No matter how hard it may be to drag yourself to yoga class at the end of a busy day, inevitably you feel better when it’s over, walking fluidly out the door with your sticky mat rolled neatly under your arm. At that moment it may seem inconceivable that you would ever resist practicing again. But somehow even the very morning after a great class, resistance to practice can arise. You may experience a mental struggle as you lie in bed, trying to decide if and when to get out of bed and onto your mat for that first Downward-Facing Dog Pose.
This experience of resistance is not just a modern phenomenon plaguing our overly congested culture. Throughout the history of yoga, students have struggled with exactly what it means to practice, what discipline is, and how to overcome recurrent resistance to practicing.
Very early in his classic Yoga Sutra, Patanjali provides a few verses that speak directly to these questions. After defining yoga as “control over the fluctuations of the mind” (Chapter 1, verse 2) and describing the basic categories of these fluctuations, he says, “Control over the mind’s fluctuations comes from persevering practice and nonattachment” (1.14). These two guiding concepts—abhyasa (persevering practice) and vairagya (nonattachment)—are not just the key to overcoming your resistance; they are also the key to yoga. On the surface, abhyasa and vairagya would seem to be opposites: Practice requires the exercise of the will, while nonattachment seems more a matter of surrender. But in fact they are complementary parts of yoga, each requiring the other for its full expression.
Abhyasa is usually translated as “practice,” but some have translated it as “determined effort,” or what I am choosing to call “discipline.” Unfortunately, there are few words as off-putting to most of us as “discipline.” It brings back memories of being told to sit on that piano stool for 30 minutes and practice no matter what. Or in our minds we may have connected discipline with punishment. But the kind of disciplined effort Patanjali means by abhyasa is very different from the sense of force and even violence people associate with the word “discipline.”
To me, discipline is not something that I force upon myself. It is something that I cultivate and which arises in me as a result of two things: my clarity of intention and my commitment.
To have clarity of intention requires that I take the time to examine and understand what my yoga practice is all about. Is it about stretching my hamstrings or about transforming my life? Do I use my practice to have a healthier and more attractive body, or to develop the awareness necessary so that my thoughts no longer run my life? Maybe I want both. After all, having a healthy body is not an unworthy goal. But in any case, it’s important that we become as clear as possible, to the point of being able to write down what we want from our yoga practice. Over time, of course, this can change. When I started doing yoga, I thought I wasn’t interested in “all that spiritual stuff.” I thought I was doing yoga only to help cure my arthritis. But from my first class I felt deeply drawn to the whole of the teachings of yoga.
To lessen your resistance to practice, spend some time with this question of clarity. For just a few moments before you step onto the mat, ask yourself what your yoga practice is about today. Let your first focus be on clarity, not action. Whether your answer leads you to choose a physically challenging practice or a restful one, you will be more present with it if you are acting from a place of clarity. When you practice from clarity, you diminish the time you spend caught up in doubt and questioning. With your energy more focused, I predict you will enjoy your practice more-and thus, over time your resistance will decrease.
While clarity is one of the necessary ingredients for abhyasa, a second equally necessary ingredient is commitment. Patanjali states in verse 13 that persevering practice—what I am calling discipline—is the effort to stabilize the state in which the mind’s fluctuations are most often restricted.
These days, it seems many people are confused about the concept of commitment. For instance, I sometimes overhear people say that they would make the commitment of marriage if they knew how it was going to turn out. But that suggests they do not really understand what commitment means. In fact, if you know the outcome of an action in advance, it does not require that much commitment. What makes your commitment to practice is the fact that you don’t know for certain how it will turn out, yet you still choose it as the best course of action.
Yoga is a practice not only of action but also of observation and faith. When we observe our resistance to practice and then choose to act anyway, our practice becomes an expression of our faith in yoga-a faith that comes from both our past experience and trust that our practice will sustain us as we jump into the unknown.
And so I practice without knowing how it will all turn out. Clearly, along with clarity and faith, my commitment requires some will and effort. As Patanjali says in verse 14, establishing a firm foundation in practice requires sustained exertion over time. Commitment to practicing means I practice if it is easy for me, and I practice if it is hard for me. If I am bored, I practice; if I am enthusiastic, I practice; if I am at home, I practice; if I am on vacation, I practice. There is a saying in Buddhism: If it is hot, be a hot Buddha. If it is cold, be a cold Buddha. This is the consistency and determination in practice that Patanjali means when he speaks of abhyasa. In the beginning, this sustained exertion may be an act of will, an act of ego. But as we continue, the practice itself creates a momentum that propels us through the difficult moments of fear and boredom.
This consistency of commitment is evidenced by the willingness to get on the mat and be present for whatever comes up in your practice right now. Practice is not simply about achieving a particular physical or emotional goal. In fact, when you exercise your clarity, commitment, and faith—lwhen you choose to practice—you have already reached many of the goals of yoga.
But to truly achieve the kind of commitment and constancy that Patanjali calls abhyasa, we have to exercise the second activity he mentions in verse 12: vairagya, or nonattachment. Patanjali describes vairagya as the state in which one no longer thirsts for either earthly objects or spiritual attainments. Vairagya can also be thought of as release, surrender, and letting go. But just blindly letting go is not vairagya. Rather, the first constituent of this practice must be the wisdom of discrimination.
I learned this lesson very clearly one day on the streetcar. Fresh from teaching, feeling high and thinking myself full of compassion, I boarded the streetcar for the ride home. I felt full of love and grace and beamed at everyone around me. Suddenly, a very drunken man staggered down the aisle, leaned over me with a leering smile, and breathed alcohol into my face. This had never happened to me before or since. Maybe I was not as full of love and compassion as I thought; full of judgments, I recoiled and turned away. I learned that I was not as open and loving as I imagined-and also that perhaps the streetcar was not the best place to have “all my chakras hanging open.” The universe had just given me a little lesson about discrimination.
The practice of discrimination leads to the next part of vairagya: understanding the difference between acknowledgment and acceptance. Many years ago, I somehow concluded that to practice letting go was to accept everything exactly as it is. I now have a different perspective. I have learned that there are certain things I will never accept: child abuse, torture, racism, willful environmental damage, the inhumane treatment of animals, to name a few. However, if I am going to practice—and live—with clarity, I must acknowledge that these things exist and not live in a state of denial.
Paradoxically, when I live with the deep acknowledgment of what is, then and only then can I live in clarity. Once I am living in clarity, I can choose my actions and let go of the fruits of my labors, becoming deliciously lost in the process of acting from compassion. If I just accept things as they are, I may never choose to alleviate my suffering or the suffering of others. This so-called acceptance is really complacency disguised as spiritual practice.
I have heard this called “idiot compassion.” It means offering forgiveness and acceptance with no discrimination. Failing to hold the thief accountable for his crime is not proper application of vairagya; we can have compassion for his suffering and still require that he spend time in jail. Our compassion is only real and valuable when it will serve to reduce suffering. When we let go of our beliefs of how the world should be and instead acknowledge the world as it actually is, we can then work from a heart of compassion to alleviate suffering and to serve others (and ourselves) in the highest sense possible.
Only through discerning and acknowledging what is can we exert the determined effort of abhyasa in a way that does not resort to force or even violence against ourselves and others. When I am lying in bed, resisting practice, instead of blaming myself for my reluctance, I can marshal both vairagya and abhyasa. As I lie there, I can clarify my intention and refocus my commitment; I can acknowledge my state of resistance without accepting it; finally, I can choose to let go of attachment to the outcome of my practice session.
I can also let go of my doubts, fears, insecurities, and struggle, and let go into my clarity, strength, determination, and faith in the process of yoga. And I can remind myself that no path through life can be free of difficulty. Rather than trying to avoid difficulty, I can choose which challenge I want: the challenge of change and its growth or the challenge of remaining where I already am. Would I rather face the difficulties that might arise in my practice or the difficulties of remaining in resistance and living without the positive effects of my practice?
If I bring all this to mind, I am likely to get out of bed, step onto the mat, and enjoy my practice—and I’ll be that much less likely to feel resistance when I wake up tomorrow.