Practice is the Practice
– “All hearts oscillate in the same swing, within the ocean of nectar, singing one song.”
– “Please practice. All the time.”
~~ Richard Freeman
I have been a student of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga for almost twenty years. My practice has not been steady, which is something of a requisite for Ashtanga, and my devotion has ebbed and flowed along with my tendency toward intellectual skepticism and the common householder responsibilities of mother, wife, daughter, and Western life in general.
Practice is a seed. And in many of us devoted to this strange, often utterly misunderstood art, the seed is hearty and lives untended, waiting for our attentive return. Like all living things though, the bija, or seed of awakening, flowers best with disciplined, appropriate cultivation. If we hold too tightly, particularly to asana, the result is suffering, repeated patterns of attachment, or raga. Relax the grip altogether and we find stubborn habits, old pains and unconscious actions rising through the cracks; soon enough there are more reasons not to practice than face starting over again.
And yet yoga is a contradiction. One of its most ancient meanings is trick or trickster. As soon as one thinks “I have it. I’m a practitioner. My asana practice is two hours a day, I never miss pranayama, the water in my neti pot is the purest, and I fast once a week” – no sooner does one establish a dedicated, daily practice then the stories begin once again. The ego never stops its churning creation. So we practice. We become attached to our lithe flexibility, our pujas, the sense of belonging, especially for Ashtangis and Iyengar devotees, members of a rather exclusive club. We don’t practice. We become attached to the pleasure of laziness, even the odd pleasure of guilt and procrastination. The moment the mind identifies with practicing/not-practicing, it does not matter if one is in a 20 minute sirsasana or having the third beer of the night: insight ceases.
Ego craves solidity. Ego craves containment. Practice is the opposite: it is fluid, necessarily without a definitive end. Even writing these words, “practice is,” I am already outside of practice. I am attempting to identify the unidentifiable. It is a little bit… like love.
The ego, or asmita, cannot help but identify with the pleasures, pain, attainment and goals of practice. Out of the 8 limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga this is why asana is both so instructive and so outsized in the Western comprehension of yogic discipline. As a teacher or practitioner, how many times have you heard someone say in response to a discussion of yoga “I’m not good at yoga?” This statement is nonsensical, it is like someone saying “I’m not good at thinking,” but indicates how profoundly we depend on the physical presentation of the body to represent an art that is in reality deeply ephemeral, cerebral, and illusive.
As I age, the seed ages. My ego cringes at the fact that I do not have a 6 day a week practice. Sometimes I think I will walk away from practice, as if that is even an option at this point. My eyes have opened, ever so slightly, to the net of consciousness that joins one and all beings; I can no more leave that awareness than I can leave the love I possess for my children.
I love asana, like everyone who practices. Backbends make me high, forward bends remind me that, somewhere in this frame, there is earth and soil and gravity. Inversions quite literally change the brain, its chemistry, its hormonal balance. But I need less. I watch people half my age as they hunger for the next pose, the next arm balance, as they wrestle half to death with the incredible difficulty of “floating” a vinyasa. It is beautiful to watch: the sweat, the focus, the simple loveliness of youth. And my ego sometimes chimes in: “I can still do that.” Or, “why can’t I do that?”
But the reality is that my body is getting older, and my mind is becoming increasingly sensitive and refined. I just don’t need a four hour practice of yang intensity. I certainly need four hour practices, and will need, as Mr. Iyengar advised, more backbending the higher in years I go. Now, however, as I inch my way toward my late 40’s, I experience practice as a quiet, firm presence, like a small candle that burns continuously through wind, sun, and night.