Yoga as a Spiritual Practice for Life


"Perennial joy or passing pleasure?

This is the choice one is to make always.

The wise recognize these two, but not

The ignorant. The first welcome what leads

To abiding joy, though painful at the time.

The latter run, goaded by their senses,

After what seems immediate pleasure.

The first leads one to Self-realization:

The second makes one more and more

Estranged from his real Self."

~ Katha Upanishad


In pursuit of wisdom, a mystic seeker with a passion for intellectual speculation set out on a journey. He was suddenly impressed by the austerity of some yogis lying nude on a massive rock in the scorching midday sun and rushed to the nearby village to find out who these people were. He learned that sadhus possessed immense intelligence and were capable of extraordinary feats. He dashed back to the party, already sweltering in the heat, excited by his discoveries. He explained, "I have come finding wisdom and wish to explore the essence of the world with you." “As soon as you take your clothes off and get down on this rock,” they said, “we'd be happy to.”

Yoga is a term that refers to both a state of purified awareness as well as the rituals that go along with it. The two definitions of the term shed light on the close connection that exists between the commitment taken to gain knowledge and the imminence of learning what is already inside us. While we are unlikely to be called upon to conduct austerities under the scorching sun today, the realistic essence of Yoga cannot be denied. There is no such thing as a free meal. Yoga-Sara-Samgraha (“Compendium on the Essence of Yoga”), a sixteenth-century treatise, distinguishes between aspirants who “think” about and want a spiritual life (arurukshu) and those who are actively learning (yunjana). This concise categorization shows us that human nature hasn't evolved much since the dawn of time.

There is a third kind of aspirant: those who have developed consistency in their wisdom through consistent practice (Yoga-arudha, yuktaor sthita-prajna). Although there are occasional instances of sudden realization, Patanjali states confidently that most of us would come to this straightforward way of thinking over the course of a lifetime of continuous practice. If this "feels like a life sentence," as one of my students put it, what safer way is there to spend the remainder of our lives? Surprisingly, most of us still spend a significant amount of our time and resources in hobbies that cause us and others pain. If this same momentum is diverted at the same time, it will result in a nonviolent movement. The goal of Yoga is in a way already understood every time we practice, with every breath and effort to concentrate the mind. It's as easy as that. I use the words life practice and spiritual practice interchangeably. Unfortunately, the term spiritual has come to connote an underlying dualism in which daily life is made to seem pitiful and mundane in comparison to imaginary divine worlds to which we can only strive.

This ideal realm seems hazy and mysterious to most of us, particularly when compared to the all-too real and encumbering essence of life on Earth. Spiritual conjures up visions of ethereal realms, billowing clouds, and a pie-in-the-sky universe where everybody is still laughing and sweet to one another. Getting a spiritual existence may sound oddly alienating for most of us will have to travel a long distance to reach such a spot. What about the world we left behind if we must go somewhere else to have a spiritual life? As a result, I refer to Yoga as a life activity. By life activity, I mean a continuing investigation into how to be fully committed and intimate with the wild power that pervades us and is also pervading us if we only take the time to notice it. The concept of a life practice is something we do over time that regularly and effectively deepens our relation to our reality and expression of aliveness. While Yoga has a wide range of standardized activities to suit various people's preferences, nearly any discipline can be used as a life practice if it reconnects us with the root of our being alive. The wily ways of the daimon, who tempts us to paint, sing, dance, compose music, create sanctuaries, plant gardens, raise children, write poems, climb mountains, and do everything else humans do to find themselves in life, are beyond comprehension.

Both exercises can be classified as Yoga if they are done mindfully and with a strong sense of commitment. The greater goal of a formal Yoga practice, on the other hand, is to extend the acute attentiveness we learn on the mat to all facets of our daily lives, so that this unitive knowledge pervades our relationships, jobs, and play. If our systematic experience does not translate in this manner, it is a complete failure. We break the artificial boundaries between what is called divine and exceptional and what is considered material and regular by anchoring our spiritual activity in daily life. By life practice, I also mean any action or behavior that allows one to get a clear experience of the gleaming life force that pervades and stands behind it. We learn that the most reliable and constant aspect of ourselves is the silent substratum that lies under all passing and shifting occurrences in such a lesson. We construct a situation in Yoga where settling into life is more likely to happen. The foundation of all real and sincere Yoga practice is the conscious and intentional creation of a sense in which we can experience the unseen, mystical, and elusive. Simply put, we set aside time and a peaceful location to partake in questions that will remind us of our true selves. We repeat this process as much as possible before this knowledge is ingrained in our being.

For the most part, this entails training from the first to the last breath. A life practice, on the other hand, would assist us in establishing a practical interaction with the complex and uncertain facets of our lives. We create a peaceful abiding core not to protect ourselves from life's turmoil, but to help us become more resilient, forgiving, and understanding of the unavoidable, perplexing, and sometimes agonizing defeats that we all face. As a result, a calm abiding core and a truly committed life go hand in hand. This inner tempering by practice encourages us to survive at greater and higher levels of charge, allowing us to feel deeply, love intensely, and work intensely without shattering. We firmly establish this enduring nucleus of equanimity, but not to exclude ourselves from life or make it less "lively." Rather, we "discipline truth," as photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said of capturing life through the lens of his camera. Cartier-attentiveness Bresson's did not diminish the poignancy of his subject matter. Similarly, when we perform Yoga, we are not dampening the fiery spirit of life; rather, we are placing ourselves right in the middle of the furious sun. One of the best ways to solidify our intention to practice Yoga is to choose a certain location for our formal practice, as well as, if possible, a certain time per day to visit this location.

It is advantageous to have an extra space in the house dedicated solely to rehearsal, but it is not needed. If you can get privacy and silence during your practice hours, a tiny space in your bedroom or living room would suffice. If you work at home, make sure your rehearsal area is far enough away from your workplace to provide you with the mental distance you need to avoid work disruptions. Your rehearsal space will become your own personal sanctuary, just like a chapel, mosque, or synagogue creates a tangible air of serenity and peace. Ensure that this room is kept tidy and fresh, and that any annoying paraphernalia that has accrued is removed on a regular basis. You may want to set up a small altar or focal point in your practice area, where you can light a candle, put a fresh flower every day, or display photos of family members, teachers, or articles that have significance for you. You may also want to put photos of people who are sick or hurting on it that you want to remember. Make a point of brushing away old incense ash, cleaning the pieces, and otherwise starting each practice with a sign of regeneration and concentrated attention. Get all of your Yoga supplies organized and ready to go, whether it's just a mat and a meditation pillow or a slew of Yoga props and accessories.

If at all practicable, don't use these items for anything else. Your yoga exercise is unlikely to be inspired by a rug coated with cracker crumbs or dog fur. When you give the room and the things in it a single meaning, the practice space will become holy over time. Make a conscious effort to maintain your peace and quiet while you use your rehearsal space: let the answering machine handle your messages, let other householders know you don't want to be interrupted, and otherwise affirm your desire to focus your attention inward. If you reside with someone, the practice will need to be scheduled early in the morning before the rest of the family wakes up. If your duties exclude you from having private time, as is always the case with parents of young children, graciously welcome your babies and children into the practice, balancing your responsibility to those in your care and your dedication to yourself as best you can. Children and animals are especially sensitive to their surroundings, and they will often engage in a drill with a sense of playfulness and excitement, eventually becoming silent as the practice session progresses. I've seen kids who love being with their parents at practice time, even though it just means falling asleep in their parent's lap while the adult meditates. Although minimizing disruptions is beneficial, it does not come at the cost of your life's greater dignity, which cannot be accomplished by tuning them out. The phone rings, the dog next door barks, and the repairman returns.

The phone buzzing, the dog barking next door, the repairman arriving right as you're settled down: these are all ways to remain centered in the middle of daily life. Simply take care of these brief interruptions, attend to them if necessary, and then return to your work. If this isn't practical, make the job or diversion into a practice: listening to a distressed friend, caring for a sick infant, or taking one's mother to the hospital. If you have a lot on your plate, as I do, keep a notepad next to your practice mat and jot down any ideas, thoughts, or errands you need to recall before returning to your practice. The aim of a structured practice session is to develop and maintain an awareness of inner peace that is always present. It's possible to forget during daily life that we all have the inherent ability to be calm and quiet. We strive to establish the perfect hothouse conditions for cultivating a close relationship with our core during our formal practice period. In the end, there is no clear distinction between academic practice and daily life. A word of advice to those who believe that formal education is pointless because their whole life is practice: I am not aware of any genuine or authentic practitioners who claim to be so advanced in their experience that practice is no longer required. When you've finished practicing, put everything away. Fold your blankets carefully to make room for them. When you return to your practice room, this final gesture will guarantee that you can start again.

The context of daily practice allows one to progressively awaken to ourselves where we are. Daily work should not be a step-by-step process toward a better self; otherwise, our practice time would be riddled with overt self-aggression. Water and ice are both made up of the same material, but they have varying degrees of independence. You are already understanding the goal of Yoga: inner stillness, as soon as you sit, make your breath quick and even, or stay silent within a Yoga pose. This inner calm is as close as your concentration. Yoga activities do require concentration, willpower, commitment, and a lot of focus, but the experience of Yoga occurs naturally. This may seem to be a paradox at first glance, but it is not. A musician will practice scales, improve fluency, and research the masters for years, but an alchemical transition will not occur until the musician can go beyond commitment and let go of all he or she knows. The art of music occurs when a musician's talent has been so deeply ingrained in his or her being that there is little distinction between the musician, the instrument, and the music. As a result, yoga is not something we can control, but rather something that happens to us. It does not, though, happen by chance. It's good news that Yoga isn't random.

But, how do we increase our chances of this happening? Simply put, we develop mastery by imitating the great spiritual teachers. No one has ever been cured of a disease by merely reading medical journals, and no one has ever discovered Yoga by simply rubbing shoulders with a wonderful guru or by intellectual speculation on scriptures. Even when Christ and Buddha were born, they were ordinary citizens. Consider the thousands of people who saw these wonderful teachers but lived in the dark. We gain Christ's, Buddha's, or Krishna's consciousness by imitating their actions. There's nothing enigmatic about Yoga—except that we seem to avoid the obvious under the mistaken belief that it's easier (and more enjoyable) to sit back and wait for good fortune to come our way. It is seldom simple to follow the habits of an adept. Arjuna faces his fear of fighting in a war in which he must slay his friends and family in the epic struggle depicted in the Bhagavad Gita. Holding our calm with our girls, remaining focused in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or dealing with confusion as our office undergoes a downsizing are all obstacles and ethical dilemmas that we face every day. We will overcome those concerns by practicing. Krishna's advice to Arjuna may very well be our own: on this course, no effort is wasted, and no loss occurs. Perhaps a small amount of spiritual consciousness will shield you from the most terrifying fears. When we initiate a serious Yoga practice, we are committing to a lifetime apprenticeship with ourselves and with the Self. Many talents, like any apprenticeship, can only be mastered over a long period of time.

There are no shortcuts or crash courses, and there is no substitute for the happiness and riches that come with such unwavering dedication. Our ethos is so invested in achieving tangible rewards as a hedge against volatility that the concept of a lifetime apprenticeship has been almost unthinkable. In my own long apprenticeship as a student instructor, I learned a lot by seeing my tutor, Judith Lasater, a Yoga teacher and physical therapist, work with people for several years. I observed how she interacted with students on the first day of Yoga class and how she interacted with the same individual years later. This provided me with invaluable insights into the workings of the human mind and the complexities of the human body, which I could not have gained in a weekend. Yoga is not woodworking, but Japanese carpentry, as I like to say my own instructor trainees. Our teachers can show us how to bevel the edge of a table or chair to perfection, but only one person can do so. It may take a hundred crooked, crude, and rough attempts to become proficient and produce the smooth edge, no matter how straightforward the teacher's explanation or diligent her demonstration is. False understanding will sabotage a life in the same way as a wrongly sanded floor will splinter fingertips for years to come. We achieve a divine awareness of everlasting beauty through such patient artistry. We will find that we have a low threshold for anger when we first start practicing. Any blunder be proof that we put so much trust in such a procedure. We may mistakenly think that things should be easy, that life should be as it is on TV: a sequence of climactic moments in which everybody is celebrating a birthday. Or we point the finger at everyone else: “If the instructor had been more straightforward, I'm sure I would have gotten this.” None, though, will substitute for the minutes, hours, and days of rehearsal, observation, and plain old trial and error that a lifetime apprenticeship entails. The healing comes from the apprenticeship's slowness, and by slowing down, we slip into a more natural balance with life and ourselves. As a result, we gradually alter, gradually comprehend, and gradually incorporate the unconscious content of the psyche into the conscious mind, and the progressive essence of these transitions means that we metamorphose without sacrificing everything.

Amazing stone walls, fashioned from rocks of all shapes and dimensions, can be found in areas of the English countryside. Many of these walls are made up of stones that have been stripped from pastures to improve grazing space. It would have been faster to dump the stones in a heap, but such a wall would disintegrate in a short time and, when tried, give way to marauding livestock. Many of these walls are kept together by the deliberate positioning of stones of complementary shapes rather than mortar. It would have taken a lot of thought and patience to construct such a wall. The walls' solidity, resilience, and elegance are due to this seamless fit. Similarly, time serves as an intangible mortar for our experience; it is what stands between potentially discordant elements and bringing them together into a single whole by determining their proper relationship. If this all sounds like a bad deal, we should be grateful to our spiritual forefathers for being frank enough to tell us that the cure for whatever ails us could take a lifetime. We should find solace in the fact that wise people known as seers (because their method of seeing was so straightforward that they saw the real essence of things) studied natural phenomena thousands of years ago and came to some surprising conclusions regarding what happens when our minds are no longer constrained by the false perception of separation. At the same time, they made one after another mundane and logical suggestion about how to achieve a true understanding of ourselves.

These seers have compiled a list of the many ways we delude ourselves, as well as the many roadblocks and distractions we'll face during our apprenticeship. Rather than being saddened by their findings, we should be encouraged by the fact that people thousands of years ago, like us, struggled to get out of bed in the morning. People who ate so much, lacked confidence and determination, and, if they did "get it," promptly forgot it. We should find solace in the fact that our spiritual forefathers and mothers struggled just like us and were good enough to record the high points and low points of their experience to help us. We should also cultivate a sense of humor so that we can chuckle at ourselves as we fall and see our stumbling attempts as evidence of the authenticity of our mission rather than as an indication of personal disappointment. We should be careful of any approach that offers instant success and all-conclusive, happily-ever-after assurances (whether it's a food plan or a tidy-up-your-life plan). Let me clarify that I do not wish to glorify or to covet a life tradition like Yoga, which is a somber and stressful undertaking akin to a regular dosage of nasty tasting medication.

Let me state upfront that I do not wish to glorify or cover up the sometimes daunting essence of a life activity such as Yoga, lest this give the impression that it is a somber and painful endeavor akin to a regular dosage of nasty tasting medication. Krishna warns Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that such a course appears to be poison at first but tastes like nectar in the end, and that what appears to be nectar at first is always bitter poison in the end. We should have an erroneous sense of liberty and reject imposing limits on a life that we think is unrestricted. However, this erroneous sense of liberty nearly inevitably leads to a greater separation from our true selves and genuine pleasure. We'll learn that the payoff is in the practice. We become the thing we're looking for the moment we pause in silent self-reflection, gently spread our muscles, or enter deep relaxation, and it's possible to feel the product right away. Anyone who has ever planted and cared for a garden knows that planting a hole for a sapling is just as enjoyable as admiring a fully grown rose.

Even the idea that someone would admire this tree long after we've died will bring us joy in the present. It doesn't take a perfect garden paradise to deliver pleasure, whether we're removing weeds from a flower bed, picking berries, or shoveling manure to make compost. Gratitude and confidence are the two virtues that will transform a life activity the most. From beginning to end, the supportive qualities of these two noble values change any part of work. Spend a few moments remembering these realities before beginning your Yoga session. First and foremost, you are alive. It happened to you! It should have gone in a better direction. You most likely have a roof above your head, a place to sleep, and food to eat. You will have access to divine guidance, mentors, and ample preparation time. They are all signs of exceptional good fortune. Just a small percentage of the world's population is fortunate enough to be in such a role. Recognizing these statistics and reflecting on their meaning is a healthy way to start the day, as it helps to remove skepticism and instill a sense of newness in each new day. What incredibly good fortune that you have the resources to change your condition and your life, no matter how sore, exhausted, or unwell you are.

Recognizing this good fortune will turn even the most complicated situation upside down. We might say, "Isn't it lucky I have some options to relieve my pain?" instead of "Woe is me, my back hurts." Rather than saying, "My life is so difficult right now," we should say, "What a joy to have a practice to help me get through this difficult time." These affirmations may seem a stretch if you are new to meditation, but those of you who have been practicing for a long time can recall the many tough moments when your spiritual practice was the only thing that got you through. Many others do not have the benefit of such a tradition, and even though life is incredibly complicated, the fact that you have been led to a spiritual journey is sure to make your situation easier than others'. Consider the hundreds of teachers and thousands of physicians who, at times at great risk, have maintained this practice alive over the years. When I think of both of my ancestors' mentors, as well as the ones I've had in my own lifetime, I realize how fortunate I am to have inherited such a rich legacy. Begin your practice with a prayer of intention to wisely apply these lessons and to never take them for granted. When you start to feel grateful, it can inevitably lead to a belief in your practice, your life's mission, and your own skills. Gratitude and faith are inextricably linked.

I'm saddened when I see people who don't know how lucky they are to be taught. They are unable to understand the teachings' priceless worth, and their jaded mentality obstructs any genuine learning. This lack of appreciation impacts them not only in Yoga classes, but in their whole day. How would we enjoy a heated bed, clean running water, and people who care about us if we can't appreciate the value of anything as beautiful as Yoga? So, before you begin your practice, pause to consider your unique circumstances. You will still feel a bit bitter inside if you don't exercise grace, no matter what you do on your mat or on your yoga pillow. The same exercise gains a sweetness because of it, and the sweetness lingers throughout the day. This reverence has a delicate quality to it: it allows one to remember that life is a blessing in and of itself, without embellishment or elaboration. We will cultivate appreciation regardless of our circumstances by simplifying life in this manner. Allow your practice to continue in the spirit of gratitude.