The Two Pillars of Yoga (Part 1)

Numerous yoga texts assert that two qualitites are essential to the realization of the highest state of being called Yoga, a state characterized by unlimited exuberance and joy in living. In sanskrit, these two qualities are called abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa means practice. However, in the Yoga Sutras, this practice is distinguished in a very specific way. Abhyasa, in the yogic sense, is practice performed with zealous commitment, sustained over a long period of time, without interruption, and persevering in the face of setbacks, obstacles, and failures. Vairagya means renunciation of or detachment from desires for a particular outcome. I will discuss vairagya at length in another entry. In this piece, I would like to focus on the first of these qualities: Abhyasa. In over 15 years as a student of yoga, I have learned practices and techniques from a number of different traditions. I’m not saying I would recommend it, or that I am even proud of this fact, but I have learned several different “styles” of Hatha Yoga, as well as several different “styles” of meditation. Though their methodologies and practices differ, sometimes dramatically, in their particulars, every single tradition I have studied has agreed upon one thing: the importance–in fact, the necessity–of regular, even daily practice. Every single school of yoga or transformational thought I have studied (and as I’ve said, it is over 10), emphasizes the importance of consistency, of continuity of practice, and of persistence. Every single tradition I have studied asserts, in one form or another, that without persistence, without regularity in practice, progress is sure to be slow, if not non-existent. In some traditions erratic or irregular practice is even discouraged as it carries with it the risk of actually causing more problems than progress. This has been my own experience with an inconsistent practice of pranayama (meditative breath work). I know firsthand the uneasiness of body and unsteadiness of emotions that stem from trying to push to far at irregular intervals in this practice.

As a yoga teacher who emphasizes the importance of practice to my students, I often hear about their struggles to implement a regular practice into their routines. For me, personally, even though I have made a conscious choice to dedicate my life to the practice and pursuit of yoga, the demands of work and family life crowd in on the time available for practice. Seen as non-essential, or as of secondary importance, practice often gets taken off the schedule in favor of more “practical” tasks related to “making a living”. This might seem very reasonable behavior, but I would like to challenge it by asserting a different perspective, a perspective grounded in my own experience as a yoga practitioner. I assert that yoga “practice” (or sadhana) is one of the most intensely practical activities we could engage in. If you think about it for a moment. Each experience that has made up your life so far on this day, has required a certain responsiveness of your body, your mind, your emotions, and your intellect. Even if you have stayed in bed all day, you still have relied upon one or more of the above faculties to execute that choice. Every moment of every day, we think thoughts and then take actions based upon our thinking. Our thinking comes from the aforementioned levels–certainly from our mind, our emotions, our intellect, our wisdom. Thinking even comes from our body as the sensations and perceptions it gives us influence the mind and emotions, which then influence our choices and actions.

I am not the first or only person to assert that the quality of our lives is correlated to the quality of the choices we make. It is obvious, though: if I make life-affirming, harmonious and healthy choices (choices which then spur action) I can expect a certain quality of life; conversely, if I make less than life affirming choices, the quality of my life correspondingly diminishes. If you look into the way things work, you will see that a driving force behind human behavior (many say behind life itself) is a desire for greater happiness. So here’s a contemplation to take with you throughout the following week or weeks: Ask yourself, “Why do I do what I do? What am I doing this   (name of activity)   for? What do I hope to gain from it?”

Whatever is on your “to do” list for the day, whatever is on your agenda, whatever it is you feel you “must” do, or wish to do–what is it that drives that? What is it that drives you?

What if happiness doesn’t “await”? What if it is, as countless saints and sages have suggested, right here, right now, within you? Would it not make sense, is it not highly “practical” to utilize a system–i.e. yoga–that has been specifically designed and carefully refined for millenia, to yield an ever-deepening experience of the highest form of joy? Do you not agree that you give your best performance in life–quite literally “make” your best “living”–when you are most joyful? Is this not the main aim, whether you are conscious of it or not, of all the things you feel you must do?

As a student and teacher of yoga I am so grateful for the transformation yoga has wrought in my life. From a very indecisive and uneasy beginning, a certain conviction has grown through the experience of practice. This conviction–specifically that the “there” I was trying to get to was not “there” but was and is always here and now, and that the practice of yoga has been masterfully crafted by countless great beings to grant direct access to the highest states of joyfulness and fulfillment–informs my teaching and the design of our yoga programs at Living Tradition Yoga. I have seen numerous miraculous, seemingly impossible changes occur in my life as a result of steadily practicing yoga. I have no doubt such changes are available to anyone willing to invest themselves into the practice and to follow the clear and precise instructions for uplifting life to the highest level given to us by the great beings that have developed (and continue to develop) this Living Tradition. I am happy and grateful for the opportunity to share the methodology of Iyengar Yoga in the systematic way I’ve been taught and in a multiple-week or “session” format that allows my students to develop the precious quality of persistence. It is a privilege to see this persistence enhancing life on this planet, one dedicated person at a time.