Most disciplines (music, art, sports) require dedicated practice of skills over time. How we practice influences our mind state and sets the course of our path. Infusing our efforts with enthusiasm, focus, and dedication may be obvious to some. Less obvious is the need for detachment (non attachment) to our efforts and outcomes.

In yoga, we use the word “practice” quite a bit. It’s important to remember that practice is a noun and a verb. Essentially, we practice our practice. Which begs the question, “what are we practicing and how are we practicing it?”.

One potential answer comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In the first three sutras yoga is defined as “the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind”. Patanjali then tells us in Sutra  1.12 Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah (practice and detachment are cultivated to still the fluctuations of the mind).

At first glance, practice and detachment may seem like opposing instructions. However, the brilliance of pairing these concepts is that when we apply the actions (verbs) of practice and detachment in a manner that focuses our yoga practice (noun), we get us closer to the goal of yoga.

We are always practicing something. Often, we practice worrying, getting angry, being busy, obsessing over the past or future, etc. And guess what? We get better at those things as we practice them. Yoga challenges us to observe our mind state. Is it becoming more stable with your efforts? How does your mind state change when you stop trying to achieve in your asana? In other words, are you able to detach from your perceived goal of yoga and move toward the goal that Patanjali presents?

I like to remind my students that we are not practicing in order to perfect anything. We’re already perfect! We are practicing so that we can observe the process of nudging ourselves toward our consciously chosen goals. Detaching from judgement, achievement or whatever other results we are hoping to obtain frees us up to fully embody the present moment. And that is the ultimate goal of yoga.

While it can be useful to study individual lines from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is also helpful to contemplate some sutras grouped in the order they are written. This is the case with understanding the kleshas, a sanskrit word which translates as obstacles, afflictions, or “causes of suffering”. According to Patanjali there are five kleshas that sidetrack you in your quest for attaining the state of yoga. 

The following is my composite of various translations of the sutras 2.1 – 2.9. For those of you interested in learning more, I encourage you to read various translations and use the versions that speak to you.

2.1 Kriya yoga (yoga of action) is comprised of discipline, self study, and dedication to a “higher power”. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga

2.2 The practice of yoga brings samadhi (meditative absorption) and weakens the kleshas (obstacles) which are the causes of suffering. 

2.3 The obstacles are lack of knowledge (or understanding), egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear.

2.4 Lack of true knowledge is the source of all the other obstacles. They may exist in a dormant, weak or fully active form.

2.5 Lack of knowledge or wisdom, is mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and the non-self for the self. 

Lack of wisdom leads to errors in understanding the nature and effects of perceived objects.

2.6 False identity (ego) results when we regard out thoughts at the source of our perceptions.

2.7 Attachment is clinging to pleasure. Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to future happiness.

2.8 Aversion is dwelling on pain. Unreasonable dislikes are usually the result of painful experiences in the past.

2.9 Fear or clinging to life is the inborn feeling of anxiety for what is to come. It affects both the ignorant and the wise.

I hated brussel sprouts. Until I had them broiled with oil, garlic and salt. Yum. I used to strongly dislike (not very yogic to hate, right?) triangle pose. Until I learned how to engage my core appropriately, extend my arms using back muscles instead of neck muscles, and was shown a variation that didn’t involve looking at my top hand or raising my top arm. 

If I had to eat overly boiled brussel sprouts, I still would not enjoy them. Ditto for doing an extended triangle pose with a long stride, my hand on the floor, and my neck overly turned to gaze at my top hand. Fortunately, I’ve had friends who served me brussel sprouts cooked in tastier ways, and yoga instructors who’ve taught me variations and adaptations for triangle and other poses. 

My point here is, there is no one way to practice an asana (pose). Triangle pose is an asymmetrical standing posture, side bending against gravity, with an external rotation of one leg. The more I learn about the essence of a pose, the more options I have for doing it in a manner that will bring about a desired effect. Do I want to emphasize strength or range of motion? Am I doing it as part of a quieting practice or an energizing one? One thing is for sure – I’m not doing it to increase my dislikes or frustration level, and you probably don’t want to either. 

If there is not one correct way, it means “how to do a triangle pose” becomes a more challenging question. I’m currently taking an online training and one of the mentors likes to say “the answer to any question is – it depends”. Not a very satisfying response if you’re looking for absolutes. But the reality is that there are no rules that apply to every body. We come to the mat with our unique blend of genetics, experiences, interests, and injuries. Let’s celebrate that by allowing for variations in our yoga practices. You just might surprise yourself and learn to enjoy something you previously did not. Still haven’t learned to love liver and onions, but I’m open to your best recipe!

A few days ago, I asked a student to show the class revolved side angle pose. I wanted her to do it since I can’t ground my heel and achieve the “full pose”. Instead, I do it with a lifted heel. It works for me so I’ve never spent much time figuring out why I can’t put my heel down. After she demonstrated, she asked what I thought was limiting me. I’ve always assumed that my hips were too tight to allow for grounding the back heel. Then there’s ankle flexibility, genetics, and the incentive to spend time practicing the pose – so the answer was “no, not really”. If I’m truly honest, I’ve never found revolved side angle pose compelling enough to challenge my limits with it. I’ve always been satisfied with my variation.

The next morning on the mat, however, I got curious. Partly because I feel it’s important for me to “practice what I preach” and also, I truly wondered if I could find more steadiness and ease in revolved side angle if I practiced it earnestly and not be bound to my perceived end point (another thing that I preach).

What I discovered is that there are many interesting lessons on the road to revolved side angle. By fully experiencing the transitions that lead from straight front leg, to bent leg, to twisting the spine, there are opportunities to strengthen, maintain steadiness, and focus. The process rather than the final pose becomes the goal. I also realized that my curiosity was sparked by my student’s inquiry. Since I didn’t feel threatened by her wanting to know what was limiting me, I was able to reflect on her question without feeling inadequate or judging myself. 

Getting curious means having the courage to ask questions and look for answers. It may be a cliche, but it’s true that there is usually more than one person that wonders why something is done in a certain way, or didn’t understand the instruction, or whatever. So asking your question serves others as well. 

So be brave, get curious and the answers you find just might surprise you.

Recently, I attended a small local meditation gathering where the theme for the evening’s practice was seeing the good in others and ourselves. At first, this seemed like an easy concept to contemplate. After all, I don’t think of myself or others as being “bad”, maybe we make unskillful choices but we aren’t bad by nature. When I dig a little deeper into my thoughts, I’m not sure I always act from the place of believing in everyone’s basic goodness. What about my inner critic, and my judgements of people and their actions or beliefs?

This got me thinking about ways to practice seeing the good. Since I’m a yoga teacher and student, my first thought was “how do I practice this on the mat and in my teaching”? 

Most yoga classes focus on the physical body. Often yoga teachers are trained to look for where a student is lacking – correcting alignment and pointing out where the body is less flexibility or has weakness. To a certain degree that has its place. However, yoga is more than just the physical body. If emphasizing performance is overdone or not placed in a larger context and we spend all our time on the mat critiquing our poses, it actually prevents us from being in a true state of yoga. 

Yoga is a wide field of study and is defined in many ways. There are two definitions that I like the most. One comes from the Bhagavad Gita and the other is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as skillful action. Learning to see basic goodness is a skill. The definition of yoga in the Sutras is roughly translated as “ceasing the fluctuations of the mind”. If our mind is constantly judging ourselves and others, then it is not steady. Constantly focusing on external actions becomes one more way to keep the mind busy and miss out on resting in basic goodness.

When I reflect on what I hope my students gain from practicing yoga, reducing the busyness of the mind, and choosing skillful actions are two that come to mind. I also think it’s important to celebrate what we do right, and remember our basic goodness and the goodness of others.