The fire of practice

The only way to truly understand the teachings of yoga is by embodying them through practice

the fire of practice

For the past eighty years, I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine, but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and play two preludes and fugues of Bach...It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.
— Pablo Casals

Enquiry and playful openness

I believe yoga practice and understanding yoga as a practice cuts to the heart of what yoga is. Pablo Casals’ words sum up for me why a practice is essential. It is through practice that I have learnt to focus my mind and to disconnect in order to feel more connected. Practice has given me the discipline to act even when I don’t have the appetite for it, the courage for honest reflection, an awareness of my inner experience.  I have recovered my love of studying and have found the courage to question which ideas hold water. I have learnt to take my practice and study seriously, but not to be overly serious for it is only within the context of enquiry and playful openness that insights are revealed.

For example it is through playful discovery that I have discovered that practicing asana with the eyes closed can transform the experience: a practical and fun application of what happens when you withdraw the senses. Try it, sometime.

practice takes many shapes and forms

Whilst this might make it sound like my formal daily practice is like a scene imagined by Hollywood, complete with a stirring soundtrack, the reality is rather more mundane and prosaic. Sometimes I’m bored, sometimes I feel rushed, sometimes I can’t focus enough to read, sometimes the very thought of practicing contentment is anathema, sometimes my body aches or moving feels like too much effort or something else lures me away.  I’ve come to understand that, this is practice and the suspended moments of space and insight only come with practicing consistently. I’ve also realised that practice takes many shapes and forms, not just a formal coming to the mat for asana or meditation but also holding space for others to discover their own practice or tending to how I choose to react and interact with the world.

stilling the mind

The dictionary definition of practice (n) is: The actual application or use of an idea, belief or method as opposed to theories relating to it. In yoga we are applying ideas and beliefs of a centuries old philosophical and spiritual tradition and generally using a regular asana or meditation practice as the method to explore these ideas.  In Patanjali’s yoga sutra, yoga is defined as stilling the changing states of the mind (tr. Edwin F. Bryant). Patanjali, offers various ways in which to address the challenges posed by our embodiment so that we can reach this point of stillness. In the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga is defined as skill in action, and addresses the challenges posed at the time by the growing lure of heading for the hills and abandoning the thorny issues of daily life.  Krishna offers the path of knowledge, or action, or devotion as ways in which to address the challenges presented by embodiment and life. These then form the guidance offered through yoga teaching, but it is through the practice of yoga that these can shed light on our own lives many centuries after the classical yoga texts were compiled.

the courage to slow down

In The Heart of Yoga, TVK Desikachar writes, “We start our practice where we are and look toward a certain goal. Then we choose the steps that will lead us toward realizing that goal...But our daily practice does not return us to the exact place we started. The practice has changed us.” Desikachar goes on to explore how a practice is a changeable thing, depending on and reflecting circumstances. It is in acknowledging the lack of predictability and finding the awkward places that we develop new areas of awareness in our lives.  By having the courage to slow down (Bo Forbes calls this losing momentum) and actually dropping the layers of what we think we know, we are able to grow. “Momentum draws us out of the present moment. It masks our inner sight, and keeps us from noticing where and how we need to soften, engage, or even let go. And it mutes active inner listening” By practicing with what shows up for us on our mat, yoga teaches us how to be present for our lives and to develop emotional as well as physical resilience.  As Richard Freeman puts it: “Yoga begins with listening”.  An asana practice allows us to ‘practice’ life: to experiment, to challenge or soften or even to become aware of what requires our attention.

experience a way of being

Erich Schiffman offers yoga as the opportunity to “Look without knowing and feel what you feel.” It is through the discipline of our practice that we are able to explore this: “Everything that has been written about yoga...only comes alive, is only understood and fleshed out in the fire of practice” (Donna Farhi). Through her practice, Scaravelli discovered a different relationship with her body: “Working alone, I discovered a new world in this field, a world without rigid goals and without competition, a world where the body can start to function naturally and happily again, allowing expansion to take place in space.” Understanding yoga as a practice and as a process, does not necessitate always working alone but ‘practice’ forms each individual’s experience of yoga as a way of being,  and the understanding that ‘you’ are a part of a larger whole. A teacher offers guidance which enables a practitioner to gain a heightened sensitivity of how to ‘live’ in this world and in Donna Farhi’s words: “ help the learner to arrive at that point of sensitivity or self-trust that will feel like empowerment.

embodying practice

The only way to truly understand the teachings of yoga is by embodying them through practice. Through practice we begin to gain an understanding of the spaces and connections between our bodies, and minds and our heart-mind and those of others. No individual practice or individual’s practice is the same but it is the only way we have to access insights from the profound to the mundane and ultimately to experience yoga which is an understanding and an experience of consciousness and stillness that goes beyond words. The practice and process of yoga is “not a mechanical routine but something essential” (Pablo Casals); it is an understanding of our place in the world that can only be accessed through the fire of practice.