Thinking about Yoga as a practice, and what that really means, seems like a good starting point to do Yoga.
How is Yoga a practice? At the first level, Yoga is a practice because Yoga is something we do, in other words Yoga is an action or series of actions that we perform. However, performing an action only once or once in a while does not constitute a practice. A practice is something that happens consistently. As we repeat an action or series of actions mindfully and intelligently over time, we, almost inevitably, sharpen the skills involved. As a result, we start developing the necessary knowledge and sensitivity to deepen our understanding of those actions. This is certainly true in Yoga. I feel it is important to emphasize that the practice is not mechanical, if it is mechanical it is not Yoga anymore, because the mind is not involved in the process, in other words, we are not fully present. When we are fully present in the practice, our awareness of the actions of our mind, body and breath moves from the gross toward the subtle. For example, we start noticing the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, or we start feeling groups of muscles moving instead of feeling only the movement of a limb as a whole. Keep in mind, that at least in my experience, this process is slow and gradual, like most natural processes.
At the second level, Yoga is a practice because it consists of specific practical steps involved in performing its actions. In my opinion, there are three distinct practical steps in Yoga practice:
These three practical steps operate at the micro level of the practice, for example when we are going to practice child’s pose we first observe the state of body, breath and mind. Then we gradually move into the pose, stopping at the first sign of resistance (physical, mental or related to breathing). According to the feedback we receive, we decide, moment by moment, how long we will stay in the pose. Whenever we are ready, we return to the initial position observing the effects of the pose on breath, body and mind. Following these steps helps us develop awareness of the effects of our actions on body, mind and breath.
These practical steps also operate at the macro level of the practice, so we observe how we feel and then we decide what type of practice(s) to perform, at what level of intensity, and for how long, and then we notice the effect of the practice. This idea is related to the notion that Yoga is a personal activity and thus it should be tailored to our needs. For instance, some days we wake up full of energy and feeling ready to accomplish many tasks. Other days, we might wake up with very little energy. The type of practice we chose for each day should be tailored to how we feel and what we need so that we feel energized, relaxed and balanced after we practice.
At the third level, Yoga is a practice in the sense of a rehearsal. From this perspective, Yoga practice becomes a safe space where we can explore, observe, feel and act as is most appropriate, so that when we find ourselves in a similar situation in our lives we can flow into the most appropriate actions with ease. For instance, some Yoga poses might make us feel terrified. As a result our muscles might tense up, our breath might get short and fast and our minds may fail to think clearly. We can use our breath, inhaling deeply and making our exhalation soft and long, to calm down so we can prepare to practice the pose under appropriate guidance. Perhaps, learning to use the breath to help us calm down can be useful when we find ourselves in a situation that we find terrifying, like speaking in public or going to the dentist. Partly the idea of Yoga practice as a rehearsal comes from Erich Schiffmann, a teacher I admire and find very inspirational. You can see a short video of him talking about The Mat as a practice for Life .
If you already practice Yoga, I hope the idea of Yoga as practice makes sense to you and may help to enrich your way of doing Yoga. And if you are interested in starting to practice, I hope this idea will help you prepare to receive the benefits from doing Yoga. Your comments are welcome.