“All the important texts lay great emphasis on sadhana or abhyasa (constant practice).” So writes B.K.S. Iyengar in his seminal work, Light on Yoga. Mr. Iyengar then compares the process of sadhana, which he terms “a spiritual endeavor,” to pressing seeds to extract oil, or heating wood to ignite fire. The process he describes connotes intensity and, according to the description he gives, seems to require some kind of willing subjection of the practitioner to certain ardors, to a certain level of rigor.
In preparing to write this article, I have been thinking a lot about how my experience of the practice of yoga has changed over the years. I have been thinking about how my resistance, right along with my practice, has become more subtle and sophisticated. It used to be, “Man, I just don’t want to do it. I’m just going to watch a movie instead.” Later, it became, “Well, I guess I can’t practice right now, the dishes need to be washed/ laundry needs to be folded/ etc.” This was a definite upgrade to a higher form of procrastination. Some excuses have been very compelling, like, “I was sick,” even though I have since discovered that it is possible to practice yoga in some form, even while sick. Other excuses embarrass me still, for example: “I didn’t practice because I spent an hour trying to work up the courage on the phone to ask her out for a date,” or, “I just couldn’t resist gossiping about so-and-so for a while.” As I continue to practice, I continue to discover how the choices I make regarding what “non-practice” activities I participate in directly relates to the level, or presence, of sadhana in my life. It took me years to see this connection, but I certainly see it now. I am grateful for this awareness. It moves me to see my life as a kind of tapestry, with a distinct weave, that is connected in a mystical, magical way. This is one of the many unexpected gifts the steady practice of yoga, or sadhana, has given me.
I am aware at this point of feeling a bit presumptuous to claim that my efforts to practice yoga in the manner I have been taught by my teachers qualifies as sadhana. I feel very fortunate to be learning yoga from teachers who have spent countless hours in zealous exploration, inquiry, and effort to understand and to plumb the very depths of their being. My teacher herself has been a zealous student and practitioner of yoga since before I was born. B.K.S. Iyengar, the man whose teachings on yoga I follow, has a practice that is twice as old as I am. Though these “numbers” are impressive to me, I have come to realize that sadhana is about more than a year-count. It has much more to do with the quality of effort applied over a long duration. Personally, I have done numerous things half-heartedly for extended periods of time, most of the time to no avail. I would not call those spiritual endeavors. In this respect, I am also humbled—and yes, deeply inspired—by my mentors, whose insight and prowess in the field of Yoga, as well as the masterful command of the subject they exhibit in their teaching, bear witness that theirs has been a practice that transformed them, a practice that has yielded something substantial, like oil from seeds, like fire.
Why am I saying this? Why does this matter? Sadhana is an idea that captivates me. It is such a unique idea in my life. From my perspective, I was raised inside of the notion that effort is to be made for enjoyment, that the main object of life is to try and find the easiest route through life. Somewhere along the line, I learned the lesson that sometimes life puts the squeeze on and then I’d best just knuckle down and soldier through that situation, then thank my lucky stars when it’s over and make damned sure to learn the lesson so that I don’t have to repeat the ordeal. Never did it seem like a good idea to subject myself to the squeeze voluntarily, to regularly cultivate a bit of adversity, an intimate relationship with discomfort, to court challenges. When I look around, I see so much in this world, this 21st century culture that is geared toward comfort, convenience, entertainment, distraction, ease . . . relief. The world I grew up in, and have come to know, has emphasized escape from and denial of adversity, much more than surrender to and acceptance of it. From the ads on television, in print, and even in the grocery store, it seems that comfort, convenience, and ease, are the highest aims I should seek, the marks of success. From what I can tell, however, comfort, convenience, and ease have nothing to do with sadhana.
In my experience, sadhana, requires sacrifice. I have given countless hours, at all hours of the day, to preserve and sustain a consistent practice of yoga. I have foregone parties, movies, dates, meals, desserts, massages, concerts, even sleep to practice. I have been criticized by colleagues, chastised by friends, and cross-examined by well-meaning family members, for choosing to practice when it was thought I ought to have different priorities. It has cost me money to practice. It has affected my productivity in business. It has even impacted my sex life, but that’s another entry altogether. The point is, sadhana has not come without a price. It takes no prisoners.
I am not saying all this to imply that I am some kind of hero or saint. Nor am I saying it out of some sense of deprivation or self-pity. Far from it. I can’t even say the choices I’ve made are wise, or that I would recommend them to others. I’m just saying that, at some point in my life, I had to make a very real and very powerful commitment (my wife sometimes says it’s fanatical) to practice yoga, day in and day out. At some point in my life, I had to make a decision that I was going to practice, no matter what happens. That has really taken something for me, personally. Challenges to my practice haven’t stopped occurring just because I made this decision. In fact, in many ways, it seems the decision itself brings all the obstacles right up to be dealt with. The desire for comfort and convenience still beckons. With so many potential diversions and distractions (and new “apps”) out there, to say nothing of my own innate distractibility, I am amazed that such a decision is even possible. I am so grateful it is.
For the record, I also didn’t mention all the sacrifices that practicing yoga has required to imply that I am any more virtuous or any less driven by desires than anyone else. I mention the sacrifices, again, because I am amazed that it has been possible to go without these things. I am amazed that I have had any inclination to.
To be honest (it’s funny, but this was my original thought for this article), just today I was struggling to practice. (In fact, I don’t know that there has been a day when I haven’t had to overcome some resistance to practicing. The big, exciting workshops I’ve been to where the classes have been lead by a masterful, world-renowned teachers don’t count.) Today the resistance has less to do with whether or not I “feel” like doing it. Now, with a 2 year-old son, a small business, a commitment to service work, and distinct workaholic tendencies, the resistance shows up as this disorienting mental noise about how much work there is to do and how my time would be better spent some other way, about how irresponsible it is of me to be spending this time on practice. It’s really quite selfish, my mind says, when I’ve got bills to pay and an extra mouth to feed and college to save for and no retirement funds. And what about the fact that I’m underinsured? And what in the world am I going to do about that distressingly low bank balance? And, you know, we haven’t had a vacation in a while. All work and no play . . .
So there I was, practicing. And to be honest, I had no answer to these questions for many postures. Really, what was the value of all this time—sometimes 3 ½ hours per day—spent sitting, or stretching, or standing on my head, or trying to hear the subtle sound of my breath as I attempt to weave it into these unfamiliar, sometimes downright awkward patterns . . . or trying to regain my consciousness when it gets lost in thought again? Really, I thought (not for the first time), what is the point? What in the hell am I doing here?
So I continued to do the one thing that I have come to trust and rely upon as much as I have ever trusted and relied upon anything in my life. I continued to practice. And, like it so often does, it came to me (this is the great gift of practice in my life, by the way): The point is, this is the best thing I can do. It is the best action I can think of right now.
So, why practice? Because Sadhana is the best thing that I can offer to life. It’s the best thing I can do, not only for myself, but also, I think, for humanity, even for the planet. I’m not saying it’s the best thing that anyone can do (though I suspect that will come with more practice). I’m not even saying it is particularly praiseworthy. I’m saying that the best thing I personally can do for life is to bring a vital, exuberant, “dis-ease”-free, happy human being to it. The best thing I can do for the planet is to do all I can to make sure there is one less miserable, frightened, angry, sick human being moving about on the face of it. I have found nothing so powerful as the practice of yoga for transforming my misery, my negativity, my sickness into vitality, into happiness, into blissfulness. The negativity that I seemed to possess pretty much overwhelmed most other things. The fact that Yoga holds its own in the face of my negativity never ceases to inspire my awe. The fact that is has, time and again, transformed this human being from a worrisome, fretful, angry ball of misery into a being filled with actual wonder at life, a genuine sense of goodwill toward my fellows, and a willingness to give of myself for the greatest good is nothing short of a miracle to me. Sadhana has transformed my self-pity, self-loathing, and self-doubt into humility, self-esteem, and gratitude. These gifts are priceless, as is the opportunity to be a reasonably useful human being. I remember a time, not too long ago, when that seemed like an impossible task.
I remember . . .
And so, I practice.