There is no one “right” way to practice. Different styles of yoga may emphasize certain aspects of practice – asana, meditation, chanting, etc – but one is not better than the other. As you hopefully know by now, yoga is not an accomplishment, or something to use to judge yourself or others. Yoga is the act of stabilizing the mind and dissolving our sense of separateness. It gives us the ability to move, think and feel from a place of awareness.

The second book in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras gives suggestions on how to practice. The first concept introduced in it is Kriya Yoga or the yoga of action. It incorporates three of the niyamas (the personal practices and the second limb of yoga). They are tapas, svadyaya, and isvara pranidhana. If you read the sutras, you’ll find these words have a variety of english translations. Now, I’m no sanskrit scholar (although I have a friend who is!) but I find that using the sanskrit word rather than the english can free me from my personal and cultural biases about certain words.

Take tapas for example. It is translated as discipline, heat, intensity, desire, austerity, or fiery passion. Tapas is an inner fire, not the heat that comes from sweating profusely or being in a warm room. My favorite definition for it is discipline that comes from the desire to achieve the fruits of yoga. Discipline is one of those words that can be charged for some people. So that’s why I think it’s important to contemplate the underlying meaning and work with them within your best understanding. It’s also helpful to realize that your comprehension will grow and change with practice and time. Which brings in the second concept – svadyaya.

Svadyaya translates as study, self study, or study of the ancient texts. I include study of (or with) learned teachers. The idea behind svadyaya in yoga is to really observe how you feel, think and respond in your yoga practice. It’s useful to read and learn from others but ultimately you are your best authority on what works or doesn’t work for you. When employing svadyaya a question to ask might be “is this bringing me closer to the state of yoga?”.

Isvara pranidhana is often translated as surrender to God (or a higher power). This was definitely the most challenging niyama definition for me. Over time, I have been able to craft a meaning that fits for me. Dedication from a place of fullness and humility is what I’ve come up with. I like to joke with my students that I don’t care what they believe in (or not) as long as they realize there is something bigger than themselves out there!

These are not rules. Think of them as suggestions, tools, or guideposts to use along the path. My advice is to try one out and see if it fits. Don’t throw it away at first glance. If something doesn’t feel right you can set it aside and try something else. Who knows, with some discipline, self study and dedication, you might notice changes that makes you want to try those things you set aside again.

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.