern, ask if you could either write or call.  If you don’t feel comfortable giving your teacher specifics, you could say “I’m prone to dizziness from my medication so I need to come out of poses slowly”, without having to reveal what the medicine is or what you’re being treated for.

A big part of keeping yourself safe with yoga is tuning in to how you feel both during and after practicing. Your body might be sore, for example, the day after a strong practice.  A little achiness in muscles is fine but it should quickly resolve.  However, joints should never hurt more than usual either during or after practice.  If they do, it’s a sign that you are doing something wrong, for example poor alignment of your bones, or doing more than you are currently ready for.   Some students may feel fine physically after a practice, but may feel spaced out, or agitated and unable to sleep.  This again is a sign of having overdone things and should prompt close scrutiny of your practice.

To sum up, prior to our practice, ideally we set an elevated intention to meditate on during the practice of asana (moving through yoga postures), with the focus on conscious, even breathing as the breath is very closely linked with the essence of our inner spirit and the subtle energy of the body.  One of the purposes of our practice is to be conscious of the flow of energy we are building and to consciously direct it toward that elevated intention concentrating the mind on where we are in the present moment, are we achieving steadiness and ease in our asana and practice and what qualities that I am gaining will I take off the mat with me into the world and my life.  Meditating is also a large part of yoga and can lead to Self-realization.  Reciting a mantra (repetition of sacred, meaningful words) during meditation can lead to yoga too!  The practice of Ahimsa, (non-harming in our thoughts, relationships, interactions), cultivate compassion and empathy, allowing us to glimpse the oneness of all creation while bringing serenity and joy to our lives and those we come in contact with.  Even diet (for example vegetarian or vegan) and Ayurvedic holistic medicine can be a yoga practice too as well as practicing environmental awareness, community service and being green in our lives.

In respect for the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who passed away in May 2009, his famous quote “Practice, all is coming” brings an understanding that the discovery of yoga in this lifetime is indeed a divine blessing, but it is only with practice and elevated intention that we begin to gain insight into the nature and mind and move toward our true nature, true freedom, unending peace and service to the world.