by Patricia Walden and Jarvis Chen
As we begin a new fall semester of classes, we encourage you to dedicate yourself and your practice to Taking the Next Step.
The subject of yoga is a vast ocean, and what we are able to practice in one lifetime is as but a drop in this ocean. Along the way, there are times when we may find that our practice becomes mechanical. We may find ourselves comfortable with what we have accomplished, but unable to move forward on the spiritual path. Or perhaps we discover that we no longer make the progress that we did when we first started out on this journey. At those times, we find that we do not experience the fullness of joy that yoga has to offer.
BKS Iyengar writes that it is like climbing a mountain, when you come to a plateau and find that you are no longer climbing upward. At those times, the mind mistakenly thinks, “I cannot proceed any further.” When we are in that kind of plateau, we must continue to practice, to maintain the ground achieved, and not fall back. But we must also search out that spark of inspiration that helps us to break through spiritual complacency, and to take off in a new direction.
Ask yourself, “What kind of practitioner am I? Mrdu (mild), madhya (medium), adhimatra (intense) (Yoga Sutra I.22)? Can I commit to transforming myself into one who is tivra samveganam – supremely intense?” As Patanjali tells us, “The goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice (Yoga Sutra I. 21).” This “supreme intensity” doesn’t mean that we need to be sweating hard and straining every muscle, however. “Supremely intense” refers to the intensity of awareness and the ability to be fully in the present.
Ask yourself these questions: “What am I missing? What am I capable of?” Bring your sensitivity to bear on your own experience, and recognize the signs of obstacles in your practice. Patanjali tells us that obstacles like disease, idleness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, misapprehension, failure to sustain effort, or backsliding (Yoga Sutra I.30) result in certain signs that we can directly experience in our bodies and minds: these are pain (duhkha), discontent (daurmanasya), uneven breathing (svasa-prasvasa), and unsteadiness of the body (angamejayatva) (Yoga Sutra I.31). We may not know how or why an obstacle has come in our path, but we know its presence when the body shakes, or when the breath gets caught, or when the mind is agitated and unhappy, or remains on the outer surface of the body. These are like clues that we must adjust our practice and bring tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and Isvara-pranidhana (surrender) to overcome the obstacles. Recognize that inner voice of frustration that tells you when your practice has stagnated, as that is the voice of that inner intelligence (buddhi) that yearns to move toward the Soul. Then, put a plan into action to Take the Next Step:
• Taking the next step may involve making progress in your practice of asana and pranayama. Choose a pose with which you are having difficulty, and commit to practicing it a minimum of three times a week. Break the pose down into parts, and ask yourself, what actions are coming, what actions are not? Is there a prop I can use to teach myself to improve the needed actions? Can I use movement or the breath to break through tamas? Or is more sensitivity and intelligence of action needed, so that I avoid injury and develop refinement?
• Taking the next step may involve delving more deeply into yoga philosophy. Choose one of the Yoga Sutra-s and read it or chant it at the beginning of your practice. Keep it in mind as you go through your day, and observe how it informs your experience of your life. Come early to class and participate in our group discussions of yoga philosophy, or get together with like-minded practitioners and study the Sutras together.
• Taking the next step may involve deepening qualities, such as kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, that we develop from our practice. Do you put as much time into cultivating kindness as you do in trying to achieve a perfect pose? We can practice these qualities in how we treat ourselves while practicing asana, but also carry them into our interactions with others in our life. In a way, we know that our practice is truly bearing fruit when we become kinder, gentler, and more generous human beings.
Whatever you choose to take on as the next step, practice with faith, courage, determination, awareness, and absorption – the “yoga vitamins” (Yoga Sutra I.20). As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Yoga is indeed hard for those who lack self-discipline. But if you keep striving earnestly with devotion in the right way, you can reach it.” (Chapter 6, verse 36). The Bhagavad Gita also tells us that, “No effort on the path is ever lost (Chapter 2, verse 40).” Even if the Next Step that we take is a small step, trust that this step has planted a seed that will yield fruit later in this life or the next.
As Pema Chödrön notes, “The spiritual journey involves going beyond hope and fear, stepping into unknown territory, continually moving forward. The most important aspect of being on the spiritual path may be to just keep moving.”
May your practice lead the mind from attachment to the body to the light of the Soul.