(First published 27/7/09)
Here are some thoughts about yoga and practice for you to contemplate and explore during the sultry, stormy and changeable summer months.
TKV Desikachar, renowned yoga teacher based in Chennai (Madras), India, was asked “Can anyone practice yoga?”
He responded: “Anybody who wants to, can practice yoga. Anybody can breathe: therefore anybody can practice yoga. But no one can practice every kind of yoga. It has to be the right yoga for the person. The student and teacher meet and decide on a programme that is acceptable and suitable for the person.”
In the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali (the principle text in Yoga written more than 4,000 years ago) it states:
The mind can reach the state of Yoga through practice and detachment. (1.12).
In order to answer the question: what are the essential features of this practice and detachment?, he states:
Practice is basically the correct effort required to move toward, reach, and maintain the state of yoga. (1.13)
Desikachar elaborates this text by saying that: “The practice chosen must be correctly learned from and guided by a competent teacher who understands the personal and social character of the student.”
Patanjali emphasises that practice is important:
It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed. (1.14)
Although written more than 4,000 years ago, this line applies equally today as it did then. There will always be a tendency to begin yoga with enthusiasm and energy, and also with a desire for sudden results. Especially in our modern world where “instant” gratification and results are expected, this is salutary advice for us to be patient and persevere. The pressure of everyday life and the resistance of the mind encourages us to succumb to human weaknesses (distraction, laziness, and so forth). This is understandable as we all have these tendencies. This is why this sutra emphasises the need to approach practice soberly with a positive, self-disciplined attitude and with a long-term view toward eventual success.
As our practice develops (along the lines prescribed by Patanjali) we will find that our ability to discipline ourselves and reject intrusive influences grows. And with that comes a sense of detachment, as Patanjali explains:
At the highest level there is an absence of any cravings, either for the fulfilment of the senses or for extraordinary experiences. (1.15)
This is where a caution is added: we are advised to be aware that the benefits of a yoga practice, such as physical strength and dexterity, heightened awareness and sensitivity, are incidental benefits and if we place too much importance upon them we might lose sight of the path to Yoga.
When an individual has achieved complete understanding of his (her) true self, he (she) will no longer be disturbed by the distracting influences within and around him (her). (1.16)
As Desikachar puts it simply: “Detachment develops with self-understanding.”
And Patanjali states:
Then the object is gradually understood fully…In time, comprehension becomes deeper. And finally it is total. There is pure joy in reaching such a depth of understanding. (1.17)
And before we read this and feel it is far too difficult and distant goal, Patanjali adds:
Through faith, which will give sufficient energy to achieve success, direction will be maintained. The realisation of the goal of Yoga is a matter of time. (1.20)
The goal referred to here is the ability to direct the mind toward an object without any distraction, resulting, in time, in a clear and correct understanding of that object. And faith, here, is the unshakable conviction that we can arrive at that goal – and not being lulled into complacency by success or put off by failures.